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Pa. church marks 150th year

November 18, 2000

Pa. church marks 150th year



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Today marks the end of a four-day celebration by the 425 members of a historic Chambersburg church that suffered the ravages of the Civil War in its infancy and lived on to have one of the community's most active congregations.

The First Church of God congregation is one of the most mobile in Chambersburg's religious history, having moved into five buildings in three different locations in its 150-year history. It's about to embark on its biggest move yet, said the Rev. Earl Mills, the congregation's 49th pastor.

The church at 339 Lincoln Way East is celebrating its anniversary this weekend with religious and secular services and festivities befitting a house of God that was burned to the ground by a mob of Confederate soldiers when the church was only five years old. It's a bit of history that the congregation looks back on today with pride, Mills said.

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He helped celebrate the awful event Thursday night by acting out the character of the man who ordered the church burned on July 30, 1864. Members of the congregation dressed in costumes covering the period of the church's history as part of its anniversary celebration.

Mills joined in as Confederate Gen. John McCausland who ordered his troops to burn every building in downtown Chambersburg, including the town's seven churches, in retaliation for the Union Army's plundering and pillaging of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley the same year.

The original church building, known as the Bethel Church, was built in 1858 on the corner of Queen and Water streets. The congregation had formed eight years earlier and met in members' homes until their new church was built.

A replacement church was built in 1867 on the same site and was used until 1894 when railroad tracks were laid close to the building.

"The noise from passing trains interrupted church services," Mills said.

The congregation was growing by this time anyway, so it bought a church from another denomination on McKinley Avenue in 1894, moved in and soon began adding on to it, Mills said.

The congregation moved again in 1964 when it bought the St. John United Church of Christ at 339 Lincoln Way East. That church was razed in 1978 and a new one was built, along with a Sunday school building which burned in 1980 and was later rebuilt, said church member William Raudabaugh, 65.

Other celebration events included a musical program Friday night that featured a reunion concert by the church choir that sang in the 1950s and 1960s. On Saturday, a catered banquet was held, followed by a special recognition service in honor of former pastors.

Activities today include special services.

Mills, 48, was born in Sharpsburg in the same house that Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside used as a headquarters in the Civil War Battle of Antietam. He graduated from Boonsboro High School in 1970 and returned to the home place, where he farmed until 1986 when he got the call for the ministry.

He attended Winebrenner Seminary in Ohio, then served as pastor of the Carrollton Church of God in Westminster, Md., for three years before taking over the church in Chambersburg in 1993.

When he came there, the congregation had 330 members. Today, it has 425, including many young families, Mills said.

He said the church's success is due mainly to its ability to reach out to its members and the community. It also supports a ministry in Brazil. Last year, it sent a dozen or so members to that country to build a church in a rural area.

The church was also instrumental in starting the Chambersburg Project, which operates a summer work program for about 90 area middle school students. Other churches and groups support the program today, Mills said.

The church has outgrown its space on Lincoln Way East, and the building is now for sale, at an asking price of $1.8 million.

The church just bought 24 acres on the corner of Grand Point and Kohler roads north of Chambersburg. Plans call for a building with a sanctuary large enough to hold 700 people, plus a 30-room education building and gymnasium. There will also be ballfields, a pavilion and picnic areas, Mills said.

The Church of God has always been available for community use and the new one will be, too, Mills said.

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