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St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 16 2011 09:07:11 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 08 2011 05:30:12 AM CDT

There is no detailed record of what the funeral of Margaret Elizabeth "Betsey" Allen, the second daughter of James Allen, who died in child birth in 1798 in Allentown was like, but we know enough about that the time to imagine it.

There is the little St. Paul's Lutheran Church, then almost new and now long gone, at the dirt roads that were then 8th and John, now 8th and Walnut Street. Northampton town as Allentown was still officially called was wrapped in a quiet that the 21st century can scarcely imagine. At the tolling of a funeral bell, men, some perhaps in tricorne hats, remove them as the little funeral procession passes by.

In the black coach that follows the hearse are the weeping figures of Betsey's sisters, Ann Penn Allen and Mary Masters Allen with their mother. In stately mourning, mounted on his horse, is William Tilghman. That day the future Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a deeply grieving widower.

No less a figure than John Adams's wife Abigail had hailed the three Allen girls as part of the "constellation of beauty" that brightened the national capital of Philadelphia. But now an early death had darkened one of those beautiful auburn-haired stars.

After the service was done and prayers were said, the remains of "Betsey" Allen were laid to rest. Some say it was under the church floor. Some say it was in the church yard. Wherever it was, she was to rest in peace there for over 100 years.

Her sister Ann was to raise the daughter whose birth had cost her sister's life, until tragically that child also died in childbirth. William Tilghman never remarried.

Fast forward more than 100 years into the future. The year is 1903. St Paul's Lutheran is in the process of replacing a church they had built in the 1850s, one which had replaced the original church with a much bigger sanctuary. As the rebuilding process is under way the workers have began the delicate process of removing the remains of "Betsey" Allen to a new crypt that had been created for them under what will be the Church's new clock tower.

On hand for the event is a reporter for Allentown's Daily City Item newspaper. The reporter, after sharing the tale of Allen's passing with the readers, notes what he sees. All that remains are a collection of bones. But the skull still bares traces of strands of the auburn hair that "once turned the heads of the beaus of Federalist Philadelphia."

Today, over 100 years after that article appeared, St. Paul's Pastor Rev. Richard Baumann, a man with a passion for local history and the church's history in particular, is glad to have the church known as the burial spot of "Betsey" Allen. "We have the body," he quipped recently in a discussion of St. Paul's history.

As Baumann will tell you the church's congregation goes back to the founding of the city. Sometime in 1762 shortly after William Allen's surveyors drew some lines on a map laying out the city, a Lutheran congregation was gathering at a log structure, located on the north side of Walnut Street between 7th and 8th streets. At that point the building was shared with a German Reformed Congregation which is today Zion's Reformed UCC.

The future St. Paul's first enters the historical record on October 9, 1763. At that Sunday worship service the pastor, a Rev. Roth, was giving a sermon. Suddenly the doors of the church were opened and a flood of people came into the little building. It forced the surprised minister to "quit giving my sermon" as he later wrote. Indian raids had suddenly broken out on the outskirts of the community and these sudden arrivals were refugees from the distant frontier. The fear was that the Indian attacks that had created disturbances in the recently ended French and Indian War were about to be reignited.

Letters were written to the governor James Hamilton and militia troops called up. But the Native Americans, who were responding to having been cheated out of their trade goods at a local inn, went off into the wilderness beyond the Blue Mountains and were never seen again.

By 1773 the Zion's congregation left the building to build a church of their own on Hamilton Street. The log structure was occupied by the Lutherans until the early 1790s. It was then, thanks to the generosity of members of the Allen family, that property was set aside at the corner of 8th and Walnut St. for St. Paul's Lutheran Church. This probably explains why the Allens, who were not Lutheran, had "Betsey" Allen buried at that church.

St. Paul's continued to have a role in the early history of Allentown and Lehigh County. In December, 1814 local militia troops, returning from service in fortifications at Marcus Hook in the War of 1812, held a thanksgiving service for their safe return at St. Paul's.

St. Paul's also served another significant function in Allentown. According to a long time tradition the clock in its tower became the semi-official timekeeper for the city of Allentown. In the early 20th century those wanting to have the correct time would set their pocket watches and mantel clocks by the hands of St. Paul's. Although it no longer bears this distinction, it remains the last resting place of the only Allen in Allentown.