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Noblestown chuch's history is that of the common man

Thursday, December 18, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Noblestown Presbyterian is a plain little church at a sharp bend in a village road, the sort of building most people would pass by without a second look, or even a first.

Noblestown Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1853. About 65 people attended services there most Sundays. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Clad in aluminum siding, it doesn't advertise itself as the oldest frame church with a continuous congregation in Allegheny County, but that, says the Rev. Robert Larimer, is what it is.

"I've checked out all the Allegheny County churches," Larimer said on a tour of the building. "I believe this is the oldest," based on an investigation of construction dates.

It is a distinction of some importance to Larimer, a soft-spoken man who gave the best years of his life to the church, arriving at age 29 in 1962 and staying until 1998. Larimer is retired now and living in Blair County and Florida, but he is still keeper of the Noblestown flame, having written and published histories of both the church and the surrounding village, which climbs a hillside above Robinson Run.

Completed in the summer of 1853, the church is 150 this year. It has survived long stretches without a pastor, a 1902 Easter Sunday tornado that blew out the windows and poked holes in the roof, and a 1914 bank balance of 66 cents.

The congregation -- farmers, coal miners, homemakers, steelworkers, teachers, nurses, attorneys -- endured.

"This history was written with plain, ordinary persons in mind, many of whose forebears made this history. Their story is not heroic or dramatic, but it is notable and should be heard," Larimer writes in the introduction to his history of Noblestown, pieced together from letters, memoirs and oral histories he has gathered. It was printed on the occasion of the North Fayette community's 200th anniversary in 1996.

Its story begins in the 1770s, when surveyor George Vallandigham and his brother-in-law, Richard Noble, purchased 1,000 acres from the colony of Virginia, which then claimed much of Western Pennsylvania. They built a log house and spent the next year clearing the land before returning to Maryland for their families. With them came Richard's father, Joseph, who built a log chapel between 1772 and 1778 on his share of the land, with the hope of establishing an Episcopal church in a building that also would be open to other denominations. There were, however, more Scots and Scots-Irish than Anglicans in the region, which is why his son, town founder William Henry Noble, eventually gave the chapel and two town lots to the local Presbyterians.

The Presbyterians at Noblestown were Seceders, meaning they traced their beginnings to the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine's 1733 break with the Church of Scotland over its insistence that only property owners could choose pastors in a country where, the Seceders said, there were 30 unlanded people for every landed one.

Despite their power-to the-people bent, the early Seceders were strict in their worship, allowing the recital of psalms but not the singing of hymns. Their house of worship, which they called a meeting house, was equally plain and, like a Quaker meeting house, lacked a steeple. Even today there are only two stained-glass windows in the building, likely installed during the 1910 renovation, when the church interior was partitioned with Mission-style paneling faux-grained to resemble oak.

Parishioners worship at last Sunday's service, which the current pastor, the Rev. Patricia Giles-Petrosky, says usually attracts about 65 people.(John Heller, Post-Gazette)

From a metal box in the "history room" that houses the church's informal archive, Larimer lifts yellowed membership lists of those who paid stipends to rent pews (and thereby pay the minister) through the years, names with old-country ties like Cochran, Wallace, McClelland and Walker.

Ministers, when they could be found, often were shared with one or more other congregations. In the early days they came from Scotland or Northern Ireland, later from the local seminaries.

Larimer's church history is based in part on one written in 1876 by one of his predecessors, the man who was pastor when the church was built. That inspired him, as did the desire to know more about other ministers who came before him.

"Plus, I had a strong admiration for the miners," Larimer said. "A lot of French and Belgian people came here in the early part of the [20th] century, mainly because they had worked in the mines in Europe and thought they would have a better life here."

Their children might find that better life, but the miners themselves struggled. Larimer recounts several of their stories, including that of French-born Tom DeLaney, who at about age 11 went into the mine with his father. DeLaney, father of eight children, worked in the mine six days a week, and evenings as a janitor at the nearby Sturgeon Hotel, until his death at 49.

"The mine was across the railroad track," Larimer said. "The entrance was just behind the house where Barbara Rockefeller was born. Of course, it's been closed for 50 years."

Yes, the Fayette Coal Co.'s mine is gone, as is the so-called Panhandle Railroad that ran by it, replaced by the Panhandle Trail, a spur of the Montour Trail. The frame house where Jievute Paulekiute lived is still there, as are a few other miners' houses that line Scotch Hill Road.

As a child, Paulekiute moved with her Lithuanian immigrant parents to Chicago and later changed her name to Barbara Sears. "Bobo," as she was called, was a voluptuous blonde who briefly became a model and actress before marrying Standard Oil heir Winthrop Rockefeller in 1948. They had a son, now Arkansas Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, and divorced in 1954.

Oil had touched the region in a more significant way before, with a Pennsylvania crude strike in the summer of 1890. By November 1891, 1,200 oil wells had been drilled in and around Noblestown. Four months later the rush was over, and little evidence of it survives.

That the church is on winding Noblestown Road, which begins in Pittsburgh's West End, indicates the town's former stature as a destination. Postmaster Mabel Craig, who lived in Noblestown for more than 90 years and whose memoir Larimer draws from, recalled how people came from miles around to trade in "Pa" Hoffman's general store. There also was a butcher, a barber, two blacksmith shops and the Pan-Handle Hotel, where many travelers spent the night.

Noblestown, which Larimer estimates is home to about 200 people, is the fourth-oldest village in the county, after Pittsburgh, Elizabeth and McKeesport, and there are a handful of red-brick Georgian houses to show for it. One is the circa-1800 home of William Henry Noble, which still stands on the hilltop above the church.

"Produce Christians; Build Character; Make Americans" -- the church's motto in 1942 -- sounds like an invitation to procreate on the eve of the baby boom. But its own attendance, which was about 17 when Larimer took over in 1962, peaked at 75 in the 1970s, then leveled off at about 40.

The current pastor, the Rev. Patricia Giles-Petrosky, sees about 65 people at church most Sundays. They support her full-time work, as do the bequests of several deceased members. Giles-Petrosky spends mornings in the church and, in the afternoons and evenings, makes home and hospital visits.

"You're never going to find flashy programs in Noblestown, but you are going to find rock-solid faith and spirituality," she said. "We love each other in this place and care for each other in this community."

"How quiet everybody kept on Sabbath Day," Craig recalled in her memoir. "If a wagon went past, it caused much comment."

Most of the traffic on Noblestown Road no longer causes comment, and, except on Sunday mornings, most of it passes the town by.


Post-Gazette staff writer Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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