A History Of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church

In answer to many requests for a brief history of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, this pamphlet was prepared by Elder J. Horace McGinnity in 1958.

The history of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church begins with the year 1819, but its roots extend back into the preceding decade. Into the East Liberty valley had come sterling Scotch Irish settlers who brought with them their Calvinistic teachings. Destined to be a leader in the future religious life of the community was Jacob Negley, a descendant of John Negley, an associate of the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, who in part laid the groundwork on which John Calvin was to build his theological system.

Some time between 1810 and 1819, Jacob Negley had built a comfortable frame school house on the present Church site. Here early religious services were held.

In 1816 the Pittsburgh and Greensburg turnpike was constructed through the small village of East Liberty. Mr. Negley wanted a hundred foot road all the way into Pittsburgh, but others, with less vision, thought this an extravagant use of land. Mr. Negley, however, did see to it that the road carried that width through his and his wife's property. From this determination on his part, the present Church has its fine Penn Avenue frontage.

On April 12, 1819, Jacob Negley and his wife, Barbara Negley, conveyed to certain persons in trust for the East Liberty congregation, one and one-half acres of ground where the present Church stands, this being the very choicest part of their lands. It was to be held for a "Meeting House, School House and Graveyard."

Although the lot was given, and the House of Worship which was immediately erected was for a Presbyterian congregation, the religious services held there were general and there was no stated worship in it strictly according to the Presbyterian form until February, 1828.

In that year the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church commissioned the Reverend John Joyce to "publish the Gospel in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh." He chose East Liberty as his immediate field of work, and on Sabbath, September 28, 1828, the First Presbyterian Church of East Liberty (the name being later changed to its present title) was duly organized according to the constitution and discipline of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. Having planted the young Church, Mr. Joyce left its growth in other hands and departed for other fields of similar endeavor.

The Reverend Mr. Joyce was a native of Ireland and a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin. It is interesting that now after a lapse of one hundred and thirty years the present pastor of the Church, Dr. Charles P. Robshaw, is a native of Dublin and a graduate of the same Trinity College.

On April 20, 1830, the Reverend William B. McIlvaine, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, was ordained and installed as the first pastor of the Church. His pastorate continued for forty years and was marked by important events. The growth pf be Church is seen in the dedication on July 12, 1848 of the enlarged second House of Worship. At this time Barbara Negley deeded to the Church some additional land. Jacob Negley had by this time passed to his reward.

The opening of the Pennsylvania Railroad five years previously had brought a great influx of people into the East Liberty valley and a larger Church building became necessary.

In 1864, the third House of Worship was erected. It was a stately edifice with its tall spire stretching upward from the corner of Penn and Highland Avenues, although the latter avenue was not opened as a street until 1871. Six years later, the ministry of Dr. McIlvaine came to a close at his request. Truly it could be said of him, "Well done, good and faithful Servant."

On April 26, 1865, the Reverend John Gillespie, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and graduate of Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), had been ordained and installed as co-pastor. This relationship continued until the resignation of Dr. Mcllvaine when Mr. Gillespie assumed the full pastoral duties until January 9, 1882. He had given 17 years of exceptional service to his people.

Following him came the Reverend Benjamin L. Agnew, D.D., who supplied the Church for a period of sixteen months, until April 23, 1884.

The same year, the Reverend J. P. E. Kumler became the fourth pastor of the Church. His ministry lasted seventeen years and was a notable one. It was during his pastorate that East Liberty Church became a great city Church, and with its constantly increasing membership, a crisis was reached. The question was debated as to whether a new Church should be built or the existing structure be enlarged. The decision was reached to erect a new Church.

In September, 1888, the fourth House of Worship was dedicated IR was a beautiful stone building and as one member said, it had a "sheltering and friendly look." It gave renewed inspiration to Dr. Kumler and the congregation, and the Church prospered mightily during the remainder of his ministry which came to a close on April 1, 1901.

On April 22, 1902, the Reverend Frank W. Sneed was installed as fifth pastor of the Church, his ministry extending from that date until April 22, 1920. On the wall of the Chapel in the present Church, with the date of his birth and death are engraved these words: "A man greatly beloved -- mighty in the Scriptures."

On May 13, 1921 the Reverend Stuart Nye Hutchison was installed as the sixth pastor of the Church. As he commenced what was destined to be a great pastorate, he little knew of he important things which lay ahead. Nine years of faithful and fruitful ministry brought a unity to the Church, unsurpassed in its long and eventful history.

Early in 1930, Mr. Richard Beatty Mellon, a grandson of he original donors of the property and a faithful member of the congregation, made known his desire and that of His wife, Jennie King Mellon, that a new Church of cathedral proportions be erected in memory of their parents, to serve as a monument to Presbyterianism in Western Pennsylvania, and to rank among the great Churches of the world.

On April 16, 1930, the congregation met to consider the offer. Truly the old Church had "a sheltering and friendly look," and there were some present on whom the old associations had set a deep and abiding mark. Nevertheless, without a dissenting word, the following resolution was passed: "The congregation of the East Liberty Church, in annual meeting assembled, accepts Mr. and Mrs. Mellon's gift with sincere appreciation and gratitude, and with solemn assurance that the land already dedicated by them and their family, the beautiful structure contemplated by their present generosity, will be held in sacred trust for the worship and glory of Almighty God, and the advancement of His Kingdom."

Cram and Ferguson, the outstanding ecclesiastical architects of America, prepared the plans. Groundwork was commenced on August 18, 1931, and the cornerstone laid by Mr. Mellon, June 19, 1932. On December 1, 1933, Mr. Mellon died suddenly. However, there was no interruption to the building, as his family carried the work to its conclusion.

On May 12, 1935, the work was completed. The architect was Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, and among those whose genius in various artistic fields contributed to the beauty of the edifice were: John Angel, Sculptor (The "Lord's Supper" raredos in the chancel), the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, Charles J. Connick (stained glass), Irving and Casson (woodwork), Alexander Howie (stone and marble work), Edward F. Caldwell (metal work).

(There are several more pictures of the ELPC chancel available for viewing.)
Walking down its central nave, one thinks of the words of the great prophet, "Behold, I will lay thy foundations with sapphires and thy stories with fair colors, and I will make thy windows of agates and all thy borders of pleasant stones."

The keys of the Church were presented by Mr. Mellon's son, Richard King Mellon. Dr. Hutchison preached the dedicatory sermon, "The Church of the Living God." He declared that for a vast and constantly growing multitude this Church edifice would be a powerhouse of spiritual life and energy. It would be, as the prophet said, "as a hiding place from the wind, as a covert from the tempest, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

After twelve more years of active service under enlarged opportunity, busy years, which at times tested his health and strength, Dr. Hutchison sought a well deserved retirement. Many distinctions had come to him and in 1942 the highest honor in the gift of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was bestowed upon him by his election as Moderator of its General Assembly. As Pastor Emeritus his love for and deep interest in the Church continued. On April 5, 1958, this dedicated and distinguished man closed his earthly career. He was laid to rest from the Sanctuary of the Church he loved. His memory will long continue in the minds and hearts of those whose lives touched his.

A word must he said here about the Reverend W. Frank Reber, D.D., who became an Associate in the early years of Dr. Hutchison's ministry here, and whose services continued for fifteen years. He was a man of clear and excellent judgment and his counsel was sought and heeded. He was a "beloved brother and a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord."

On May 4,1947, the Reverend W. Sherman Skinner, D.D. was installed as the seventh pastor of this Church. He was a brilliant pulpit preacher and stood high in the councils of the Presbyterian Church. His ministry, with his Associate, Dr. Ray J. Dollenmayer, continued for eight years. The memory of these men and their talented families will linger long.

On February 21, 1957, the Reverend Charles P. Robshaw, S.T.D. was installed as the eighth pastor of the Church. And now, with Associate Pastors, the Reverend Dr. Donald D. Kettring (Minister of Music), and the Reverend John H. Scott and a full staff of helpers, the Church moves forward to meet the challenge of these changing times. Through all the ages the Christian Church has filled the greatest need of the soul of man. The Church can do it for this generation, and it will do it, if men and women accept its protecting shadow.

To fulfil the desire for a brief history of the Church, only the highlights can be recorded; much of interest has to be atnitted. On January 18, 1944, the congregation erected and dedicated to the memory of Richard B. and Jennie King Mellon the Trinity Memorial Chapel in which their bodies rest. Beautiful in design, it breathes the thought of immortality, of deathless life. It voices to all who pass its portals, that the greatest gift that a man or woman can give to his fellow traveler on the road of life, is that which will in some measure lift the human spirit and satisfy the longing soul in its reach for higher and nobler things.

The Cathedral of Hope 

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