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Lutheran Church celebrates 250th anniversary with historic mass

By Staff | Nov 6, 2015

It was a special All Saints Sunday for St. Peter’s Lutheran Church parishioners – from the youngest to the oldest – who spent part of the service lighting candles in memory of late church members, as well as honoring their collective contributions to the church’s 250th anniversary.

But it was also a time for looking ahead, and making sure the church continues to thrive.

That was an important part of the messages delivered by Bishop Matthew Riegel and Pastor Karen Erskine-Valentine, who marked the historic occasion with the Muhlenberg Mass – a nod to much, much earlier times when this type of service may have been held locally in church members’ homes or even outside.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is credited for this new order for worship that was used among Lutherans in the Western Hemisphere. It later became the standard for Lutheran churches in the mid-Atlantic region of the American colonies, according to Riegel.

Some modifications were made for Sunday, including performing the service in English rather than Muhlenberg’s native German. And the seating was also different, because in older days the men would have sat on one side, women on the other, Riegel said.

Muchlenberg’s mission in America – he once pastored 18 churches simultaneously, from the southern tier of New York to Maryland’s northern tier – soon became clear.

“Here was a land in which the gospel needed to be planted,” Riegel said.


As a result, the Latin phrase ecclesia plantata – which referred to the church having already been planted in Europe – is often attributed to Muchlenberg, as well as a companion phrase ecclesia plantanda that spoke of the need for it to still be planted in America, Riegel told the approximately100 parishioners who’d come for the service.

It was an emotional time for many, including Riegel who’d traveled from Morgantown for the event.

“Thinking back 250 years, before there was even a building for this church and when the flock worshipped in homes and perhaps even in barns, I must confess I was weeping as we sang the first hymn this morning,” he said.

“Even without a magnification organ like you have here, I can still imagine the joy and celebration of that first hymn being sung in the midst of the wilderness,” Riegel said.

But a church doesn’t live – or continue to exist -by focusing only on the past, he said, adding that St. Peter’s must “look forward to another 250 years of the church being planted and continuing to build on the foundation of our forebearers. A church must be planted every day.”


In addition to helping provide communion, Erskine-Valentine, who took over her current post as pastor of the Shepherdstown Lutheran Parish in July, spent part of the service sharing a special message with youngsters who eagerly scampered up to her and sat on the carpeted altar while she spoke to them about the church’s enduring history.

Holding up a long, narrow piece of paper, the children watched as she connected the two ends together – as a way to show St. Peter’s continuity and strength.

“This way, there is no beginning and end to the paper. It just keeps going forever, and forever, which is kind of like time is, because it never seems to end. Even though the people who started our church lived a long time ago, and are now in Heaven with God, they not only used to be the church – they still are,” Erskine-Valentine said, smiling as she described the distant day when the youngsters would be the church’s backbone.

“And you will help keep the church going on and on and on as you remember – and live out -the love of God as it also goes on and on. God’s love goes on forever,” she said.


Church members have been celebrating the anniversary – which may very well mean that St. Peter’s is the oldest Lutheran church in the state-in a number of different ways.

Suzanne Offutt and Carolyn Thomas, who both serve on the church council, were also involved in planning for the recognizing its anniversary.

“We chose to spread it out throughout the year. Next, we are purchasing a dedication stone to mark this milestone and it will be placed here at the church. And anytime the church was used this year, we kind of included that as part of our community outreach,” Offutt said.

Thomas, who grew up in the denomination, said she likes this style of worship and is proud of her church.

“A Lutheran service is just special, in part because of all the things it contains and there is just a certain order to this service which is a reflection of our faith,” she said.

Anniversary committee chair Kathryn Henry credited the church – and its members – for making it a successful year.

“I’ve had great helpers along the way. And I have to say I got tears today, because of how much our church has done in its 250 years – and all the others over the years who’ve helped make that possible, too,” Henry said.

Fellow member Mike Zagarella credited Offutt, his wife, for having suggested a unique way to mark the milestone.

As a result, various shades of paper were folded into Origami – which comes from the Japanese words “oru” meaning to fold, and “kami” meaning paper – cranes, and are being placed on a tree in the church’s social hall as members perform an act of kindness.

Smiling as he the growing number of the ornate birds, Zagarella said the idea was to help people do things on a regular basis to help others – hopefully ending with 250 of them on the branches as the year winds down.

“It doesn’t have to be something big, because just helping rake lives or taking someone to the doctor can mean a lot. And these are the kinds of things we can all do if we just think about it,” he said.

Dressed in period clothing from roughly the time when the church was founded in 1765, long-time member Deborah Rochefort said it was her way of honoring St. Peter’s longevity and accomplishments.

“To me, this is a way to show the continuity of Lutherans in faith over time. Even though people wore different clothes and had a different lifestyle then, in many ways things are the same. We still enjoy the same hymns and the same love of God – now as we did in the past. I like the feeling of connection through time, and I felt it very strongly here today,” Rochefort said.