Welcome to New Lebanon Community Church

Our Roots

A Look at Our Roots


It was the summer of 1923, on a July Sunday morning, when a fierce electrical storm came thorough the area, leaving in it's wake, the burned ruins of the New Lebanon Methodist church.  That afternoon, many members and friends got together to decide what was to be done about this tragic loss of the old established church.
   New Lebanon was an industrial area in the 1800's and many factories and stores were located there.  It was as much of a hub to the community as Sandy Lake and Stoneboro are today.  Many one-room school houses dotted the area.  But, New Lebanon had the only school of higher learning.  This was a very prestigious school that had it's beginnings in 1855, and had been rebuilt, revitalized and dedicated in 1881 as the brick building known as the McElwain Institute.  This school turned out many fine students who went on, because of their higher education, to become important people in our community, and other communities as well. However, with the beginning of what we now know as "Public High Schools," the McElwain Institute became obsolete, and the school doors were closed in 1916. The building was still standing empty on that July summer in 1923.
   The board members of the McElwain Institute were anxious to sell this great brick "White Elephant," which had stood empty for so long.  Conveniently, one of the board members of the McElwain Institute was a man named Burgess Marsteller, who was also a member of the Methodist Church that had just burned to the ground
   Now, just a year before this fire occurred, a group of people had formed a Sunday school, which met at the old Urey school.  Not surprisingly, it was known as the Urey Sunday School.
   When Mr. Marsteller looked at the situation, he decided to recommend to his fellow McElwain board members that the Urey Sunday School members and the Methodist Church members, should purchase the McElwain Institute property.  It would be a perfect solution for everyone involved.
   On August 24, 1824, a letter was written to these two groups with an offer.  A price of $2000.00 was established, but then several members of the McElwain Board of Directors, donated their shares to the new church movement.  The shares totaled $800.00, bring the price down to a manageable $1,200.00.
   Since so many of the backers, helpers and friends were members of the burned church were also members of the Urey Sunday School, it was suggested the church would not be a Methodist church, but rather it would open it's doors to the community to welcome all who believed Jesus Christ is Salvation.  The people who attended the Urey Sunday School, and the members of the Methodist Church congregation were pleased with this joint idea.  To this day, 80 long years later, the New Lebanon Community Church remains a Non-denominational church to the community.

In 1855, the people of New Lebanon who were interested in education, undertook the building of a two-story school, which three years later was subdivided for the grades. It was known as a "select school."
  In 1879, $2,500.00 was raised for the purchase of land for a more advanced school.  It was completed in January of 1881, and was dedicated February 22, 1881.  It later became known as the McElwain Institute.
  The initial cost came to $7,000, but $4650 was pledged before the dedication day, which to many, was proof that the community was interested in learning beyond the basic three "R's."
  Many of us have believed it was always called the McElwain Institute, but that isn't so.  It was originally called the "New Lebanon Academy", and it was officially incorporated on May 16, 1883, for the education and instruction of "both sexes in science, literature and the fine arts."
  Graduates from the Institute, for the most part, became teachers.  A number continued their education in college and seminary.  Six became ministers of the Gospel, at least 12 eventually became physicians, and four became attorneys.  Here are just a few of the names associated with the McElwain Institute:
Dr. Isaac C. Ketler, President of Grove City College.
Judge Samuel H. Miller, Mercer.
James S. Fruit, 30 years with the Pittsburgh Schools.
Frank Fruit, Principle of Fredonia Vocational School.
A. A. Borland, Head of Penn State's Dairy Department.
W. E. Crouser and Thomas McCracken, the two local men who headed the McElwain Institute.
James M. Campbell, Mercer County District Attorney.
George E. (Rube) Waddell, Professional Baseball Player.

The cost of attending the school (at a time when the average wage was 50 cents a day for professionals, and hired hands made less than two dollars a week), cost an astounding $2.00 a week for everything to be furnished.  If you were attending the McElwain Institute for a three-month term you could rent an unfurnished room during that time for $3.00.  If you added it all together, a three-month term would run about $25.00.
  For 36 years, the building of the McElwain Institute served the fields of higher education.  For the last 80 years, the building of the McElwain Institute has served an even higher calling.  Welcome to the New Lebanon Community Church.

  You will remember that the Methodist Church in New Lebanon had burned to the ground.  The Urey School members were thinking about starting a church.  And, as you will remember, the McElwain Institute had closed it's doors as a school.  Here it was now, August 1924, and these two groups had been offered the opportunity to start a community church in the McElwain Institute building.  That should be no problem, since the insurance money from the Methodist Church fire would help pay for it.
  When the board of the New Lebanon Methodist Church contacted the Methodist Board in Meadville with their plan for the insurance money, the Meadville Board became furious.  Keep in mind that the fire insurance premiums had been paid by the New Lebanon Methodist Church congregation for years.  That didn't seem to matter to them, because the New Lebanon Church Board had to leave the meeting without the $1200.00 insurance money.  There was absolutely no way these two groups could raise the $1,200.00 needed to purchase the McElwain Institute building.  After all, this was 1924.
  Two men, Homer Stainbrook and Samuel Mahle went to the bank, put up their own collateral and purchased the McElwain property.  The new church finally had a home.  But that wasn't the end of their problems.  Many people in the community were angry and totally against the idea of going ahead with plans for a community church.  There was no gray area.  It was black or white, for or against.  Feelings ran very high.  The Methodist Board in Meadville told the young man who had been pastoring the Methodist Church in New Lebanon when it burned, that he must not preach at the community church, or they would throw him out of the Methodist conference.  So, Rev. Lloyd McKinley, his wife and two small children left the community.  Little did the church know that in God's own time he would return.
  The work of the Lord must go on, so a committee was formed to draw up a constitution.  A meeting was called and all who believed in the idea and the articles as written, were asked to sign the charter.  There were fifty people who signed their names to something they truly believed in.
  Now, the new church had an Article of Faith and a Constitution, and fifty members with their families.  All they needed now was a minister.  On November 25, 1924, the first meeting to elect the first pastor of the New Lebanon Undenominational Community Church was held.  Two names were submitted for the job.  Rev. Reily and Rev. Fradenburgh.  Rev. Fradenburgh received a large majority of the votes; 54 to be exact, compared to Rev. Reily's 7 votes.
 
  Rev. Fradenburgh had received the votes necessary to call him to the New Lebanon Community Church.  He was a retired Methodist preacher, and he was paid $10 per Sunday to conduct two services.  The church was still very poor and on a given Sunday the church collection would vary from 25 cents, to $2.00 depending on the week.  In addition, many families gave of material things in place of actual cash.  Each week the money situation was very tight.
  It was about this time that a group called The Ladies Aid was started.  They would give suppers, but instead of buying the food necessary for the meals, the people of the church would furnish food from their own stocks at home.  This kept the church's expenses to a minimum, while allowing them to raise the money necessary to pay the pastor.  There were a lot of people who were not happy with the church starting in New Lebanon, and they were sure it would fail.  What they didn't figure on were the good cooks among the church congregation.  Those dinners were so good that people from  as far away as Sandy Lake came to eat.  People just couldn't refuse the good cooking and low prices.  In fact, by the following May, the church was able to raise Rev. Fradenburgh's salary to $12.00 per Sunday, from the original $10.00.  In addition to that, the church took on a missionary effort that was known as "The Near-East Relief."
  As winter time rolled around, the New Lebanon Community Church couldn't have their council meetings at the church because the church was simply too cold, so the church's meetings were held in the upstairs area of the old school auditorium.  As the winter grew colder, the church purchased two new coal stoves, as well as cleaning and repairing two  rooms downstairs for the suppers.  This included a kitchen to cook in and a dining room-fellowship hall combination.  Electricity was just coming to New Lebanon in those days and one of the men from the church, a Mr. Leedy, notified the church council that he would see to it that the electric company set poles so that the new church would have electricity.
  Things had certainly improved for the new church from it's humble beginnings.  By the time the second annual meeting rolled around, The  Ladies Aid reported a balance of $112.00, and the church treasury showed a balance of $84.00.  The following year (at the third annual meeting) even the Sunday School had a balance of $42.00, while the Ladies Aid had over $500.00 pass through their treasury.  The church had brought in $845.73.
  Some of us today think that it was our generation that allowed equal opportunity for women.  That certainly wasn't the way it was in this new church in New Lebanon.  In the minutes from August 21, 1926, Mr. Finch was made the chief usher; but interestingly, he was told to appoint assistant ushers. Two were to be male, and two were to be female.  The motion was approved by the congregation.
  It was now time for a new pastor for the New Lebanon Community Church, since Rev. Fradenburgh had resigned in March of 1928.  The second pastor called by the new church was Rev. Phipps from Sharon, Pa.  We do know that there was at least one person who wasn't too happy with the new Rev. Phipps.  His name was Ivar Jones.  Mr. Jones had always been a generous man with his money and had $20.00 he wanted to give to the
Church.  In those days, that was a small fortune.  But Mr. Jones was so upset with Rev. Phipps that he made the church council promise that the money wouldn't go to the preacher under any circumstances.  Well, in those days there were no indoor conveniences.  But out back there was a small brick building which had been in use since the school days of the McElwain Institute, and it was badly in need of repair.  Te money Mr. Jones gave to the church was used to repair this little house (That building is still standing to this day).  From that day on it was called "The Jones House."  
 
   Rev. Phipps then left the church, and for a short time R. E. Lavely, a professor from Allegheny College in Meadville, was the pastor.  Then came a Rev. McKinley from Polk.  Both of these men were with the church for a short time and it seemed like the church council just couldn't find a man that would really stay and help build the church.
  It was during these difficult years that a Rev. Gordon was installed as the minister, and he remained for 10 years.  The bonus was that it was during Rev. Gordon's years serving the church, that the New Lebanon Community Church really began to move ahead.
  The church was full of enthusiastic children.  The Christian Endeavor had a membership at any given time, of between 25 and 40 young people.  Many of churches used the Christian Endeavor program and numerous contests were set up among these churches, especially in the area of music and speaking skills.  These contests were church builders, as each church invited many members to come and support their churches and children.
  Our church had been growing and prospering during these years of hard work and devotion.  It was during the years of Rev. Gordon that the New Lebanon Community Church did what the rest of the community believed couldn't be done.  The church mortgage was paid off.  It was a historic moment.  Here is the text of a local newspaper article at that time.

  Community Church Dedicated
  The remodeled and greatly improved building of the New Lebanon Community Church was dedicated Sunday morning, July 13, 1940, by it's pastor, Rev. S. M. Gordon, at a service attended by a congregation of members and friends, which taxed the buildings capacity.
  The former McElwain Institute building, which is owned by the church, had never before been dedicated, although it has been in use as a church for several years.  It was announced that not only the property, but the equipment is free of debt, although improvements just completed include a new auditorium on the ground floor.
  Homer Stainbrook, treasurer of the repair fund, stated for this work the congregation and friends had contributed cash, labor and gifts, totally more than $1,500.00, leaving unpaid bills of $125.00  This was quickly provided for by voluntary gifts of the congregation and friends in attendance July 13th, together with a surplus for the treasury.
  The trustees presented the church to the pastor for dedication and he took as his text Psalm 122: "I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord."  Dr. Gordon emphasized that the most valuable factors of the church are not material, but spiritual and invisible, and come from the heart.  He praised the congregation for its fine spirit of enterprise and sacrifice.
  The entire service was brief and simple and included special music.
  There were many wonderful moments to remember in those days.  As just one example, on a warm Sunday morning, all of the congregation made its way across the lawn to Mill Creek.  There, the congregation watched, with filled hearts and tearful eyes, as each of the Plants family was immersed in that cold, flowing stream.  It was an exciting moment for all who were there.  One of those baptized that day was Billy Plants, who went on to become a missionary to the Indians in Nevada.  His son Rev. Walter Plants, continues in that ministry to this day, and the New Lebanon Community Church, after all these years, still supports his work there.
   It was the 1940’s, and the church was on an  uphill climb again. If you will remember, the Methodist Church Conference had been giving the New Lebanon Community Church a hard time.  First, they refused to give their old congregation the insurance money when the local church burned down. Second, they told the pastor of the Methodist church, that if he preached at the New Lebanon Community Church, they would cut off his pension. Well what goes around, comes around (you’ll see what we mean later in the story.)
   In 1944, the New Lebanon Community church had survived and grew over the previous 20 years, with no help from the Methodist Church Conference. Now that the church was well established, the Methodist Church Conference wanted  to annex the church as a Methodist Church. There was no chance of that happening.
  The next pastor to come was Lloyd McKinley.  He was the young pastor that was told years before by the Methodist Church Conference that he had better never preach in our church or he would lose his pension.  Well, in the intervening years, Rev. McKinley had fallen on some hard times. Because of family problems, he was expelled from the Methodist Conference just when he was nearing retirement.  His health was very poor and he was indeed in need of a helping hand.  However the Methodist Conference told him that if he could find a church somewhere that would let him preach for one year, he would receive his retirement.  Since Rev. Gordon, the current pastor at New Lebanon Community Church was to old to continue his ministry; our church let Rev. McKinley preach for us for one year.
   While most would look at this charitable act on the New Lebanon Community Church as simply being the “Christian thing to do,”  God didn’t look at it that way.  At the end of one year, Rev. McKinley  introduced the church to a Rev. Alan Lee.  The church hired Rev. Lee, and he served us for seventeen years.  It ended up being one of the most important steps ever taken by the church. Rev. Lee was the first true, nondenominational pastor the church ever had.  He was a great spiritual man, and was gifted when it came to handling money. During his tenure at the church, he gave oversight to a nearly complete remodeling of the church building, without ever going in debt. The basement was opened up, and classrooms, a kitchen and a fellowship room added. The missionary effort was extended, and prayer meetings were begun. It was a time of growing, giving and sharing.  As  seventeen years came to a close, Rev. Lee also felt he had too, reached the age to step down and retire from our church.
   It was not until he was gone that the church realized what a difficult task it would be to replace him. The following years were hard times for the church. No minister seemed to fit the church’s needs. Many men passed through the pulpit during the 1960’s.  One of those men was pastor Freeburg.  He was the first full-time pastor of the New Lebanon Community Church.  It was during his time here that a beautiful parsonage was built.
   In 1971, Bill Merritt was introduced to the congregation by the pulpit committee as a fill-in layman, while other men were brought in several Sundays a month as candidates for the job.  As the Sundays passed, it became obvious that Rev. Merritt was the man the church wanted to fill the pulpit.  He worked for the telephone company, and he had a 45 minute drive one-way, each time he came to New Lebanon. As the time passed, the church encouraged Bill Merritt to come full-time in 1977.  Rev. Merritt and his family spent many good years as the pastor of the New Lebanon Community Church, and after 22 years of service, he retired in November of  1993.
   After Rev. Merritt’s retirement, Pastor John Sentgeorge assumed the pulpit.  He and his wife and their three children served until June of 1996.
   The next to serve was Pastor Jeffrey Stivason.  He served the church until November of 1998.
   In March of 1999, Pastor Kevin Eshleman was called as the new pastor.  They came here from Michigan and served for just over three years.
    Serving as the next pastor was Dr. Richard Steinlechner. 
Our present pastor is Rev. Virginia Gadsby.
   The Lord has indeed blessed the New Lebanon Community Church.