A house divided will never stand.
The congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church spent the last century and a half proving the converse of this Gospel of Matthew passage is also true. They’ve followed Rev. Robert Sauers’ lead, collaborating to preserve their beloved church.
“We’ve worked hard,” Sauers said. “But we had a lot of fun.”
The church at the top of Center Street has thrived for 150 years in Hughestown. Today, Sunday, Oct. 20, the congregation celebrates the church’s founding in 1863. Today is also Sauers’ 87th birthday.
Sauers, who has tried retiring at least twice, still leads some services at St. Peter’s. He was St. Peter’s full-time pastor from 1956 until 1992 when he formally retired.
Sauers is a walking history of the church. He plucks dates and names out of the air with striking precision. The first church building was built in October of 1863, he said, shortly after the first congregation of Germans and German-speaking Swiss gathered under the Lutheran credo. The first building was lifted from its foundation and moved down the street in 1897 when it became the Hughestown town hall. A new church building was built in the same place, at the corner of Rock and Center streets.
In 1960, under Sauers’ care, the church building was expanded and wrapped in gray bricks. Its spire stands exactly 95-feet tall, Sauer said. His spindly frame stands erect like the the steeple upon which he affectionately gazes.
Ruth Orr, fiery and proud, stopped attending St. Peter’s only when her husband’s factory job moved them to Michigan for eight years. She’s since returned and resumed membership at the church where she was raised and married.
“I walk to church many a Sunday when I am able,” Orr, 88, said. She lives two blocks from St. Peter’s on the same street where she grew up. She pointed out pieces of the old building, evidence of her commitment to the church and integral parts of its form and function. The red and white vestments draped over the furniture of worship? Orr sewed them by hand.
“Soup paid for this carpeting,” Orr said, explaining the church women’s group sold countless pots of soup to raise money for the deep red carpet, now of a bygone fashion, but meticulously maintained like everything else in the building.
Sauers pointed to the wide, tall walls made of wooden paneling. He said the men of the church put them up together during the renovations. Above the altar, they took extra care and many hours to cut each paneling piece to fit around an arched blessing that reads, “Draw nigh unto God and he will draw nigh unto you,” taken from the book of James. The arch has not been changed or moved for nearly 100 years.
The short wall around the altar is made of solid oak, and inscribed with early-church symbols for Jesus and Christ. Sauers said they paid a bargain price for the oaken wall. Even 50 years ago, $450 for the fine craftsmanship, was cheap. The pieces were built by a church member who was also a partner with Pittston Lumber down the street.
During remodeling, Sauers meticulously managed the stained-glass window design. Each one is thoughtfully placed for church members to contemplate important incidents of Jesus’ life and the church’s communion with God. In the window depicting the resurrection, Jesus’ knee is bent slightly. Sauers said it shows Christ at the pivotal moment when he took his final step out of the grave.
Attendance has slimmed over the years. Sauers said he used to pack them in 200 strong for each of the two Sunday services. The church has fewer than 100 active members now, said Lois Pierce, the church’s finance officer.
Members said their struggle to fill pews each week is shared in churches of all denominations around the country. Attendance is on the decline, but as a Lutheran Church, only the local congregation may decide whether to continue services.
Pierce raised her daughters in St. Peter’s. Her girls were married there and baptized her grandchildren in the church’s baptismal font. She remembered years ago when Christmas Eve services brought everyone together for one service.
“On Christmas Eve you’d come early just so you can get a seat,” Pierce said, at which point Orr chimed in.
“God help you if you were in someone else’s seat,” she said.