Some institutions have 100th birthdays, 200th birthdays and even 250th birthdays. But Allentown’s Episcopal Church of the Mediator at West Park and Turner Street is one of those few organizations that next year will be celebrating its100th re-birthday.
Founded in the late 1860s in the city’s industrial Sixth Ward, Mediator went into a state of dormancy from 1880 to 1911. Re-opening at its current location in 1912 the revived church once more became an active part of the city’s religious and social life. Among many other things, it was where the city’s first Boy Scout Troop, partially funded by General Harry C. Trexler, was formed in 1914.
Episcopalians have been few and far between in the religious landscape of the Lehigh Valley. Easton boasted Trinity Episcopal Church, the denomination’s mother church in the region in the early 1800s. In the 1840s St Mark’s Episcopal Church was founded in Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe, by members of the Sayre family. It’s best known congregant was Lehigh Valley Railroad founder Asa Packer, who is said to have been rejected for membership by the Presbyterians when he refused to sign a temperance pledge to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages.
Allentown and Lehigh County were a center of Lutheran and Reformed faiths in the region. Except for an occasional circuit-riding pastor from Easton’s Trinity Church coming to Lehigh County Courthouse to conduct services for members of the Allen/Livingston family in the 1820s and 30s, there were no active Episcopalians in Allentown.
That began to change in the 1860s when the Sayre family helped establish the Church of the Nativity Episcopal congregation in South Bethlehem. Its ties spread into Allentown about 1863 when Levi Horace Gross, an executive with an Allentown iron company and convert to the Episcopal Church opened an Episcopal Sunday school in his office. By 1865 there were enough Episcopalians in Allentown, that shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that April, Grace Episcopal Church was formed at 5th and Linden Streets.
Most of the congregation were transplants to the Valley involved in the thriving iron industry. Many were immigrants from England, chief among them Moses Leach of Yorkshire, a skilled iron worker and devout churchgoer. “Moses Leach is my name/England is my nation/ Allentown’s my resting place/ And Christ is my salvation/” was the epitaph carved on his tombstone in the Old Allentown Cemetery. His wife Martha’s tombstone bears a similar inscription.
It was Leach who encouraged the outreach to his fellow countrymen by Grace Church and the creation of Mediator. Located at the corner of Front and Furnace Streets, it was a sturdy stone building right on the edge of the Allentown Rolling Mills, where iron railroad rails were being made 24 hours a day. Many years later Allentown mayor Fred Lewis, whose father was an iron manufacturer, recalled that small congregation and the sound of the church bell that called them all to Sunday worship.
But the collapse of the local iron industry following the Panic of 1873 hit Mediator’s congregation hard. As iron furnaces cooled, workers drifted away seeking other places of employment. The few members of the congregation that remained drifted to Grace Church. And when the Reading Railroad put a spur line in front of Mediator’s door, it closed for good.
The revival of Mediator began with the 20th century and the arrival of from the West of Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, as Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, renamed in 1909 the Diocese of Bethlehem. A leader in the church and an energetic pastor in 1906, he set out to revive Mediator. He reopened the old church in 1906 and contacted every former member of Mediator he could find.
The former members of Mediator were thrilled at Talbot’s efforts. But the bishop quickly discovered that he could no more bring back the old 6th Ward Mediator than he could bring back the boom iron industry of the 1860s. Most of the former members of Mediator lived out near what was then the western edge of the city. The English immigrant ironworkers had long been replaced by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy who had their own religious heritage and beliefs.
Apparently coming to the conclusion it was impossible to revive an Episcopal Church without Episcopalians, Talbot decided to sell the old building and build a new one in the West End. Working with some leading layman of his denomination in 1911, he selected a piece of property on the edge of the new West Park at the corner of Turner and West Street and purchased it for $25,000. On July 9, 1912 the old Mediator building was sold for $9000 to St Mary’s Ruthenian Church.
Although not a large congregation in its 100 years of re-birth, Mediator has been an important one. Its first pastor, Rev. Robert Nott Merriman, set the tone by establishing an active presence in the city’s religious community in ways that might now be called ecumenical. In the 19-teens, he gave active support to the Allentown Rescue Mission, a form of religious and social outreach beyond that of many clergy of his day.
In the 1950s and 60s Mediator’s pastor, the Rev. Arthur Sherman, took an active role in founding the local Conference of Churches. It was in 1957 during Sherman’s tenure that the current sanctuary, a handsome modern brick structure, was built.
The current pastor the Rev. Maria Tjelveit lives with her husband Alan, a professor at Muhlenberg College, and their children in a restored Victorian-era home in the city. Active in both church and city life in many ways, she can sometimes be found running near her center-city home.
And what happened to the old Mediator chapel? Well if you go down to Front and Furnace Street you will see a dark rough stone exterior on the otherwise modern surface of the Ukrainian American Citizens Club that was the Episcopal Church of the Mediator.