A Comprehensive History:
Zion's Red Church
The Oldest Church in Schuylkill County
Did you know our church, sometimes referred to as “Old Red” wasn’t always painted its trademark color? Before 1755, there wasn’t even a church building! Zion’s congregation had to hold their Sunday worship services in members’ homes, until Heinrich Adam Kettner suggested building a church. The first building was a simple log cabin, built on the same sight as the current Red Church. Sadly, there are no pictures of this building as cameras were not available. At this time, the church was situated in Berks County.
There Were Four Churches?
Since the beginning of Zion’s Red Church history, the congregation has seen four churches built on this site!
The original log cabin didn’t last very long, as Native Americans burned it down in 1756. Survivors of the massacre, as their first act of gratitude, decided to rebuild the Church. A permit was granted by John Penn, Lieutenant Governor and Commander in Chief of the Province of Pennsylvania under King James the Second of Great Britain, to make a collection of 250 Pounds (equivalent of about $1,000) to fund the project. This money had to be collected within three years. The second structure stood in place of the first, and it was completed in 1770.
The dedication service for the second building was held on December 3, 1770, which was the first Sunday in Advent that year. The sermon was from the words of David, in the 27th Psalm, verse 4.
"One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple."
The sermon was given by Evangelical Lutheran Minister Daniel Schumacher.
In 1794, it was decided that “after having stood for upwards of 29 years [the church building] has grown in need of improvements entailing great expenses; and, also, the congregation of Jesus has in the meantime greatly increased and grown until the church has become much too small to accommodate the congregation properly, the beloved congregation resolved, by the grace of God, to build a new and larger house of prayer unto the Lord our God that the congregation may have a fitting place to worship God to the glory of Christ, and be fitted with prayer and praise unto eternal blessedness.”
Rather than adding onto the second structure to accommodate the larger congregation, it was torn down and a third structure was built. The construction took nine years to complete, and was dedicated on May 29th and 30th of 1803.
During this time, the Reformed, now known as the United Church of Christ, came into the area. The Reformed Church organized a congregation in 1795 that would settle north of Red Church. However, the Reformed Church wasn’t doing well financially, and in 1832 they began to share the Red Church building with the Lutherans.
Finally, from 1883-1884, the fourth and final church was built. Once again, the old building was razed and a new one was constructed on the same site. This is the current building that sits next to Route 61, where thousands of people pass by each day. Most of them probably don’t realize they are passing such a historically rich building.
Structural Updates Over Time
Over the course of the last 135 years, some remodeling has happened. A basement was added, stain glass windows were installed, and the steeple has been remodeled, along with other adaptations which were both structurally and aesthetically necessary.
The basement was most likely the biggest update to the church, if not the most dangerous. Prior to 1906, the basement was merely a crawl space, until part of the cellar was dug out to make space for a steam heat boiler. Eventually, the congregation wanted more space for their Junior Department Sunday School, so they decided to create a real basement. It was a major undertaking to excavate the area underneath the Church. Soon after starting the project, it was discovered that Red Church sat on solid rock. Men started with just picks and shovels to create a small opening on the south wall, as dirt was carried away in buckets. When the opening became large enough, more manpower was used and dirt could be a hauled away in wheelbarrows. While the work progressed slowly, the men were not discouraged.
Finally, the opening became large enough to get a small bull-dozer in to loosen the rock. The mining company offered to help with this project, at no expense to the church. Men, who were experts in mining, came and set off dynamite in the area being excavated under the church to loosen the remaining rock. This job was quite risky, but the experts were confident in their work. When the blast was set off, it did not even vibrate the building.
There was also some small remodeling done on the highest part of the church. Due to high winds, the original steeple was lowered in 1932, by removing the 30 foot spire. The old steeple had a gilded weather vane and a ball on top. In 1957, again because of high winds, cross bolts had to be installed. And in 1965, the steeple was lighted by church friends. Mr. Martz, who lived on a farm nearby, did not like how dark the church looked at night. He began collecting money to have the lighting installed.
On the middle, or ground floor, there is a smaller space for worship that is used during the hot days of summer. Occasionally, there is a fellowship time held there following worship. Board meetings, our annual White Elephant and Bake Sale, and other special events are located there too. Off of the hallway that leads to the main stairs for the sanctuary, there are two offices. One is for the Pastor and the other for the Secretary and general use.
History on Display
Toward the back of the main area on the middle floor sits a large display case, placed by Grace Meck, in memory of Simon Meck. Some items held there include old bibles, hymnals, and pictures. Specifically, on the bottom shelf center sits a marble baptismal font from 1900, given by Samuel Deibert of Orwigsburg. His twin daughters were the first to be baptized from it. On the fourth shelf from the top, slightly to the left, there are two wooden offering boxes, once used in church. The long handles, provided for reaching those who sat further from the aisles, were not preserved. Additionally, there are communion vessels which were used in 1770, along with a communion set from 1800 and 1881.
One picture shows the previous painting that was displayed upstairs in the sanctuary. Its subject was Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was paid for by Francis Faust. At the time, this painting was on the front wall of the sanctuary, behind the altar. The ceiling and side walls also had decorations on them. Interestingly, on the four corners of the ceiling in the sanctuary, there were frescoes of an “Open Bible”. No matter how one turned, one could not turn away from the open bible.
Currently, upstairs in the sanctuary there is a painting titled “Come Unto Me” from 1948 by Nicholas Bervinchak of Minersville. The painting is on canvas and fastened to the wall with small square gold leaf sheets. Nicholas rubbed the sheets on his hair to make a static charge, before applying the gold leaf as a border around his artwork.
To the left, there is a Goblet Pulpit and a sounding board. The sounding board was retrieved from a scrap pile of wood in one of the horse sheds in 1905 by Reverend Harvey Weller. It was placed there to help the minister’s voice project out into the congregation.
If you have been in the sanctuary, you may notice something odd about the sounding board. Not only is there a pineapple on top, which was commonly used as a sign of hospitality, but it’s crooked! This is evidence of the 1959 propane tank explosion that happened just outside the church, on the main road.
Among other art still present in the church, are four chairs (each one is well over 100 years old!) The oldest chair is from 1770 and was lovingly titled “The Muhlenberg Chair” because Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg would always occupy this chair when he held services at Red Church. Henry Muhlenberg was a circuit rider (clergy men who would travel from church to church), and he appeared at Red Church about every seven weeks. He was also an organizer of the Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania.
The other three chairs, made in 1883-1884, are more ornate with gold trim and red velvet seats. In fact, these chairs are very special, as they are made of wood from the third church building! In the collection are two armless chairs, and one with arms. The chair with arms is called the “Cathedral Church Chair”.
There is also a brown chair with a red velvet seat, in the middle room of the church. Charles Bodey is the craftsman behind these beautiful pieces. He even inscribed a message on the back of each one. Essentially, Bodey wanted to let everyone know that these chairs were made from wood of the third building, which was razed in 1883. He of course signed them, as any artist would.
The “Cathedral Church Chair” was purchased for $23.00 in January 1948 at the public estate sale held for Ouleita Bodey, who was the daughter of Charles Bodey. The chair was then given to Red Church by Simon and Grace Meck.
Also of interest in the sanctuary, is the organ. Currently there is a Wicks two-manual electric pipe organ that was installed in 1940. Originally, early churches used parlor organs during their services. In 1808, a Dieffenbach Pipe organ was purchased for Red Church, at the cost of $300.00.
Air was pumped into the bellows using a wooden lever which extended from the right rear side of the organ case. Boys of the congregation were paid $2.00 a year to pump the bellows. Later, this amount was raised to $10.00 a year. In 1936 the organ was converted to electric, but only used until 1940, when the current organ was brought in. The Dieffenbach Pipe organ had served the congregation for 132 years! It is preserved at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.
Our beautiful stained glass windows have been here since 1921. Before they were installed, the church had clear class windows instead. There were also wooden shutters on the inside; however they were removed when the stained glass was installed. The windows were donated to the church by various families in memory of loved ones. These inscriptions may be found on the bottom panels of the windows.
In the early days, the building was heated by two large stoves standing on the first floor, with a separate chimney for each one. The heat for the Church auditorium came up through registers in the floors. In 1906, part of the cellar was dug out to make space for the steam heat boiler and iron radiators were placed on both floors. This was project was completed in February 1908. In October 1939, a Schimpf Coal Stoker was installed; and in October 1965 the stoker was removed and a Losch Oil burner was installed.
Until 1915, the Church was lighted by brass kerosene hanging lamps, kerosene bracket lamps, and a huge brass chandelier – around which were numerous miniature kerosene lamps, with tall glass globes. During 1915, electric lights were installed by the Ladies Aid Society. Eventually, those fixtures were replaced by modern lights, which are more efficient.
Outside of the Church
The steeple bell, an important part of Red Church, used to be rung every Sunday morning. The sextons (a person who looks after a church and churchyard) would ring it to remind people of worship services. It was rung again at the beginning of the service, and could be heard miles around. The tolling was done with the use of a long black leather strap attached to the bell clapper. The bell did not swing; the clapper simply hit the inside of the bell when swung by a bell ringer.
The bell was tolled to signify and spread the news when a member had passed away. There was one toll for each year of the person’s life.
This would serve as a clue to listeners of who the deceased member might have been. When funeral services were held, they began in the home. Then they would go to the Church, with the sexton ringing the bell as mourners entered. Afterward, the procession would go to the cemetery, and the sexton would ring the bell a final time.
On the north side of the Church there is an area we call the Prayer Garden. This garden consists of a statue placed in loving memory of E. Mac and Peggy Troutman, a memorial stone of the 1959 Propane Tank Explosion, a large World War II memorial with an Honor Roll, and a stone monument from the DAR.
On May 29, 1937, Fort Lebanon Chapter, of Daughters of the American Revolution of Orwigsburg, unveiled a five ton stone memorial inside the main gate of the cemetery. It is in memory of the American Revolutionary War soldiers buried there. At the same time a small stone monument was unveiled on the lawn in front of the Church. On the bronze plaque are these words: “THIS TABLET PLACED IN HONOR OF THE EARLY SETTLERS AND THE FOUNDERS OF ZION'S (RED) CHURCH ERECTED BY FORT LEBANON CHAPTER DAR 1937.”
In 1803 the property consisted of 75 acres of land, upon which were built the Church and school house. Through the years more land was purchased to enlarge the cemetery area.
The before mentioned school was the first school in the area. It was used from 1760 until 1840. It was located due north some 300 yards from the Church. It was 18 ft. x 24 ft. x 9 ft. high. It stood on a stone foundation, but had no cellar. The necessary light was from four windows; two windows and a door on the south side, and one each on the east and west side. In 1765 a separate building was erected for the school with quarters for the schoolmaster. This is now the Sexton's house. In 1785 Lutherans built a schoolhouse, but it was to be for children of all faiths. In 1857 "pay schools" cost $.50-$.75 a month.
In early days horse and buggy, or carriages were the mode of transportation, and so two rows of sheds were erected. One on the Church side and the other across the roadway. Each family had its own shed and there was a special one for the Pastor's use. They were torn down in 1951.
When the first concrete highway was built, the road elevation was changed making it necessary in 1919 to build a concrete wall in front of the Church. In 1921 a stone wall was constructed, replacing the concrete wall. Later the stone wall was extended along the south side of the Church and around part of the back of the Church yard. The Luther League erected stone pillars and iron gates at both entrances to the cemetery in 1933.
Why is Zion’s Red Church red?
Red paint was the most durable, and the cheapest, color of paint at the time. Hence, so many red barns!
Zion’s Red Church has more fun activities and exciting plans for the future. Please stay updated by visiting our Facebook page and our website. We look forward to having many more years of joy and ever growing history with the community. See you soon!
Information obtained from Grace Meck, Betty Emerich, Nancy Bigg, and the Historical Society of Schuylkill County. Updated by Mackenzie Kohr with photos from various sources.