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Old country church restored

December 28, 2003|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

The 132-year-old Robert Kennedy Memorial Presbyterian Church stands on a rise at the intersection of Pa. 416 and Pa. 995 in Welsh Run, Pa., looking out over lush farmland.

According to local historian Calvin E. Bricker Jr. of Greencastle, Pa., local Welsh settlers founded the congregation in 1741, along the Conococheague Creek about a mile north of the town of Welsh Run. The meeting house was burned by the Indians in 1760, along with most of the settler's plantations. A log meeting house was built on another site in 1774, then torn down and the present building erected on its stone foundation in 1871.

In the 1740s, "there was a ruckus over the revival movement, and the Presbyterian church split," Bricker said. The Lower West Conococheague Church was established under the new thinking, which was that the individual could have a conscious relationship with the Lord, he said.

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Pastors were well-educated, even on the frontier, Bricker said. Well-known in his time, Rev. Robert Kennedy pastored the church from 1799 to 1816, and then intermittently until his death in 1843, and the church was renamed in his honor. He is buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Kennedy was part of the first temperance movement in the county in the 1830s. Whiskey flowed freely among workers harvesting the wheat crops, Bricker said, but Kennedy refused to employ drunken workers. He also advocated using the grain to fatten cattle rather than selling it to distilleries.

A parsonage stands behind the church, and a preparatory school, the Kennedy Academy, across the street. Pastors taught school in those days, Bricker said. Comparable to a high school, the academy prepared students for college into the 1930s. The parsonage and academy are now private homes.

The complex of three buildings was made possible by donations from Kennedy's son, Elias Kennedy, a Philadelphia businessman.

Ten years ago, the Conococheague Institute for the Study of Cultural Heritage took a special interest in the old church. The Institute located the trust fund set up by the former congregation for the church's maintenance, and went to work.

"We've fixed it up, and have gotten some private donations," Bricker said. Both the interior and exterior have been repainted. The wood siding on the building, like that at Mount Vernon, was made to look like stone.

A magnificent stained-glass window from the 1930s depicting Christ ascending into heaven dominates the interior. The wall and frame below the window had rotted out over the years, Bricker said. Cedric Duffield of Welsh Run, a descendent of one of the founders, put a new frame under it.

Duffield, who is retired, has worked many hours on the church and grounds, Bricker said. "The original settlers are buried there, and some of them are my ancestors," Duffield said.

The church, which has no running water, became inactive in the 1960s. "There was limited parking, and no place to expand," Bricker said. "Mega churches with gymnasiums were becoming popular."

"In the 1960s and '70s, they had services here twice a year," he added. "The Ruritan Club used it in the 1980s. Then it wasn't fit any more. It's in better shape now than I've ever seen it."

Historians used wedding photos from the 1950s to determine what kind of carpet had been in the church, Bricker said.

A Christmas service has been held in the church for the past five years, a Welsh song fest is held yearly, and the Conococheague Institute meets there quarterly.

The Institute's goal is to maintain the building and grounds in a pre-1950s condition. "The old, small country churches go by the wayside, unfortunately," Bricker said. "We want to preserve this as a monument to the old country churches and to the original Presbyterians."

Institute members and friends recently rebuilt the stone wall around the cemetery.

Duffield said that he was told as a child that the cemetery was full. Most of the head stones are from the 1800s, and many are missing. Duffield thinks some old stones may have sunk. "We had to go down three feet to find one at Angle cemetery," in Welsh Run, he said.

Now, the Carlisle Presbytery wants to turn the property over to a local organization. "They don't want to hold old churches," Bricker said. "But we're not sure who owns it. We're checking the legal records. Hopefully we can sort that out. There are a lot of local people who are very much interested in maintaining it," he said.

For more information about the Conococheague Institute or the Robert Kennedy Memorial Presbyterian Church, call Calvin E. Bricker Jr. at 1-717-328-3858.

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