In the early 1900’s the thriving community of Bessemer, Pennsylvania, was served by the Swedish Covenant Church and the Finnish Lutheran Church, but there were no services in English. In 1909 a Catholic Church known as St. Anthony would be founded as well. At that time the genesis of a Presbyterian Church was already underway. In the summer of 1908 a few men of the Presbyterian faith came from New Wilmington and organized a Sunday school program, with English language classes, at a one-room school in Bessemer. William and Elizabeth Duff, esteemed members of Westfield Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend M. Wilson Keith, pastor of the Mahoningtown Presbyterian Church, conducted the religious classes that summer. The school was greatly expanded the following summer and P. W. Griffin took over as superintendent.
It was from this school that the movement to form a Presbyterian Church was launched. On March 16, 1911, during a meeting in the Swedish Covenant Church, the First Presbyterian Church of Bessemer was established within the Presbytery of Shenango. There were twenty-eight charter members led by trustees P. W. Griffin, Elmer B. Manewal, J. B. Kerr, and W. F. Davis. Initial services were held in the Swedish Covenant Church and the Reverend J. C. McConnell served as a supply pastor.
A new brick church, inspired by the design of the new Savannah Methodist Church in Shenango Township, was designed by architect W. G. Eckles. The property and the bricks were donated by the Bessemer Limestone Company (BELCO). Construction of the church, located on what later became known as North Main Street, began in August 1911. Most of the work was performed by the men of the congregation. Progress was delayed by the harsh winter weather, but the new house of worship was completed by the early summer of 1912.
The new First Presbyterian Church of Bessemer was dedicated during a ceremony held on Sunday, June 30, 1912. The New Castle News of Friday, June 28, 1912, mentioned the upcoming dedication with, “On Sunday afternoon at 3 o’clock the New Presbyterian church at Bessemer will be dedicated. An impressive program has been arranged the dedication sermon being delivered by Dr. Scott F. Hershey of the First Presbyterian church of this city, and Dr. H. J. Whalen of the Baptist church, assisting. The building is a fine little church, being constructed of brick and stone and having cost about $6,000. It is modern in every respect and is a fine little home for the growing congregation at Bessemer.”
The Reverend Harry E. Woods, a native of McDonald, Pennsylvania, was installed as the first fulltime pastor on the evening of Thursday, July 11, 1912. The New Castle News of Friday, July 12, 1912, reported, “This is his first charge. Rev. Mr. Woods is a young man, having recently finished his theological course at the Western seminary, Allegheny. He is a graduate of Washington and Jefferson college. A good-sized audience was present for the exercises yesterday, which were of an impressive nature.”
The congregation grew under Woods and was in solid shape when he departed in November 1917. He remained in the area as he took over as pastor of the Wampum Presbyterian Church. His successor at Bessemer was the Reverend Leo L. Tait, who served the congregation for the next eight years. By 1925 the congregation had grown to reach a total of over 250 members. Tait departed in April 1926 to accept a new position in Brockwayville in Jefferson County. A search got underway to find a new pastor and by that fall the congregation purchased a nearby home on North Main Street to serve as a manse.
The Reverend William J. Engle, formerly associated with a church in Aliquippa, took over as pastor in November 1926. The New Castle News of Tuesday, January 4, 1927, reported, “Formal installation exercises for Rev. W. J. Engle who assumed the pastorate of the Bessemer Presbyterian church the first of November succeeding Rev. L. L. Tait who was called to Brockwayville, Pa., in the early spring, will be conducted this evening, the services beginning at 7:30. Rev. Walter E. McClure of the First Presbyterian church of this city, Rev. D. C. Schnebly, pastor of the Mahoning Presbyterian church, and Rev. Ross M. Haverfield of the Westfield church are the commission in charge. Rev. McClure will preside and will give the charge to the congregation, Rev. Schnebly will give the charge to the pastor and Rev. Haverfield will deliver the sermon of the evening.”
The Reverend Engle, who became well entrenched in the local community, worked diligently to help the congregation survive during the tough times of the Great Depression. His wife Sara Engle took a supporting role teaching a Bible class for the ladies of the church. She unfortunately passed away at the age of fifty-nine in April 1936. The Reverend Engle continued to preach at the church until he departed for a new assignment in Enon Valley in 1939. He was succeeded by the Reverends Raymond M. Touvell from 1939-1944 and the E. Chester Crabb from 1945-1953. Fundraising efforts for the enlargement and renovation of the church were firmly in place by the early 1950’s.
The Reverend Hoover L. Picklesimer, coming over from a Bible school in Youngstown, accepted the role of pastor in March 1954. He was Cleveland native and graduate of Taylor University in Indiana and the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. It was under his reign that the construction of a new education wing began in late 1956. The plans for the project were drawn up by the W. G. Eckles architectural firm of New Castle.
The _New Castle News_of Saturday, September 28, 1957, reported, “Former pastors will share in the dedication of the new $80,000 Christian Education wing of the Bessemer Presbyterian Church Oct. 6. Dr. Robert F. Galbreath, pastor emeritus of the First Presbyterian Church, will be the principal speaker at 2:30 p.m. service. A homecoming and picnic dinner are planned in which former members and friends of the church will take part… The new wing has been under construction since last October and was only recently completed. It adds 11 new rooms for church school purposes. The sanctuary of the church was also remodeled to fit in with the new building.”
The congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary with several events held on June 15-18, 1961. The Reverend Touvell, a former pastor at the church, was a guest speaker during a special service held on Sunday, June 18, 1961. In July 1963, in the wake of a merger of Presbyterian churches on a national level, the congregation adopted the new name of Bessemer United Presbyterian Church.
The community suffered a loss when the Reverend Picklesimer, at the age of fifty-eight, passed away at home after a brief illness in October 1966. A memorial service was held at the church to honor his achievements and he was subsequently laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
Subsequent pastors included the Reverends James C. George from 1967-1969, David C. Osborn from 1970-1972, and Bruce G. Boak from 1972-1978. A major renovation of the church was undertaken from 1974 until 1980.
The Reverend Donald A. Aull, a native of Philadelphia, arrived to take over as pastor in October 1978 and served the congregation for the next twenty years. Due to a further merger involving Presbyterian groups in 1983 the congregation would become known simply as the Bessemer Presbyterian Church.
The local community of Bessemer faced a great downturn during the economic recession of the early 1980’s and the local churches suffered as well. The congregation faced a growing financial crisis but continued to move forward. Sunday school classes, long a staple of the congregation, were eventually phased out. The Reverend Aull departed in August 1998 to take on the post of pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in New Castle.
Several interim pastors were utilized until the Reverend Robin P. Dill took over as fulltime pastor in June 2001. The manse was soon sold as a cost-cutting measure. Several later, in December 2006, the church was forced to eliminate the post of a fulltime pastor. Discussion of closing the church or merging with another congregation gained serious traction. Mr. Nathan Leslie, a theology student attending Grove City College, began voluntarily preaching at the church. In July 2007 he officially accepted the position of “student-pastor” while he continued his studies in Pittsburgh. By the fall of 2008 the Reverend Bud Green came onboard to serve as an assistant to help Leslie with his duties.
The dwindling members of the congregation banded together and reorganized to survive. The members continued to stay involved with the community through outreach programs, such as the Bus Stop Ministry, community movie night, and renewed Sunday school classes. In July 2010 the Reverend Nathan Leslie, after completing his theological studies, was officially ordained and installed as pastor of the church. The congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary with a special service held on Sunday, July 31, 2011. The Bessemer Presbyterian Church, with a small but active membership, still serves the community as of 2016.
In 1908 a small group of Presbyterians from New Wilmington began holding Sunday school classes in Bessemer. The classes steadily grew and it soon became apparent that a Presbyterian Church was needed. The Bessemer Presbyterian Church was formally organized during a meeting at the Swedish Mission Covenant Church in March 1911. A new brick church, designed after the Savannah Methodist Church in Shenango Township, was soon erected on North Main Street and was dedicated on June 30, 1912. Most of the work and supplies had been supplied by the congregation. The first fulltime pastor was the Reverend Harry E. Woods. (c1915) Full Size
The handsome church was built with bricks donated by the Bessemer Limestone Company. (c1920)
The church was expanded over the years and underwent a major renovation between 1974-1980. The 1980’s began a sharp decline in attendance that threatened to close the church by the mid-2000’s. In 2007 the congregation, under newly the appointed Reverend Nathan Leslie, began a resurgence that has essentially saved the church from being shuttered. In March 2011 the congregation proudly celebrated its 100th anniversary. (Jan 2012) Full Size
(Jan 2012) Full Size
TONI JOHNSON #
I spent my childhood in this church. Lovely pictures.