Bull Creek Presbyterian 'family' celebrates 220th anniversary

2014-09-15 | The Valley News-Dispatch

Sept. 15--Lois Ann Dunbar's great-great-great-grandfather was a founding member of Bull Creek Presbyterian Church in West Deer.

One of 11 original parishioners, Ezekial Miller belonged to Bull Creek at a time in the late 18th century when they were without a church to call home. Services took place outside and often drew crowds of local Native Americans who were spellbound by the songs and rituals so different from their own.

On Sunday, Dunbar stood behind a podium and addressed a crowd of about 120 who gathered in what's now Bull Creek United Presbyterian Church for its 220th anniversary.

The church's beige walls, punctuated with warm-colored stained-glass windows, provide a stark contrast to the Bull Creek known by Miller. The values on which the church's congregation was built, however, have withstood the test of time, Dunbar said.

"This church is, and always has been, very family-oriented," said Dunbar, 83, whose grandchildren represent the eighth generation of her family to belong to the church. "It's something we cherish. I can never forget what my family has done here in past years -- 220 years is a long time."

The church's anniversary celebration kicked off with a morning service led by the Rev. Sheldon Sorge of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. It preceded a 90-minute ceremony in which Bull Creek's pastor, the Rev. William James Legge, commemorated some of the church's longtime servants and touched briefly on the congregation's storied history.

"Our church is not just the oldest in West Deer, but the oldest Presbyterian church west of the Allegheny River and north of the Ohio River in our country," Legge said. "It is quite an accomplishment to have made it this long through all of the challenges."

Since Bull Creek's incorporation in 1794, the congregation has undergone several major changes. The first church wasn't built until 1801 in what is now the 200 block of Tarentum-Culmerville Road. The building was replaced some 20 years later with a larger church built with hewn logs to accommodate a growing congregation.

But it didn't last long. The church downsized in 1833 to a smaller wooden building that was less difficult to heat in the winter months, again on the same plot of land. Twenty years later, the congregation demolished that building and erected in its place a red brick church, which remains.

In 1953, the congregation built a larger stone building across the street to once again accommodate growing numbers. The church was known as the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church until 2007 when it took in the members of the Curtisville Presbyterian Church and was renamed the Bull Creek United Presbyterian Church.

Through it all, the church has been served by only 18 pastors, the longest tenured of whom remains in the pulpit.

Legge, who has served more than 31 years as Bull Creek's pastor, received a standing ovation when parishioners presented him with a plaque commemorating his decades of service.

"I don't think I'll be around for the 225th anniversary, but who knows?" Legge said. "I never thought that I would have been here these 31-plus years. ... When I came the people were my parishioners, then they became my friends, now they are my family."

Also recognized was the only servant of the church with a longer track record at Bull Creek than Legge. The church's secretary, Darlene Benn of Harrison, has worked for the church for 33 years -- a period of time, she says, that feels like it passed overnight.

Benn also was awarded a plaque and thanked for all the work she's done for the church.

"I've been blessed for the time," Benn said. "A lot has happened in that time, from deaths and tragedies to great memories. The church has a very strong history and it does so much for the community. There's no doubt in my mind it will continue for a long time to come."

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.