A thriving church is the second oldest on theWestern Reserve.
By TRACEY D'ASTOLFO
POLAND -- Two hundred years ago, settlers moving to the wilderness of Northeast Ohio began building a town.
They set aside land for a Presbyterian church on what was to become the Village Green in Poland.
On May 5, that church, Poland Presbyterian, celebrates its bicentennial.
"What has made a difference in the history of Poland Presbyterian is its staying power," said the Rev. Dr. Robert P. Hoover, the church's pastor.
The Rev. Dr. Hoover has written a booklet outlining the history of the church.
In 1796, former Connecticut soldiers were offered plots of land in the state's Western Reserve -- land that was to become Northeast Ohio. These veterans named their new home Poland in honor of the Polish generals who had aided the Connecticut army during the Revolutionary War.
A visiting minister's diary reported five houses in the town in 1801. In May 1802, Poland Presbyterian church was founded.
"It is the second oldest Christian faith community in the Connecticut Western Reserve," said Dr. Hoover. The oldest is First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, formed in 1799.
The first worship services in Poland were held in a grove of trees, with logs and planks as seating. In 1804, a log church was built on the Village Green.
At the same spot
Remarkably, the church has remained at the same location for two centuries, although it is now housed in its fourth building.
A white frame church was constructed in 1828, a brick building in 1855, and the current stone structure was built in 1897.
The bell that was bought for the church in 1850 remains in the church's bell tower today.
Dr. Hoover notes that the church was an important factor in the daily lives of the settlers. Its board served as a municipal court, and church ministers often educated the children.
Evidence of the church's influence in Poland's early school system remains today. In 1830, a Presbyterian minister opened a school in Poland to prepare children for higher learning in colleges and universities. The school, located on College Street, near the current middle school, came to be known as Lee's Academy. President McKinley graduated from the school in 1859.
In 1862, after a financial reorganization, the school was renamed Poland Union Seminary. By 1870 the school was on the verge of financial ruin, and the church's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Algernon S. McMaster, persuaded the Mahoning Presbytery to take it on as a mission cause.
The presbytery agreed, with one of the stipulations being that the name of the school was not to be changed.
In June1909, the church's role as educators in the town came to an end as Poland public schools merged with Poland Union Seminary, but the high school's name, Poland Seminary High, remains as testimony of the church's dedication to the school.
Dr. Hoover said another unique aspect of the church is the length of time pastors serve at the church. In its 200 years, the church has installed only 16 pastors.
"It's sort of known that if you show up in Poland you're going to put down roots and stick around a while," said Dr. Hoover, who has served as pastor since 1987.
Dr. Hoover pointed out that most pastors of Poland Presbyterian have served at least 10-year stints. The Rev. Dr. Hugh Gunn, who still lives in Poland, and Dr. McMaster both served as pastor of the church for 24 years.
In preparation for the anniversary celebration the church has been investing in renovations and repairs, much of it funded by donations from church members.
"It's been a five-year spruce-up for the bicentennial. Everyone deserves to put on a new shirt or blouse for their birthday, and this is the church's 200th birthday," said Dr. Hoover. "It's been an investment of over $700,000, but there isn't a dime of indebtedness."
What's been done
Some of the renovations included installing pew cushions and a new roof and restoring the stained-glass windows. The church also bought a Holtkamp pipe organ two years ago.
There are two Sunday morning services set for the May 5 anniversary celebration, at 9 and 11 a.m.
Dr. Freda Gardner will speak at both services. Gardner is a professor emeritus of Christian education at Princeton Seminary and a former moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, the highest elected office in the church.
Dr. Hoover said that, to his knowledge, it will be the first time a moderator has spoken in Poland.
"In light of the intertwining of the cornerstones of church and school in Poland, having a renowned Christian educator speak seems appropriate," he said.
Guest artist Larry Harris, organist at First Presbyterian Church, will provide music at the services, featuring the new pipe organ.
"Also, the three living pastors of the church will all be here -- Dr. Gunn, Dr. George Mehaffey, and yours truly -- so it will be a three-pastor Sunday," said Dr. Hoover.
A public bicentennial seminar is scheduled at the church next Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. with Dr. John Burgess, a theologian from Pittsburgh Presbyterian Theological Seminary, with the topic "How shall we confess Christ today?"