'Go in peace': Centre County church founded in 1800 holds last service
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A Pennsylvania church with a 221-year history held its final service and is scheduled to close at the end of the year because of declining membership and attendance.
The First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte, which is nearly as old as the borough itself, held the final scheduled service on Christmas Eve after having welcomed generations of families over the course of more than two centuries.
"There's just such a love among this congregation. We've all known each other so long and we know each other's foibles," church elder Candace Dannaker told the Centre Daily Times. "I'll miss our personality, our laughter and our joy in just being together. And, of course, the faith aspect of sharing that with other like-minded people."
The church was established in 1800 by the same men who founded Bellefonte in 1795 at a time when there were only 16 states, and it counted among its members two former Pennsylvania governors. The church met at the courthouse for almost two decades and then in a stone edifice; the current structure was built shortly after the Civil War.
Dannaker estimated the church had about 40 members before the pandemic, a number that is down to about 25, and had no in-person worship from March 2020 until Easter Sunday this year. When Dannaker joined 34 years ago, she said, there were about 200 people in attendance.
Pam Benson, 77, a member for 73 years, said that when she was born during World War II, many businesses were closed Sunday and few events were scheduled. She also believes that fewer parents have insisted that their children attend services and that churches haven't always been competitive in recruiting new members.
"It was so different. It was just what you did. Unless you were really sick, it was just what you did," Benson said. "It's just change, it's progression. It's what happens. Not that I like it, but it is what it is."
The 15,000-square-foot church is scheduled to close for the last time Dec. 31. Dannaker said the future of the building hasn't been determined.
Video of the final service posted on the church's Facebook site included references to "the pain of saying goodbye to one another" but a reminder that "challenges aren't anything new to humanity" and saying the Christmas message of hope "is just as timely and essential today as it was 2,000 years ago."
Before the final hymn, members lit and raised candles to these words: "And the light has splintered the darkness. And hope is ours once more. And this light does call us forward, remembering the past, and walking confidently into the future. And now go in the peace of Christ."