CENTER TOWNSHIP — In its 225 years of life, the oldest church in Indiana County has had its share of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies.
Bethel Presbyterian Church, founded in 1788, has survived fire and a burglary, but the congregation has enjoyed its share of accomplishments.
The church’s ability to remain active, according to Commissioned Ruling Elder Terry Semsick, is “a recognition of commitment and stability … when other churches have tried and failed.”
The church, she said, has seen its share of hard times, but possesses a longevity that gives it strength and hope to look forward to the future.
“The foundation of their commitment lies in their faith in God as the Father and creator of us all and in Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone of our faith … that’s the commitment that has been prevalent in the lives of the members of Bethel church from day one,” she said.
The congregation will celebrate the momentous birthday Sunday, when previous ruling pastors will return to share in the moment, Semsick said. In recent years, pastors included the Rev. William Hawley, the Rev. Stanley Boughton, the Rev. Robert Goossen and the Rev. William King.
Semsick became the commissioned ruling elder in January, and she will facilitate the church so that it can get to the point at which it calls a full-time pastor, she said.
A history of the church’s past 25 years has been chronicled by church members Eulene Risinger and Eleanor Winsheimer, historians. The book is intended to tell the history of the 156-member church.
“We interviewed some members of the church and we spent a lot of time reading through the minutes of trustees and sessions,” said Risinger. “Both (Winsheimer) and I … have been members for a long time, about 50 years, and we recall a lot of this later history.”
The publication will be available for members of the congregation Sunday.
According to the history, renovations and upgrades that the church has seen include those to the entryway, landscaping, sidewalk, signage, parking lot and the roof. In 1992, an addition was constructed and deemed the Education Wing.
In addition, a picnic pavilion was added in 2005, where Semsick said the congregation is able to practice its eclectic style during an outdoor summer worship.
Along with the many accomplishments, the church has seen hard times.
“The major things that have happened were the burglary of the church,” Risinger said. “In 2005 someone broke into the church and took a safe. They found the safe in a farm pond, but all of the records of baptisms, weddings and funerals had been burned.”
Because of this, several years of church records are missing.
In addition, records had been destroyed by fire in 1933 and 1935.
Tom Mikesell, who holds the distinction as oldest member of the church, has spent all 86 years of his life there. It is the place where he was baptized.
“I’ve lived in this area all my life,” Mikesell said. “My grandparents went to church there, my parents went to church there and I’ve been there all my life.”
He’s contributed his fair share of service to the church during his time there, too.
“I think I’ve held every position in the church, except preaching. I’m still active and part of the Cemetery Association and so on.”
He’s served as an elder, trustee, treasurer and chairman of the building committee, to name a few. In 1973, when the Education Wing was constructed, he chaired the project.
Throughout the years, the strength and spirit of the congregation has remained, and Mikesell remembers times when the lives of Bethel Presbyterian members were different.
“I can remember when the last three people came to church on horseback and buggy,” he said. “A lot of the people over the years were all farmers. A lot of them were related in the church, and are still related. I think just from being good church-going people, they came to church.”
The key element holding the church together is its congregation. “It’s an active church,” Semsick said. “Especially throughout the summer months.”
The church’s youths are especially active, doing mission projects and helping the community.
“We have a great youth ministry in our church,” she said. “This summer, and for many summers, the kids have traveled to West Virginia and beyond to do mission projects for people in areas that have suffered damages.”
This summer, the youth members did mission work close to home, working for seven area families for one week at a time, sleeping, eating and working together.
“It’s a ministry that has great kids that do great things,” Semsick said.
Other groups within the ministry include the Bethel Ladies Ministry, the Cemetery Association, the Presbyterian Men’s Group, vacation Bible school and the Bethel Bunch, a group that formed in the late ’80s for young adults and their children to get together for social activities.
Sunday’s celebration will kick off with breakfast before the 10:30 a.m. worship.
PHOTO: Bethel Presbyterian Church is celebrating its 225th anniversary this year. (Jamie Empfield/Gazette photo)