By the Rev. Susan Schwartz
Since one of the churches that I currently serve is winding down its days, I recently took a look at things old. I looked at old scrap books and faded records, guest books and pictures of the strong healthy church it once was. Organizations, and institutions and churches are like individuals; they have a life cycle with a beginning, a middle, and an end. St. John Lutheran Church is coming to its end.
The roots of St. John Lutheran Church go back to the mid-1800’s. In 1867 the tract of land at the corner of Church and Monongahela Streets, which belonged to Mr. James Swisshelm, was granted to “The Swissvale Evangelical Lutheran Church and Academy.” The congregation built a frame structure on the site. They were unable to make a strong enough go of it and in 1871 Swissvale Presbyterian Church took control of the property. In 1909 the frame structure, which was used by both Lutherans and Presbyterians, was sold to the Swissvale Baptist Church and moved to Schoyer and Miriam Streets. But the Lutherans did not give up.
In August 24, 1902, 38 charter members formed St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. They met at Dixon’s Hall (notice everything was “‘s” back then!) on the corner of Edgewood and Braddock Avenues. The congregation built a little brick building at Schley and Monongahela which soon became too small. They worshipped for a while at Denniston School before buying land at the corner of McClure and Monroe Streets. The cornerstone for their new building was laid on April 4, 1907 and on April 5, 1908, the building was dedicated. Construction costs were $19,000.00. The church had been constructed without a basement, but in 1923 the men of the congregation began the process of excavating underneath the building. The digging and hauling, digging and hauling, took almost a year, but the work was a great enhancement.
From the very beginning of the congregation’s history the Sunday school has been central. In 1858, before the churches had been established, a Union Sunday School, interdenominational in scope, was established in Swissvale. Sunday Schools were religious in focus, to be sure, but they were also meant to support a child’s ability to read and write, and so there was a long-standing connection between Sunday school and the 3Rs. When the Swisshelm land was granted to St. John’s, it was with the condition that a day school would be maintained. This again, underscored the commitment to education and the good of the community.
And Sunday school was not just for children. Throughout the years, adult women often taught the children, but there were classes specifically for women and men. Interestingly, there were often segregated by gender. One of the largest classes ever was the Passavant Class for adult men. In the 1930’s Sunday school enrollment ran between 500 and 550.
The choir has always played a vital role at St. John as did women’s groups and social groups such as the Ladies Aid Society, Mullen Mission Circle, Missionary Society and the Mary-Martha Guild. The high school kids had their own group called Luther League.
A number of pastors served the fledgling group in the 1800’s, but the first minister called by the congregation was A.R. Longanecker in 1902, who was followed by A.F. Richardson. The third called pastor, H.C. Erdman served for nearly 9 years, during which time the present building was constructed.
Dr. Philip Muller followed Erdman and served for 20 years. In 1935 F.C. Sternat was called to serve St. John and like his predecessor, remained with them for 20 years. K.W. Munster served for 19 years and with him the era of long pastorates ended. Beginning in 1974 seven pastors have served St. John: G.A. Risher, J.A. Lang, M.R. Esseck, D.S. Worth, M.D. Gustafson, K.R. Ofslager and S.C. Schwartz.
In the late 1900s the decline of the steel industry took its toll on the Pittsburgh area and its churches as well. More currently we see some significant cultural changes which have affected the vitality of the church in general and smaller churches in particular.
So, St. John Lutheran Church of Swissvale will meet in worship one last time, on Sunday, May 12, at 11:15 a.m., but it leaves a legacy in Swissvale and in the hearts of many people.
Schwartz is the pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Swissvale and Hope Lutheran Church in Forest Hills.