Trinity Lutheran celebrates 125 years of service

Trinity Lutheran Church serves the community from its building on Califrnia Avenue in Avalon. Story and Photo by Nancy Whyte for The Citizen

This year, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Avalon is celebrating its quasquicentennial anniversary; it has been 125 years since the laying of the cornerstone of the original Trinity Lutheran Church in Avalon.

The Gothic architecture building, which stands along Avalon's California Avenue, was dedicated on the last Sunday of 1917, a year that marked the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, which began in 1517 with the publication of Martin Luther's “95 Theses.” The current structure replaced the original church building, built in 1894, which had become too small for a growing congregation that numbered 306 in 1916. After much debate as to whether to relocate to a new site, possibly in Bellevue, or to remain at its current location and build a new structure, it was decided to remain there. The church purchased 30 adjoining feet from the Borough of Avalon for $3,000.

According to a December, 1917 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, the church, which cost $46,000 to build, is noted for its unique architectural structure. The base and Sunday school walls are constructed of reinforced concrete, and the superstructure is of Vermont gray sandstone. The interior walls of the auditorium are of buff brick laid with vermillion joints. A high arch graces the entrance to chancel, and the ceiling beams are exposed. The capacity of the church was stated as 475 and the Sunday school room, 550.

Eleven pastors have been called to Trinity Lutheran Church. One pastor, the Reverend George B. Tejan served for well over 50 years.

Due to a lack of funds, Trinity Lutheran Church nearly closed in 2005; in fact, the bishop was scheduled to perform the closing service the last week of June. However, Trinity was approached by members of the newly formed Faith Community Christian Church with an offer to pay rent and share the building, and have a joint minister and combined Sunday school classes. The five years of tenancy allowed Trinity to survive financially. In 2010, Faith Community Christian Church relocated.

There are currently no full-time paid employees at Trinity; the church relies on members of the congregation to volunteer for all tasks and activities. Officers of the congregation include Russell North as president, Janice Jeletic as vice president and the treasurer is Inez Stauffer. Lois Neely is the office secretary; previously a paid position, Neely now volunteers her services. The upkeep of the building and paying the utility bills are met through the generosity of a “very resourceful congregation,” explained Jeletic.

The church means a lot to its congregants, who feel like members of one big family.

“It's the only church I've ever known,” said Neely. “My parents were married by Tejan.”

Rev. Scott Bryte has served as Trinity's local interim pastor for several years. That means, that in addition to his full-time work as pastor of Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Ross Township, he also provides pastoral care for Trinity congregants by visiting the sick and shut-ins and conducting weddings, baptisms and funerals. Bryte doesn’t preach at Trinity on Sundays; instead each week, worship leaders, both lay and ordained, deliver the sermon.

To meet the church's goal of assisting others, Jeletic stated that the congregation is always trying to figure out what the community needs.

“God's work; our hands,” explained Russell, quoting a simple but sincere Lutheran slogan that concisely encompasses their mission and is often seen on motivational t-shirts.

Raising money for the assistance programs provided by the church is an arduous task. Most area residents are familiar with Avalon's annual Apple Blossom Festival, and it is through that event that Trinity fund-raises. The Apple Blossom Festival was originally begun years ago by Avalon Borough Council, but after a while, the event had been discontinued. However, after a long lag, Trinity congregant Denny Brown suggested the church reinstate the festival. Thus, with the assistance of Avalon Council, the Apple Blossom Festival began again and has grown into the well-attended and fun annual event to which area residents look forward. Each May, vendors line California Avenue near the church and borough building, and attendees enjoy crafted items, baked goods and food treats, purchase books from the Avalon Library's book sale, and kids of all ages are enthralled by visiting and feeding farm animals at the petting zoo.

In 19 years of running the Apple Blossom Festival, Trinity has raised over $66,000, which is used to sponsor and help finance community programs. At least 50 percent of the proceeds of the one-day event is given to local programs that assist the community, such as North Hills Community Outreach, Meals on Wheels, The Shepherd’s Door in Bellevue and Avalon's The DoorWay.

The list of additional beneficiaries of Trinity's assistance is quite lengthy. It includes baking cookies for Meals on Wheels; collecting non-perishable food items for the food pantry of North Hills Community Outreach (previously at Bellevue's Suburban but now at Greenstone United Methodist Church in Avalon); helping with activities of Avalon NOW! such as clean-up day and the community Christmas event; and supporting activities of Avalon Public Library, particularly at the Touch a Truck event.

Another popular event Trinity supports is the Great Avalon Yard Sale. The community-wide sale generally occurs the Saturday before Labor Day. For a $10 donation to the church, sellers can have their yard sale listed on a map that the church gives out to “treasure-seekers” on the morning of the event. Sometimes the church provides coffee and donuts to fuel the buyers.

Additionally, Trinity provides Thanksgiving food baskets and distributes Christmas gifts for needy families; collects socks, mittens and gloves that are given to Avalon Elementary students; hosts a Girl Scout troop; and has sponsored “Family Nights” of supper and fun activities. Trinity also provides the free pancake breakfast served at the Apple Blossom Festival.

For a number of years, Brown – nicknamed “Mr. Evangelical” -- has run the Welcome Wagon that greets Avalon's new homeowners. He provides the newcomers with a booklet of information about Avalon as well as giving them an apple pie (the name Avalon means “island of apples” and is derived from “afal,” the Welsh term for apple.)

Each Sunday, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church holds worship services and Sunday school at 9 a.m. Throughout the year, additional special services are held on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Each Wednesday evening during Lent, there is a special evening service with a light supper served. Bible study occurs twice a month, except during the summer. Vacation Bible school is held each June. New participants are always welcome to attend and participate in any activity.

This year, Trinity held a joint vacation Bible school with Greenstone United Methodist Church and with assistance from Berkley Hills Lutheran Church. This allowed for the sharing of resources. The event was held at Trinity, and volunteers from each of the three churches participated. Pastor Heather Lubold of Berkeley Hills was the leader of VBS. Children attending came from Avalon and Bellevue and enjoyed a meal before the activities, which were followed by a snack. The program was “Who is my neighbor?” and was based on the story of the Good Samaritan. The theme took the children on a “journey” through Malawi, Columbia, the U.S. and Japan.

Many people are surprised to learn that Trinity has its own cemetery. And no, it's not squeezed along California Avenue. Two acres of land tucked away in Ben Avon Heights was given to the congregation by parishioner George Erdner Sr. in 1901, and he donated an additional adjoining two acres shortly before his death in 1915. The cemetery is still open and plots may be available for purchase.

Like many churches these days, the number of active members in the congregation of Trinity has decreased considerably, and the the average age of the congregants has increased substantially.

“Back in the day,” reported Jeletic, “we had two worship services with a total of 700 some attendees and the Sunday school rooms were packed with children.” Today, a typical Sunday service may have 20-30 individuals seated in the pews and perhaps a half-dozen children attending Sunday School.

“Society has changed,” North said. “Church is no longer the cornerstone of family life and the community. Sunday morning often has to compete with athletic events and other activities.”

“There are so many unchurched people in the U.S.” as a whole and in local neighborhoods. “We're trying to appeal to them,” Jeletic stated. “We have a hope-filled future.”

This year's quasquicentennial celebration was low-key compared to previous benchmark anniversaries.

Events of the 50th anniversary in 1944 included 50 new members being received into the church during the June 11 service; the finally paid-off mortgage was symbolically burned on a gold platter; the decorating committee planned decorations of gold-colored flower arrangements throughout the church accompanied by many baskets and vases of flowers donated by individuals and organizations; guest pastors spoke; and special music was performed by choirs, quartets, and soloists. Over 900 people were expected to attend each of two worship services, and overflow seating was arranged in the borough hall auditorium.

The week-long list of activities in 1969 scheduled to commemorate Trinity's 75th anniversary included a reception; a strawberry festival; the play “Egad, what a Cad,” presented by the couples club; and a special congregational dinner.

By 1994, celebratory festivities were more modest. The 100th anniversary, according to a Nov. 2, 1994 issue of The Citizen newspaper, was observed over a three-week period. The Nov. 6 service with the Rev. John Haeberle, then pastor of Trinity, was to “remember the founders of the congregation. The following week, on Nov. 13, Donald McCoid, bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was the guest speaker at both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services, and after the second service, a buffet luncheon was held in the church social room. The final event of the church's centennial was a special concert that featured choral music, hymns, solos and instrumentals, beginning at 3 p.m. on Nov. 13. The community was invited to “join the congregation for refreshments” at the concert's conclusion.

To commemorate this year's quasquicentennial, a brunch was held at Trinity on the last Sunday in January, with an assistant to the bishop and other important guests attending. One hundred twenty-five delicious cupcakes were displayed and consumed. Additionally, at the February meeting of the borough council, Avalon Mayor Tom Lloyd read a congratulatory proclamation.

Current members of Trinity believe that God has something planned for the congregation and the community, and that there is a reason why the church wasn't “permitted” to end in 2005.

“We are always looking for new ways to help the community,” summarized Jeletic, “but now we are also looking for assistance in return. Building relationships is what it's about, as well as putting faith into action.”

“We're a small congregation,” stated Brown, “but extremely dedicated to spreading the word of God.”