Historic Stevensville church still standing strong
Published: September 1, 2013
STEVENSVILLE – A church stands in the little valley. Like eyes, its arched windows gaze out at the hillside across the way, and its steeple lifts itself to heaven like hands clasped in prayer. The church stands strong.
The years have passed. Its people have been born, worshipped and died. Wagons have rolled by, then impatient cars and trucks. The church stands strong.
Newspaper headlines have changed. Wars have been fought. Wind, snow and rain have flung themselves at the roof and steeple and walls, heat has seared them and cold has clenched them in its cruel fist.
Most likely, the church has even been scorned.
And still – it stands strong. It stands strong because of ... love.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, in Stevensville, is around 200 years old. It is no longer used every Sunday, but those who love it gathered recently for a special service to worship and celebrate their tough little church.
“It’s a building, but God insists that it will remain an oasis for people who seek mercy, love, kindness and justice,” The Rev. Paul W. Towers stated during his sermon there Sunday, Aug. 18. Father Paul (the term “Father” is part of the Episcopal tradition) is priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Montrose. He believes St. Matthew’s has given so much over many years, and God returns the blessing.
“I’ve been here many times and I think it’s a great, great monument to our heritage and we all love it!” visitor Joe Welden of Montrose remarked.
The rustic, two-story church has no electrical service or bathrooms and holds old-time furnishings such as a pot-bellied stove, pump organ and old lamps. The floor is unfinished wood.
“Oh, it’s so cute! ... Very cute!” a visitor exclaimed as she walked in the morning of Aug. 18.
A framed document on the back wall lists the charter members: David Olmstead, Joseph Bosworth, Samuel Stephens, Daniel Ross, Jesse Ross, Denison Bostwick, Benejah Bostwick, Salmon Bosworth, Josiah Bosworth, Orange Bosworth, John C. Stephens, Irad Stephens, William Ross, Adalphus Olmstead, Cornwall Brush, John Haywood, Ambrose Allen, Ephraim Fairchild, John Ross, Fairchild Canfield, Elisha D. Wolf, Stephen Everet, William Frink, Alby Bosworth, John Haywood and Samuel Brown.
St. Matthew’s has been under the care of St. Paul’s Church, Montrose, since 1925, according to information provided by the latter. St. Paul’s holds occasional services there, at least one a year. It also oversees physical repairs.
Bob Kimmell of St. Paul’s serves as St. Matthew’s steward. Why?
“Don’t know,” he said. “Just a calling, I guess.”
He just finished a major project on the church foundation. Workers from Woodford Brothers of New York lifted the left side (as you’re looking at the front), removed and rebuilt the left foundation wall, and fixed piers under the church. (Bob has a photo showing the wooden part of the wall dangling over mid-air, with the earth below dug away.) That upper left wall had a 4-inch sag. The renovation has improved it.
“I’m glad that we’ve done all the work,” a visitor, the Rev. Carol Horton, said Aug. 18.
Bob also reported some work was done recently around the steeple.
“The entire underside is charred,” he noted of the floor. Some boys accidentally started a fire in 1863, and “it came that close to being incinerated.”
But it wasn’t. And now, the charring acts as a natural insecticide, keeping some bugs away, he explained.
The upper windows, with circular tops, were likely put in around 1864, he said. Some of the lower windows are regular glass; others, stained. The stained glass windows were added around 1895.
Bob provided a history of the church, written in 1955. According to excerpts:
“There has been a congregation here since 1799. Many of the early pioneers came to this beautiful valley from Litchfield County, Conn.” Many raised sheep. “The first church building was destroyed by fire. The present church building was erected in 1814 and is the oldest church building in (continual) use as a church in the diocese. It was consecrated in 1824 by the Rt. Rev. William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania on one of his few trips to this area. ...
“The church building has undergone repairs and been redecorated on several occasions. In 1894, the vestry room, which at that time ran across the entire east end of the church, was torn down. At the same time the two-story pulpit, which stood on the east wall above the communion table, was removed and the present alcove for the holy table was added. A smaller vesting room was then added on the northeast corner of the church. Much of the furnishing found in the chancel and sanctuary came from Philadelphia.
“The old pewter communion service was given to St. Matthew’s by Mr. George Mansley of Towanda in 1849. ...
“Only two rectors seem to stand out in the history of St. Matthew’s Church: the Rev. Samuel Marks, whose saddle-bag is still in our possession, and the Rev. George Payne Hopkins, who served as rector on three different occasions and who was the last resident rector. ... After the retirement of the Rev. Mr. Hopkins in 1900 services were conducted by neighboring clergymen.
“Beginning in 1903 services were held during the summer months by seminarians who came and lived in the area. ... For the past 30 years, it has been served by the rectors of St. Paul’s Montrose, Pa. ”
Bob showed another history, titled “Reminiscences” and written years ago by church members. It reports the original steeple blew down and the bell was taken to the Methodist Church in Silvara, Wyoming County. Also, it notes, the first children baptized in the church were Mrs. Arabella Bosworth and Mary Electra Bosworth.
It goes on: “In the old days the church was filled. People came from LeRaysville and Spring Hill, some 6 miles away.” It also mentioned the fire: “Some boys built a fire in the stove and left it to go fishing. The fire burned through the floor and caused a great deal of smoke because of a large quantity of fine sawdust left there when the church was built.”
It, too, notes the repairs made in 1894 (sic 1864) and adds “the big window of the chancel was put in at that time.”
Olive Keeler was active in the 1800s and cared for the oil lamps. “When there was no man in the congregation, she often took up the offering,” it reports. Her father made the window frames, which held candles.
It also talks about the large stone porch: “The top stone was originally one piece but the wagon hauling it from Ruger’s Quarry at Spring Hill to the church broke down, so to get it to the church they had to cut it in half. The cost of the stone was $36. ...
“The last regular services were held there in 1899 and early 1900.” But it notes Sunday school was being held until 1912.
Forty-four people attended the service on Aug. 18. Beforehand, French horn and clarinet players, sitting behind the old stove, performed “In the Garden.”
“And he walks with me and he talks with me,” Father Paul sang. Others joined in. “I bet you that hymn was sung here many a time!” he declared.
Flowers of orange, yellow and red decorated the pulpit. A shiny cross hung on the wall behind, and above it light from heaven itself smiled upon stained glass windows. “In loving memory of the founders of St. Matthews Church, Pike, Penna.” read words at the bottom of the center window. (Stevensville was once part of Pike Township.)
In the service, Paul told of opposition the early members faced. “The English church was not the church to go to.” The Episcopal Church was affiliated with the English monarchy. Since those were the days just after the Revolutionary War against England, this didn’t set well with many.
“They were called Tory churches,” he said. After the war, 80 percent of clergy in the Diocese of Bethlehem had returned to England.
But he believes the St. Matthew’s members were not playing politics.
“The people who came here came because of the love of God.”
In his sermon, he told of Jesus’ disciple Matthew who, like these early members, was not well-liked. “Matthew was despised by his own people. Why? He’s a tax collector!”
He also noted how God’s people in Old Testament days had become so concerned with rules that they forgot about kindness and justice. Matthew, though, was drawn to Jesus and broke free of that oppression, embracing Christ’s message of mercy and love.
The Stevensville congregation, facing similar opposition, named itself after Matthew. And it survived.
“For some reason God just won’t let this church go away!” Father Paul declared.
For one thing, his friend Bob loves St. Matthew’s. Father Paul remarked how Bob spoke the first time they met, with emotion in his eyes. “I want to bring life back to St. Matthew’s!” he insisted.
Father Paul encouraged Bob to keep the church that oasis of love and mercy to the weary traveler.
Kathy Preston came from LeRaysville for the service. “This church feels good. It does!” she declared. “There’s so much history here.” Area residents are blessed to have it, she added.
But Martha Yanavitch may know St. Matthew’s the best. Living next door, Martha has mowed its lawn since 1964. She unlocks the door for visitors, and has played the old pump organ just for fun. Back in the ‘50s, she even was a bridesmaid in a wedding there. She keeps a watchful eye on it.
The years have passed, but St. Matthew’s stands strong. It stands because of love.
“It’s just so peaceful and nice,” Martha said. “I love that church!”