Cumberland Times-News

August 14, 2008

Happy 200th to St. Paul's Lutheran congregation

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Today is the 200th birthday of the Lutheran congregation in Frostburg!

On Aug. 14, 1808, 24 people joined in a communion service in the New Church, a log structure on the edge of what is now called the Prichard Farm.

The meeting house is gone, but the record of that service, with the names of the participants, is retained at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Cumberland, the mother church of the young parish. And here in Frostburg, Lutheran worship continues, with direct descendants of the founding fathers still retaining membership.

At the time of that first Lutheran service, Frostburg did not exist. (The name was first applied to a mail-drop in 1819, and only later to the community as a whole).

The congregation also antedates the National Road, on which construction began in 1811 and was completed to wheeling in 1819.

And yet, without connecting roads, telephones, newspapers or mail service, adults from beyond Mount Savage, from Klondyke and Loartown, responded to some form of notification and came to worship together in 1808.

What kind of service did they have? We don't know. It was undoubtedly in German, although Pastor Butler spoke it with an Irish accent. They sang hymns, but probably without instrumental accompaniment, depending on the pastor to sing a line, or a stanza, for the congregation to repeat.

After that first communion service, Pastor Butler continued to visit our George's Creek congregation twice a year. His parish covered all of Allegany County, which at that time extended to the Virginia line, with eight chapels so scattered that it was impossible for him to preach in one on Sunday morning and another in the evening.

As long as the Braddock Trail was the principal east-west route the Neff Meeting House was a convenient gathering place, but when the National Road was opened, the Lutherans looked for a site adjacent to it.

What was called "the old school'' on Eckhart Flat was used for a few years, and then, in 1835, the Lutherans built a log church, perhaps on the site that later became the German Lutheran Cemetery.

By that time the congregation in Frostburg had grown to the point of independence from Cumberland. They called a pastor of their own, and, when they outgrew the frame church, embarked upon the construction of a bigger, better building that still stands - now Zion United Church of Christ.

This, however, like the earlier houses of worship, stood outside the city limits of Frostburg. The congregation, which at first had been drawn from farm-families, was now almost entirely urban, and when the congregation was offered half of a building lot in the center of the town, they eagerly accepted it. The present church building, somewhat remodeled, dates from just after the Civil War.

The date on the church cornerstone, 1812, was probably put there in the 1880s, when the tower and spire were added to the structure. It reflects a certain city pride, but has nothing to do with the history of the congregation.

History - of a congregation, or a town, or a family - is important if we are to understand ourselves. But we must realize that historical events, like birthdays, must not be taken as the end of a chapter, but the beginning of a new one. We build on the past to create a better future.

And so: Happy 200th Birthday to S. Paul's Lutheran congregation!

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.