EDWARDSVILLE — Back in January, Vicki Davenport recalled, the little congregation at Bethesda Congregational Church was almost ready to give up. Membership had dwindled; the pastor had left; and the few stalwart church-goers who remained — the faithful remnant, to use a biblical term — believed their 132-year-old church might have to close.
They figured they had one shot left.
“We placed a classified ad in the newspaper, asking for a new minister for a small church,” said Davenport, who lives in West Wyoming. “And we prayed.”
The advertisement was set to run for 10 days and, for nine long days, there was no response.
“We just kept praying, ‘God you have to help us,’” said church member Betty Lamoreaux, of Edwardsville.
On the 10th day, the phone rang. It was Rocco DeMelfi, a Drums resident who had graduated from the Full Gospel Institute of Coatesville, founded the Hazleton Chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, served on mission trips to Guatemala and, in 2014, was ordained out of the Assemblies of God International Fellowship in San Diego.
His day job as a plumber left him with enough time to volunteer at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Hunlock Creek and with Red Cross disaster teams — and he felt inspired to answer the Bethesda Congregational call as well.
“You saved us,” Lamoreaux told DeMelfi.
“No, God did that,” DeMelfi told her. “It had to be a God thing. I was just obedient.”
The first Sunday he led a service at Bethesda — it may have been Jan. 28 or Feb. 4 — the new pastor found a small flock. “There were six people here,” he said, “and with the three I brought, it was nine.”
From that small nucleus, church members are determined to see the congregation grow. They’re optimistic too.
“The thing that impressed me the most here was the love,” said Mary DeMelfi, the pastor’s wife. “Anybody who walks through the door is greeted and welcomed.”
The congregation is like a family, said member Izzy Erwin, of Luzerne.
“We get together and come down and clean the church. It’s fun,” Erwin said, adding that if an elderly person needs a ride to services, someone will pick him up.
If church members are cleaning in their role as “the mop squad” or working outside in their role as “the sod squad,” another member is bound to bring them pizza and coffee.
“It’s like our second home,” Erwine said of the church. Reconsidering, she corrected herself. “It’s our first home, really.”
Recent weeks have seen an uptick in attendance, with maybe two dozen people attending the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service in the historic church building at 37 Zerby Ave.
“Things are looking up, now that ‘Rocky’ is here,” Lamoreaux said.
“We know we’ll hear a good sermon,” Erwine said. Nodding at DeMelfi, she added, “Like ‘knock on wood.’”
“Knock on wood” was part of a recent sermon in which DeMelfi described the common phrase and action as a prayerful symbol of Jesus’ wooden cross.
The church’s community outreach includes collecting food, clothing and paper products for various charities. Members hope to soon finalize plans for a church-sponsored ice cream social as well as Bible study.
The church traces its history to 1885, when some members of the nearby Welsh Congregational Church wanted sermons in English rather than Welsh. They built Bethesda Congregational Church on Zerby Avenue, and dedicated it on Oct. 16, 1886.
Reminders of church history can be found throughout the building, from the list of members who served “God and country” during World War I, which is engraved above an entrance way, to the collection of trophies and photos from the days when there were enough members to fill a bowling or basketball team.
A clock high on the wall in the sanctuary marks where the water reached during the flood Hurricane Agnes brought to the Wyoming Valley in 1972.
Remembering the clean-up, Lamoreaux said, “We scrubbed the little ridges in the woodwork with toothbrushes.”
The church has always had members who pitched right in; now Pastor DeMelfi and pianist/organist Joe Schwingen, whom DeMelfi recruited as musician, both say they would volunteer their services, but the congregation insists on giving them “a little gift” for gas money.
It all seems to be working out for good, Davenport said, adding she believes she found confirmation in a large, old Bible in the lower level of the church.
“Something told me to open it (to a ribbon book marker) and it was the Book of Nehemiah,” she said. “Nehemiah was rebuilding God’s temple, and we’re rebuilding God’s temple, God’s church, too.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.