Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen
Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen
The closing of Emanuel's Lutheran Church on North Fremont Avenue in Bellevue marks yet another passing of a long-established house of worship in the North Boroughs. With active membership no longer topping 50, a dramatic falling-off from nearly 600 members in the early 1960s, the congregation simply could no longer meet the expenses of maintaining the gothic-styled church that was dedicated in 1909, with additions and embellishments made throughout the century that followed.
Susan Falk of Brighton Heights, a 25-year member of the congregation, said, "We had a little over 100 people at our final service, but some were previous members who had already joined other churches, pastors from other Lutheran churches, and members of other churches in the North Boroughs."
Falk, who spent many years on the congregational council, serving for several years as president, recalls the church as being "…a wonderful church family and I was blessed over and over again by friends made inside that building. Emanuel's had excellent pastoral leadership throughout the years, a wonderful music program, socials that were well attended by the membership, good Sunday school education for all ages, and until recent years, a congregation comprised of people of all ages."
She noted that she was married at Emanuel's, as were her son and his wife, and that all four of her grandchildren were baptized there.
"We watched many Northgate students baptized within our walls, watched many go off to college, get married, and have their own children baptized."
She continued to recall, "Emanuel's walls contained precious memories of so many people in the North Boroughs and beyond. We had church picnics every year up at Bellevue Memorial Park, often did summer services and socials in the church yard, offered a Wednesday evening service as well as Sunday morning for quite a few years, and were a site for AA groups and Girl Scouts for many years.
One of the things Emanuel's will be remembered for was the Advent Day of Giving. She said that "Members would pick an angel from the 'angel tree' which had the name and Christmas gift suggestion for a child who was in need. The gifts would be wrapped and delivered by members to the places where these children either worshipped or lived and while the wrapping was being done, other members would decorate the church for Christmas, and when membership was larger, some would go caroling either to homes around the church or to the various local places where we had shut-ins. Advent Day of Giving is a very special memory of Emanuel's for me."
Pastor Kirk Bish, now retired, but assisting the Lutheran Synod with the closing of the church, expressed sadness at the end of a century-long house of worship. "In its heyday, "In its heyday, this was a huge church, with very prominent pastors here," he said. "But it got to the point where the congregation just could not afford to keep the church any longer."
He said that the Bellevue church has now been merged with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in McKees Rocks, where Pastor Patricia Bonds, who served as the last pastor at Emanuel's, leads the congregation.
Bish said that members may decide for themselves which church they might wish to attend. The message board in front of the church contains an invitation for congregants to worship at Trinity Lutheran in Avalon.
Church secretary Jenn Robinson said that the building has been turned over to the Southwestern Lutheran Synod for eventual sale, with Pastor Bish tending to details.
Robinson also said that she and other church members are pleased that many of the church's belongings, including items from the sanctuary as well as meeting rooms, have been distributed to Lutheran churches throughout the area.
And wherever the people go, they will take Emmanuel's with them, along with the sentiments expressed by Susan Falk.
"We all share memories of Christmas Eve candlelight services, weddings, baptisms, first communions, and confirmands completing their classes. It was a beautiful sanctuary and I will miss hearing the beautiful church bell ring on Sunday mornings."
Debbie Grimes, the current council president, said that she had been a member at Emanuel's for her entire 63 years, with her father's parents being founding members of the congregation.
"Growing up in the church, especially Emanuel's, was a wonderful experience and one that prepared you for life," Grimes said. "It was not the building, although it is a beautiful building, but the good, hardworking people that filled your life with meaning. We had many committed pastors who worked right alongside the members and were a true inspiration."
She went on to say, "It has been difficult to witness the decline in membership over the years, but we are not the only church to go through this change. To experience the closing has been like the death of a family member. I think we are all in mourning at this time. We understand that we will join and become a part of another church family, but we still grieve our loss."