Latrobe Presbyterian Church

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Latrobe Presbyterian Church

Unity Chapel

 

Latrobe Presbyterian Church

 

On September 4 1766, Reverends Charles Beatty and George Duffield, Presbyterian missionaries, passed through this (pioneer region) and stopped at the cabin of John Proctor on Twelve Mile Run (now Monastery Run). Upon Proctor's farm (in the low lands behind St. Xavier) the early services of Unity congregation were to be held in what was called "Proctor's Tent" which was no more than a raised platform with a roof over it to provide a little shelter for the minister.

 

On March 1, 1774, (while an alien flag yet floated over our country), sixty acres of land was deeded by Thomas and John Penn, grandsons of William Penn, to the Unity trustees "for the use of the Presbyterian Congregation, in order to erect a Meeting House and for a Burial Ground. Upon this tract a log church was built, perhaps as early as 1776 and certainly by 1790.

 

There are no records that can be found to show the date on which Unity Church was formally organized, nor do we know precisely where the first church building stood. It was built of logs, a wing being added later to each end of the original building as the congregation grew in numbers. It was said to have stood on "the level place back of the location of the first brick church." Tradition states that it was destroyed by fire during the winter of 1829 and 1830; a boy, after using straw in kindling the fire on Sunday morning, discovered the roof was burning

 

Early Leaders

 

Though the Presbyterians had informally worshiped together as far back as 1769, it was not until 1781 when they elected the Reverend James Power to serve as their pastor. The first Elders to be elected were as follows: John Moon, William Waddell, Andrew Allison, and Samuel Coulter. From time to time from 1781 to 1790, Dr. John McMillan and James Finley conducted services.

 

The first regularly installed minister of Unity Church was Dr. John McPherrin, who served ten years, from 1790 to 1800. Then, in succession, nine ministers served during the following years:

 

  • Dr. John McPherrin 1790 - 1800
  • John Black 1800 - 1802
  • William Speer 1803 - 1829
  • Robert Henry 1830 - 1839
  • Peter Hassinger 1839 - 1844
  • George Morton 1846 - 1848
  • Noah H. Gillette 1849 - 1868
  • Daniel W. Townsend, D.D. 1869 - 1901
  • William Funk 1902 - 1907
  • Henry Snyder 1916 - 1920

 

(The names of these Unity Church ministers are inscribed on a plaque located at Unity Chapel.)

 

On the 7th of April, 1830, Rev. Robert Henry, a brilliant young minister from the east, was installed as pastor, and the building of a larger church to replace the log church, was undertaken in that year.

 

At that time a lovely grove of tall hickory trees stood near the center of the burial ground. It seemed the ideal spot for a new church. In 1830 it was built of cherry red brick and was known for miles around for its beauty and splendor. It was a building larger than the present one. Long, wide, straight aisles led from its two large front doors and separated the high back pews. In each aisle was a great stove for the comfort of worshipers in the winter months. Near each stove a massive octagonal pillar rose from the floor to support the ceiling. The pulpit, a high, narrow white structure, stood between the great front doors so that latecomers entered the church facing the congregation.

 

It was a good and active congregation. By the year 1850 the church reached the high-tide of its existence. During the decade which followed the most glorious days of Old Unity were enjoyed. It is of interest to us to notice that during all this early history the congregation at Unity never had a musical instrument to assist in public worship. Hymns and anthems were sung without accompaniment. Not until 1870 was a reed organ installed.

 

Present Church Built

 

In 1874, the congregation at Unity decided to build another new church. A new site was chosen and another red brick church was built to replace the building of 1830 which was then torn down. Perhaps one of the reasons for the new church was the beginning of a decline in the size of the congregation. The new red brick church was smaller and more compact than the old. The community of Latrobe was being settled and a Presbyterian church had been established there in 1869. Old Unity members were moving to the new community. The building which was erected in 1874 is the one still standing which we call Unity Chapel (picture at top of page.)

 

The congregation at Old Unity continued to dwindle. On October 11, 1920, the few remaining members called a congregational meeting at which it was decided to dissolve their beloved congregation. With the approval of the Presbytery of Blairsville (at that time), under whose jurisdiction the congregation was, they agreed to leave the building in the care of the Unity Cemetery Association, a group of men all of whom were members of the Presbyterian Church in Latrobe. For years thereafter the building went uncared for and unused.

 

The Restoration of Unity Chapel

 

The closing of Unity Church as a place of worship was noticed with concern by Mr. William Mellon of Pittsburgh who visited Unity Cemetery on numerous occasions to care for the graves of his family. It was he who first entertained the dream of restoring Old Unity to her former beauty. His dream was further developed by his brother, Mr. Thomas Mellon, II, who began to work toward this end. In 1935, Thomas Mellon brought to Unity three beautiful leaded glass windows which had originally been installed in the East Liberty Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh as a memorial to members of the Mellon family. (These are the windows now in the front behind the pulpit of Unity Chapel.) In the following year Mr. Mellon, through his contractor, Mr. James McVeigh, had the ceiling replaced in the old church. The program went on year by year. In 1937 the floor was renewed and some new pews installed. Later, two new leaded glass windows were installed in the side walls (now located in the front) and more new pews, not resembling the pews of the old church but in its mood, were installed by Mr. Mellon. At this point, however, the whole project of restoration was temporarily halted. No further work was done on the Chapel for several years.

 

In 1950 Mr. James H. Rogers of Latrobe expressed an interest in and concern for Unity Church. He began correspondence with the Mellon family and others expressing an interest to continue the project of restoration. From his interest and concern new progress began. Others offered to help. General and Mrs. Richard K. Mellon, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Mr. and Mrs. Alan M. Scaife, Mrs. James H. Rogers, Mrs. Nancy K. McFeely, all had a share in making the renovation a possibility. Mr. and Mrs. Marcus W. Saxman provided an electronic organ for the chapel. (A Unity Chapel Fund of Latrobe Presbyterian Church was established to provide funds for the general operation of the Chapel).

 

In 1953 oversight of the Chapel was transferred from the Cemetery Association to a special committee of the Session of the Latrobe (Presbyterian) Church and later that same year Mr. Robert Schmertz, an architect from Pittsburgh, was asked to make suggestions and drawings for the completion of the renovation. On October 8, 1953 a contract was let to Mr. Paul Smith to begin the work.

 

On April 1, 1954, the first official service of worship was held in the "new" chapel. The occasion was the funeral service of the late Mrs. Evelyn Chambers Huffman. Three months later, on June 13, the first summer evening vesper service was held in the chapel.

 

Unity Chapel Restoration Fund

 

In 1984, the available funds for the maintenance of Unity Chapel (of the Unity Chapel Fund) being stretched to the limit, and renovations and repairs needed, a fund drive was organized (by George M. Lynch and other members of the Session of Latrobe Presbyterian Church appointed Unity Chapel Committee to establish the Unity Chapel Endowment Fund of Latrobe Presbyterian Church.) Responding remarkably were members of the Mellon family, their foundations, and members of the McFeely and Rogers families and their foundation. But, significantly, the restoration funds were contributed to by many, many smaller donations by descendants of members of Unity and concerned members of the Latrobe Presbyterian Church. The contributions were large and small, each contributing equally to the improvement of the church at Unity. (Read a list of projects made possible by the 1984 Unity Chapel Endowment Fund.)

 

In 2001-02, upon a generous gift from Arnold D. Palmer, given in memory of his wife Winifred W. Palmer, an impressive automatic front gate was built with bricked columns and iron fencing. In addition, a beautiful granite stone overlook was constructed to the west of the Chapel with a flagpole and three bronze interpretive plaques affixed with the history of the cemetery and Chapel, and a map of the grounds.

 

Past is Present

 

Since that time the beautiful building, now called simply, Unity Chapel, has had scores of worshipers within its historic walls. They have come for funerals and weddings, they have come to summer evening vesper services and special services of preparation for Holy Communion. Many who have come have taken time after the services to read the items of history recorded on the many plaques about the room. The sense of a very real "communion of the saints" has been their experience. They have shared in the early history of western Pennsylvania and, even more than that, they have shared in the much older and fuller history of the whole church of God of which this building reminds us.

 


 

Postscript

 

Interestingly, the closing paragraph above was written in 1961, over 40 years ago, by Robert R. Vogelsang, the Minister of LPC from 1956 to 1982. His words are as true now as they were back then. This is truly a testament to the many people (many of whom are unknown or not mentioned in this compilation) who have given so much over the years to make Unity Chapel a very special part of LPC. Today, Unity Chapel is impeccably maintained and is the site for many special worship services and other events throughout the year.

 


 

Credits

 

The above excerpts are from "Unity Presbyterian Church and Cemetery 1774-1987", a collection of writings by Reid W. Stewart (1987), Charles H. McLaughlin (1930), Robert R. Vogelsang (1961), and Edward F. Steck (1987), published by the Unity Chapel Committee of Latrobe Presbyterian Church (LPC) and the Unity Cemetery Association in 1987. The second-to-last paragraph, beginning "In 1984", and the Unity Chapel Committee Projects are courtesy of the aforementioned publishers. The next-to-last paragraph beginning "In 2001-02", and wording added to the published text in bold italics within ( ) to clarify certain passages are courtesy of James Okonak, a member of LPC.