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County's first Presbyterian church celebrates 225 years

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

By Jackie Day

Pewter communion plates, an 1823 maple pulpit chair, stacks of aged records and other historical relics may be all the material evidence remaining from Allegheny County's first Presbyterian church.

But faith and heritage continue to abide among members of the Bethel Presbyterian Church, which will celebrate its 225th consecutive year in worship on Sunday.

And the day circuit preacher John McMillan baptized five babies before a small congregation of settlers in 1776 remains as uplifting to present members beset by terror as it was to Scots-Irish immigrants living on an uncertain, harsh frontier.

"We want to continue the history that was started here and is still here," said Peg Kraft, organizer of the 225th anniversary committee.

She's a 37-year member of Bethel Presbyterian Church, which rests alongside historic Bethel Cemetery on Bethel Church Road in Bethel Park.

Her 12-member committee ranges over many ages beginning with David Ericson, 14. But most of the committee, and the church's 600 members, are what Kraft refers to as "white hairs."

"We've been feeding [David] as much history as we can, because he will be carrying it on," Kraft said.

Original services were conducted in the Oliver Miller Homestead, which still stands in South Park.

Before construction of their first church building, settlers walked for miles to worship in the homes of such influential residents as the Millers. Their first official meeting house was a log cabin erected in 1780 on land purchased by Nathan Couch adjacent to the church's present site, built in 1910.

Bethel's yearlong celebration will conclude Sunday with a traditional service, Scottish dancers, the MacDonald Pipe and Drum Band and a historical presentation. On the side will be historical tales told by Beverly Fife Krieger, whose Fife family lineage goes back to the church's founders.

"Fifes have been members of the church for 225 years," she said. "It's not everyone who can boast about that."

Krieger, who was baptized in the church along with five of her siblings, is the seventh great-granddaughter of founding preacher John McMillan and the great-granddaughter of William James Fife, the first European to settle in what is now Upper St. Clair.

"People kid me a lot," she said. "They say, 'She walks around here like she owns the land.'"

The church's mini historical museum, created by member Anna Connor 40 years ago, showcases many artifacts as well as years of genealogical records that offer members and residents a source for tracing family history. But it's a resource Krieger need not access for her family's heritage, because she and her siblings grew up on family folklore and such heirlooms as letters written by her great-grandfather during the Civil War.

"I was vaccinated on this stuff," she said. "I could fall asleep [reciting] it."

All of her Fife ancestors and her husband and son, Norman Fife Krieger, are buried in the historic Bethel Cemetery where the annual Memorial Day parade in Bethel concludes.

Beverly Krieger is now part of the pastor nominating committee searching for only the 12th Bethel Presbyterian minister over the course of its 225-year existence.

She has summed up her Fife heritage and affiliation with the church in a simple psalm: "The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; thou holdest my lot.

"The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage."

Jackie Day is a free-lance writer.

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