Sunday, March 6, 2016

Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church

Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church
Park Rd. and 8th St.
November 20, 2013

Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church's architecture may be more contemporary than most of the other Ambridge churches, and its church building may be newer than many, but Zion's congregation is one of Ambridge's oldest, going back to the very beginning of Ambridge.

In the early 1900s, after land that had belonged to the dissolved Harmony Society was sold off--most importantly to the Berlin Iron Company, which later merged with the American Bridge Company-- new residents of many nationalities and faiths moved into the area, among them, German Lutherans, joining the few Lutheran families already living there.

There was already a German church in the area, but it was not Lutheran. The Harmony Society, whose members had split from the Lutheran Church in Germany, had come to the U.S. to escape religious persecution and for freedom to follow their own beliefs. The Society's church, on the 1300 block of Church St., was where the Society held its own, unique religious services. After the Society disbanded, its church served as a community church, with the remnants of the Society as well as various denominations without their own churches, holding services in the building. Ironically, in 1907, the church became a Lutheran congregation, the still-existing St. John's Lutheran Church.

According to the history of Zion's shared with me by the church's current pastor, Rev. Cletus Fahrion, area Lutherans met on April 25, 1904, for the purpose of establishing a Lutheran Church. Worship services began on May 9, 1904, attended by 25 people, and soon after that, the church charter was signed.

At first, the congregation worshiped on the top floor of the Ambridge Savings and Trust Co. building* on 5th and Merchant Sts. They began to raise money to build a church of their own, and bought lots on Park Rd. between 7th St. and Bryden Rd. (the current 8th St.)

Here's a bit of Ambridge history I don't believe I'd come across before reading about Zion's beginnings: American Bridge offered to donate $500 to any congregation that could build a church before January 1, 1905. I don't know the significance, if any, of that particular date.**

In addition, to qualify for the $500, any church built had to cost at least twice the value of the property on which it stood. According to Zion's 100th Anniversary book, the congregation's first pastor, the Rev. Paul Kummer, "accepted this challenge and was able to oversee the total construction of a brick and cement block edifice at a cost of $5,250."

The cornerstone for that building was laid on October 9, 1904, and dedicated on March 26, 1905.

The postcards below show that first church building.

"German Lutheran Church"
postmarked January 20, 1910

The card below was also mailed, but the postmark is indistinct, so I don't know which postcard is older.

"Zion Evan. Lutheran Church"
date unknown

Here's a church photo from the 1924 Economy Centennial Souvenir Program:

"Zion's Evangelical Lutheran Church"
Economy of Old, Ambridge of Today

Here's a photo of an ivy-covered church on the cover of Zion's 50th Anniversary program:

"Original Church Building 1904 - 1953"
Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church
Fiftieth Anniversary program
May 2, 1954

Eventually the congregation grew to a size that a new church building was planned, and on March 16, 1953, the Rev. Frederick B. Haer presided over the groundbreaking for the new building. On May 3, 1953, the first unit of the basement was dedicated.

The original church building was razed beginning in August 1953.

Here's the architect's drawing of the proposed new church building. Compare it with the photo of the current church at the top of this post; it's different. The drawing more resembles the current 8th St. side of the church, but doesn't quite match that either. Can someone provide an explanation?

"Proposed Zion's First Lutheran Church"
Dedication program
November 3, 1957

Here's a photo of the new church under construction from the May 30, 1957, Beaver Valley Times:

New Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church under construction
Beaver Valley Times
May 30, 1957

Original Times' caption:
NEW CHURCH -- This partially completed building soon will be the new home of the congregation of Zion First Lutheran Church, Ambridge. The building's cornerstone will be laid Sunday afternoon.
According to the Times' article accompanying the above photo, the cornerstone would include: a Bible, Luther's Small Catechism, the church constitution, the 50th Anniversary booklet, the 1956 church report, a membership list, and copies of the Beaver Valley Times and Daily Citizen.

The current church building was dedicated on November 3, 1957.

In 2004, Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church celebrated its 100th Anniversary.

Zion's First Evangelical Lutheran Church
One Hundredth Anniversary 1904 - 2004 booklet

I can't identify the building in the background of the two Zion's postcards, and it's really bugging me. The only large building I know of that was near the church in 1910, when the colored postcard was mailed, was the Second Ward School built in 1904. But the background building on the postcard looks nothing like that school. The roof-line is obviously wrong.

The first Ambridge High School, later Park Road School, was immediately south of, not behind, the original church, and it wasn't built until 1914, so it didn't exist when the colored postcard was postmarked.

The background building doesn't look like the Ambridge Hotel built in 1905 on the corner of Merchant St. and Bryden Rd. (now 8th St.), and the location of the background building on the postcards seems wrong for the hotel.

Houses had already been built on the 700 block of Maplewood across from the Second Ward School by 1905, and I would think they'd block the view of any buildings on Merchant St.

Perhaps artistic license by the artist who drew the postcard scenes? Seems odd though that the same building would appear on two postcards. And, although indistinct, the same building may be in the background of the ivy-covered church photo from the 50th Anniversary book.


Zion's Church Trivia: longtime KDKA radio DJ Art Pallan was the keynote speaker at Zion's 80th Anniversary Dinner on May 4, 1984.

* Later, the Ambridge Savings and Trust Company building was home to the Economy Bank of Ambridge. The building was razed and that corner is now the location of Wesbanco Bank's drive-through.

**Another early Ambridge church was the Methodist Episcopal Church, chartered on January 5, 1904, built on the southeast corner of 6th St. and Melrose Ave., and dedicated on August 7, 1904, claiming the title of the first church to be built in the borough of Ambridge. (The older Harmony Society church was built in Economy, not Ambridge.) That church was bought by Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1907 and razed about 10 years later to build the church that currently stands at that intersection.

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