City church has a solid foundation

July 14, 2003|by JESSICA DAVIS

Editor's note: Washington County was the first and is the oldest of 31 counties in the United States to be named after the country's first president, George Washington. This weekly series each Monday seeks out other places and items in the county that hold the title of "the oldest."

Not only is Zion Evangelical and Reformed Church the oldest church building in Washington County, it is older than the county, the state of Maryland and the United States of America.

The church walls were erected 13 years before the Constitution was penned and 40 years before Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," according to the book "Old Zion" by Frank and Rachael Schwartz.

"People talk about faith having a strong foundation. This church is built on a rock - literally," said Carroll Sager, a member of Zion.


She referred to the solid rock that the church was built upon as evidence. It is partially buried in the ground beneath the building but still is visible in the basement of the church.

Constructed in 1774 as a German Reformed Church by the Rev. Jacob Weimer, Zion has been witness to America's history as early as the Revolutionary War from its site on the corner of West Church and North Potomac streets in Hagerstown.

Weimer - also spelled Weymer in some documents - arrived in Maryland in December 1770 and began to use a log schoolhouse for Reformed services until the brick building was constructed in 1774.

The original congregation consisted of 36 male members who were seeking refuge from religious persecution in Switzerland and the German Palatinate, a former government district in Germany, according to Herald-Mail archives.

Wilhelm Heyser, a captain in the Revolutionary War and supporter of Gen. George Washington, constructed most of the building while still active in the war. After being wounded at Brandywine, Heyser returned to Hagerstown, then known as Elizabeth Town, to recuperate, and finished the interior of the building around 1775. The completed project was a nearly square building with a bell tower at the south end, according to Herald-Mail archives.

The land on which the church stands was purchased from Hagerstown's founder, Jonathan Hager Sr., for a small fee and the annual rent of one shilling and sixpence sterling.

Although never listed as an actual member of the Reformed church, Hager aided in construction of the building. It was during this undertaking, on Nov. 6, 1775, that a heavy beam fell, crushing and killing him.

Hager is buried in the cemetery behind the church, along with his wife, son and daughter. Weimer and Heyser also were laid to rest in that area, although Weimer's grave is unmarked at his request that only God would know his final resting place, according to documents from Zion church.

Other prominent Hagerstown residents buried in the cemetery include John Gruber, printer of the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, and Dr. Henry Schnebly, a well-known patriot during the Revolutionary War and one of the leading citizens of the county at that time. The cemetery is the resting place of at least one veteran from every war with American involvement from the French and Indian War through World War I.

The oldest grave is that of Peter Rench, who died in 1771.

The most recent belongs to Jean Hoffmeier Roggi, who died in June 1991. She was the granddaughter of Wilfred H. McCardell, the first business manager of the Almanack. McCardell and his family are buried alongside Roggi.

All of the graves at Zion face east, a detail that the church's founding fathers were very careful to carry out correctly. The symbolism lies in how the rising sun signifies the resurrection of Christ, according to documents.

Funerals held in the church were signaled by the ringing of the bells in the tower. The two bells in Zion's tower, of contrasting sizes, were cast in 1785 in Rotterdam, Holland. The smaller one is known as "ding" and the larger as "dong," according to Wells Ridenour, a lifelong member of the church. The composition of the bells includes coin silver, antimony, bismuth, copper, tin and zinc, the combination of which causes a tone that is distinct to those bells.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, detachments from Northern and Southern armies fought in the streets of Hagerstown. The tower was used by Gen. Custer as a lookout point and signal tower. Bullet marks from shots fired at Custer are evident on the exterior of the bells.

The bells are far from the only source of music at Zion. The church purchased a Moller pipe organ in 1928 for $10,000. It was rebuilt 35 years later, when 1,544 pipes were added for a total of more than 2,000 pipes positioned horizontally and vertically.

Throughout its history, Zion's foundation has remained stationary, with only a few material alterations. The galleries and side doors were removed, a length of 23 feet was added to the north and five arched windows were added to either side in 1866.

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