Historic church to be celebrated
Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Athens and Sheshequin will soon celebrate the recent addition of its historic Sheshequin Township building to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sheshequin Universalist Church, located on Sheshequin Road north of the Ulster Bridge, will be dedicated during a special ceremony at 1 p.m. Oct. 13. The public is invited to attend and to peek inside the historic Federal-style church.
UUCAS members say the church, completed in 1827, is the second-oldest Unitarian Universalist church in the state, attracting congregants that had settled in the area, many of whom traveled to church on horseback.
Members believe the church is also the oldest continually used UU church in Pennsylvania. The church continues to meet at the Sheshequin building, although only in July and August.
The church was constructed to house a Universalist society that formed in Sheshequin around 1808 after the Yankee-Pennamite Wars drew settlers to the area, said church member Sigrid Wilkerson. The war took place between Pennsylvania and Connecticut settlers who had both claimed ownership of the land along the north branch of the Susquehanna River, including present-day Bradford County.
Although the Pennsylvanians won the war, Connecticut settlers returned to the Sheshequin area afterward, attracted by its fertile land, Wilkerson said. The Connecticut natives brought their New England-inspired architectural influences with them.
Church member Ben Olena, who worked on the application to add the church to the national register, said the building took five years to complete. William Marvin of Pike Township designed and constructed the church.
Olena believes Marvin was inspired by the work of architect and builder Asher Benjamin. Benjamin authored "The American Builder's Companion," a design handbook that heavily influenced architecture at the time. The two-story timber building features many details addressed in Benjamin's works, including Etruscan columns and a Palladian window on the second floor.
The details inside are remarkable for a rural church, Olena said. "It is amazing Federal-style architecture," he said. "I think a lot of people pass this building and have no idea of the beauty of the inside."
Today, the historic church retains much of its old charm. Doors at the end of each pew, which were likely installed to keep in warmth, remain in place. A high pulpit was also constructed so that the minister could view both the floor and the balcony.
The pulpit is also located close to the front door, instead of facing the door like in most churches. Some historical documents had claimed the layout was planned for protection in the case of attacks by Native Americans, but Olena believes it was laid out that way for theological reasons.
Relics also remain from the church's nearly 200-year history as a meeting spot for local Universalists. A pair of wooden sticks wrapped in cloth, leaning on the church's back wall, were used in the past to stir inattentive or sleeping churchgoers, said church member Brian McDonald. Members also found a wooden collection box with a handle.
The building initially had no electrical or heating systems, Olena said. Church records indicate that George R. Fay installed electricity in 1927. Two wood stoves were installed at an unknown time early in the building's life, but the congregation no longer runs the stoves due to insurance concerns, Wilkerson said.
The church's second floor features a balcony and a room that was later used as a Sunday school room. Those who have visited have left their marks on an unfinished plaster wall, signing their names on it. Some of the signatures date back to the 1950s and even older. Names are also carved into some of the pews in the balcony.
The process to have a building added to the register is extensive and required much research, Olena said. A property must meet criteria including its age, community significance and current appearance with regard to historical integrity.
State historic preservation offices review nominations and recommendations, which are then submitted to the National Park Service for final review.
The Sheshequin church is the second church on the register in Bradford County, Olena said. Over the years, the congregations have taken good care of the building, and the work has paid off with the recognition, members said.
"It's a joyful place," McDonald said.
Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.