Sugarcreek First United Church of Christ celebrating 200 years

Sugarcreek First United Church of Christ celebrating 200 years
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Sugarcreek’s First United Church of Christ — the “church on the hill” — is celebrating its 200th anniversary in September.

                        

The United States was just 45 years old and Ohio only 18 when what is now known as Sugarcreek’s First United Church of Christ was established. Through the dreams and hard work of a few pioneering families, the faith of generations to come and the grace of God, the “church on the hill” is celebrating its 200th anniversary in September.

In 1820 David Seltonright, Ernest Deetz and Henry Corsor, as elders in trust, purchased an acre and a half in what is now known as Auburn Township, Tuscarawas County from Mr. and Mrs. Michael Frock. The land was to be used as the site for a place of worship for the German Reformed and German Lutheran churches. The cost of the parcel was just $4.25.

These men and Daniel Keyser and Andrew Myers were largely responsible for overseeing the building of what was probably the first church in the township. When the small log building was finished, the call went out for a man to preach and minister to the church community. That call was answered by the Rev. William Reiter of Stark County, who preached his first sermon to the German American parishioners of both denominations in June 1821.

Reiter was later joined by Rev. Abraham Snyder, who ministered to the Lutheran worshippers. Both served at what was known as the Seltonright Church. Although the exact site of the church is not known today, it is thought to have been 3 miles southwest of Sugarcreek, where some grave markers from the Seltonright Cemetery are still visible.

Reiter performed his first sermon on Sept. 23, 1821, the date used by the Sugarcreek United Church of Christ to commemorate its origin.

In the mid-1850s came Rev. J.G. Zahner, who served as pastor for more than 40 years and is still the longest-serving pastor of the church. Among Zahner’s accomplishments were the establishment of a vibrant Sunday School program and a ladies’ Christian society that continued through the years under various names.

Rev. Henry A. Clausing became pastor in 1911, and during his early years, a new constitution was adopted, a building fund for a new church building was established and work began on a lot purchased from A.M. Mast near the border of Sugarcreek and Shanesville townships, the site of the current church. The last service of the first brick church on the hill in Shanesville was held May 3, 1914, after which the entire congregation processed to the new church building.

As was true of most of the nation, things were difficult in the early years of Rev. Otto Zechiel’s term. The Great Depression resulted in lower attendance because people were unwilling to participate if they couldn’t contribute or afford to dress appropriately. The pastor voluntarily reduced his salary, as did the janitor. Despite the cutbacks, the church continued its work in the community.

In late 1945 Rev. Otto B. Moore became pastor. Membership reached 550 in number with over 300 enrolled in Sunday School and many physical improvements to the facilities. Moore died suddenly in 1950 and was succeeded by Rev. E. Harold Klingel, who continued guiding the church in physical improvements including paving the parking lots and breaking ground in 1957 for the long-needed education building, which provided space for new Sunday School classrooms, a fellowship hall and a kitchen.

Also in 1957, the United Church of Christ was created through the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed and the Congregational Christian churches. And so it was that in June of that year, the “church on the hill” became The First United Church of Shanesville. The name changed for the final time to The First United Church of Sugarcreek when the villages of Sugarcreek and Shanesville merged on Jan. 1, 1968.

The new three-story education building was dedicated in 1959, just a few months after Rev. Arnold H. Klaiber became pastor. He and his family were the first residents of a new parsonage completed in 1966. That home continues to house the church ministers and their families today.

The next full-time pastor called to First Church was Rev. Carlan Helgeson, who began his ministry in 1993. Ten years later one of the most memorable events in the history of the Sugarcreek First United Church of Christ occurred. During a thunderstorm on March 13, 2003, lightning struck the church steeple, knocking out the power and starting a fire that drew many local fire departments.

Fire and water damage destroyed the church, but the education building was saved. Before the building was razed to make way for new construction, a group of church members salvaged what they could. The Father Zahner Memorial Window, a beloved part of the church since its installation in 1900, commemorated the ministry of long-serving Pastor J.G. Zahner. Remarkably, the window survived the fire and is a focal point of the rebuilt church today.

Since Pastor Carlan’s departure in 2008, the First United Church of Christ has been blessed by the ministries of Rev. Anissa Bacon, Rev. Eric Rummel, Rev. Bernd Weishaupt and currently Rev. Earl Rogers, who took the pulpit in 2017. His ministry has honored the traditions of the past while leading the congregation in new directions.

The church’s 200-year commemoration has included, on the third Sunday of each month, a dedicated time to present a chapter from the history of Sugarcreek First UCC. On Aug. 29, the congregation will host an outdoor service at the Seltonright Church site.

Heritage Week will run from Sept. 12-19. On Sept. 12, a Church on the Hill Music Fest will be held at the sanctuary at 526 W. Main St., starting at 2 p.m., and on Sept. 15 from 5-7 p.m., a Main Street Church Fair will be held in the church parking lot. For those who want to take a walk through the past, a Church Then and Now open house and reception will be held on Saturday, Sept. 18 from 2-5 p.m., and on Heritage Sunday, Sept. 19, a special 200th anniversary service will start at 10 a.m., followed by a lunch reception honoring current and former pastors and 2021 confirmands, just three of the 1,018 young people confirmed in the church’s history since records were kept in 1906.


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