the history of bessemer presbyterian church
Although the area now known Bessemer, Pennsylvania had been settled by Scots-Irish settlers in the late 1790's and early 1800's, the town itself did not exist beyond a small, rural cross-roads in the north-west corner of North Beaver Township. That all began to change in 1887, when a group of blast-furnace operators located limestone deposits on the farms surrounding Bessemer, and began opening quarries to supply the furnaces in Youngstown. To extract these minerals, immigrant laborers came from various parts Europe - Sweden, Austria, Finland, Croatia, Italy and the like. The extraction led to the many quarry lakes that surround the town. Soon after this began, the Bessemer Limestone Company was established, taking its name from Sir Henry Bessemer, the English inventor who invented the “Bessemer process” for using limestone in the melting process to make steel. This would later give rise to the area being called “Bessemer,” which would grew quickly and became a borough in 1913.
By the turn of the 20th century, there were many churches in the bustling community of Bessemer. Yet even in a place that was initially settled over one hundred years before by English-speaking persons, not one of these churches offered worship services in the English language... and none of them were Presbyterian. To find an English-speaking Presbyterian Church, one had to travel three miles to Mount Jackson, or four miles to Westfield Presbyterian. Since there was a growing English speaking population in Bessemer, several members of the community sought to gather themselves together to establish such a congregation. About 1908, three men from New Wilmington -- George K. Fulkman, Sr., Howell T. Getty and T. S. McAnlis -- came to Bessemer and worked with some of these locals to organize a Sunday school. They met in the one-room school house located where the Bessemer Fire Hall now stands. It was conducted during the summer by Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Duff of the nearby Westfield Presbyterian Church. After disbanding for the winter months, classes resumed in the larger, four-room school house, in the summer of 1909. It was under the leadership of superintendent P.W. Griffin, who held this position until his death in 1941. The Sunday school grew in membership over the next year and a half, until the need for a church building became evident.
In 1911, a committee from the Presbytery of Shenango was approached by these individuals to plant a church in Bessemer. Realizing the opportunity for ministry before them, the committee agreed, and on March 16, 1911, they met with the group at the Swedish (now First) Covenant Church, and organized a congregation of 28 members as the First Presbyterian Church of Bessemer. Three elders were elected to serve as the session, and their first task was to secure a supply pastor until a permanent installed pastor could be found. The Reverend G. W. McConnell, of the New Castle Fourth Presbyterian Church, was engaged as supply pastor. During this time, the Swedish Covenant Church offered the use of its building.
On April 14, 1911, the congregation voted to build a church building, and a committee was appointed to visit the Savannah Methodist Episcopal Church, outside of New Castle, and design a building similar in nature. The committee recommended that plans be drawn for the proposed church, using the specifications of the Savannah Church with minor changes. The site selected for the building was on North Main Street, on the edge of Bessemer, on land donated by the Limestone Company. Ground was broken in early August, 1911, with much of the labor being done by the congregation. On April 14, 1912, the Reverend Harry E. Woods, a Western Theological Seminary graduate, was called as pastor of the Bessemer Church, and he assumed his duties in June. Rev. Woods served until 1918, when he accepted a call to the Wampum Presbyterian Church.
The Church was dedicated, free of debt, on June 30, 1912. After this time, Sunday school classes for all ages continued to thrive in this time. In 1915, the Women's Missionary Society was first formed, which is the predecessor organization to the current Bessemer Presbyterian Women's Association.
Rev. Woods was succeeded by the Reverend Leo L. Tait for eight years. In March, 1921, 140 persons partook of communion; and by 1925, the membership was 266. In 1926, a manse was purchased two doors south of the Church which was occupied that year by the Reverend W. J. Engle. Rev. Engle sacrificed and worked diligently to keep the Church alive and strong through the Depression years. In 1938, after 15 years as pastor, he accepted a call to the Enon Presbyterian Church.
The Reverend Raymond Touvell served the Church from 1939 through 1944. His ministry was innovative, and the membership grew to over 300. The official boards were increased in size. The grim war years came and went, during which the church celebrated a 30th anniversary.
The congregation called the Reverend E. Chester Crabb in the spring of 1945. Under his leadership, the stewardship program grew, and he prepared the way for a new educational wing of the church building.
After the termination of his call to Bessemer on December 31, 1953, the Reverend Hoover L. Picklesimer was called. He was installed on May 14, 1954. Due largely to his energy and enthusiasm, the educational wing was dedicated on October 6, 1957. Mr. Picklesimer established communicant classes and leadership training courses. A Board of Deacons was also established. In 1961, the Church rejoiced over its 50th anniversary.
Following the untimely death of Rev. Picklesimer in October, 1966, after 12 years of service, the pulpit was vacant for nine months until the congregation called the Reverend James C. George. During his pastorate, the Church involved itself in the Fifty Million Fundand surpassed its goal of $4,500. Rev. George resigned on November 9, 1969.
Following a one-year interim pastorate by Reverend David C. Osborn that was terminated for reasons of health, the Reverend Bruce G. Boak was ordained and installed on July 25, 1972. His ministry extended the outreach of the Church throughout the community. He served as Chaplain of the Youth Development Center and was on various civic boards and agencies. Under his leadership, an extensive improvement and construction project was undertaken, resulting in a dedication on September 7, 1975, of a new entry, narthex, and a remodeled sanctuary. Also during his pastorate, membership reached its peak at 373. This pastorate was dissolved on January 5, 1978.
The Reverend Donald A. Aull was installed as pastor on October 1, 1978. His ministry in the Church and community brought an increasing awareness of the Church’s mission, locally and worldwide. The Church participated in the United Presbyterian Major Mission Fund Drive, pledging $6,890. May 31, 1980, marked the conclusion of the Church renovation and construction initiated in November, 1974. A mortgage for $75,000 was then burned ceremonially on the Church lawn. During Rev. Aull's pastorate, the Church celebrated many events, including 56 marriages, 80 baptisms and 93 deaths. During his pastorate, Tribes of Caring were formed, which divided the church membership into small tribes in order to build community. A nursery school occupied the Church daily when in 1984 a community pre-school started using the building. In 1986, the church celebrated its 75th Anniversary by placing a time capsule in the sanctuary and through a weekend celebration. At this time, Church membership numbered 280 and the benevolence budget reached $7,700. The church also welcomed a preschool into its facility for several years during this time. In 1997, the Quilting Circle was formed; meeting weekly and now with a retreat scheduled the first weekend of every month, Church and community women meet to sew, socialize, and form strong friendships. Rev. Dr. Aull resigned in August, 1998, after almost 20 years of service, to lead the Second Presbyterian Church in New Castle. The Bessemer Church then welcomed Rev. Dr. Ray Brugler (1998-1999) and Rev. John Borter (2000-2001) as interim pastors.
In June of 2001, the Rev. Robin P. Dill was called to the Bessemer Church. During his pastorate, several attempts at reaching out to the community were made. Community computer classes were formed and youth work was emphasized. Yet, because of continued expense in owning the manse without a full-time minister, the manse was sold in 2000. Rev. Dill also took us into international waters as he welcomed foreign exchange students into his home during the years he served the Bessemer Church. The congregation became acquainted with Russia, Germany, and the Ukraine through Matt, Tobias, Vlad, and Pasha.
Despite the efforts of the congregation, it had been in decline since the mid-1980s, and time after time found itself in difficult financial straights. Each time, through the working together of the congregation, the church always met its financial obligations. This time, however, things were quite overwhelming and looked very bleak for this small congregation. Unfortunately, the congregation voted to remove the position of installed pastor, and as a consequence, the congregation was forced to terminate Rev. Dill’s pastorate on December 24, 2006. Talk began among the members and session about merger, or even dissolving the congregation altogether.
Although things looked bleak, many in the presbytery and congregation noticed that there was a definite need for ministry in the Bessemer community, which a strengthened and impassioned congregation could provide. A discussion then began about the possibility of the another larger congregation in the area partnering with and supporting the Bessemer congregation and revitalizing the church as their missional outreach. Yet members of the session had some other ideas in mind. One member of that larger congregation, Mr. Nathan Leslie, was a college senior at the time, finishing his degree in Christian Thought at Grove City College, was planning to begin classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the fall of 2007, and had already begun the process of ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament through the Shenango Presbytery. After much discussion and prayer, the session was given permission by the presbytery to call Nathan as a part-time Student Pastor.
Thus, on July 1, 2007, Nathan began his tenure. The congregation began this era by thinking much about what it meant to be a “missional” congregation; that is, one sent out into the community and the world to share the message of Jesus Christ by being visible and making relationships with the people right around the church. From these conversations were launched several initiatives to provide ministries to the larger community, as well as partnering with existing organizations to better the community and build relationships. One of the most impactful began in August of 2007, when the church began opening its doors to almost 20 high school and elementary students while catching their buses in the early mornings for shelter and a light snack. This "Bus Stop Ministry," worked to build relationships between the congregation and the youth of the community, which led to a ministry of prayer and encouragement. Several administrative changes were also made to enable the smaller congregation to function appropriate to its size. The congregation was also served by two moderators during this time: the first was Rev. Dave Lingle, and the second was Rev. Bud Green, who began in this role in the fall of 2008. Bud presided over services of communion and baptism, and moderated session meetings. Bud was then formally hired as the “Parish Associate” to provide support to Pastor Nathan. During this time, the worship services were also modified some, allowing for a balance between the traditional worship of the congregation, the traditions of the larger church, and the need for relevance to modern-day worshippers.
The relationship between the congregation and Nathan seemed to grow naturally. By 2010, attendance in worship had climbed again to 50 people and it was noticeable that younger families were coming to worship. There was a renewed sense of energy and hope in the congregation. God truly had revived and resurrected this congregation on the brink of extinction. At the completion of Pastor Nathan's seminary education that same year, the church was again faced with a major decision about pastoral leadership for the church. After several months of deliberation, prayer, attention to finances, and work with Nathan, it was agreed unanimously by the session to pursue calling Nathan as a "Designated Pastor," who would begin at 3/4 time and gradually work toward a full-time position over the course of three additional years. With great excitement, Nathan was officially and unanimously called by the congregation as their next pastor on June 13, 2010. On July 11, 2010, ninety-eight years to the day that the first pastor of this congregation (Rev. Harry Woods) was ordained and installed within these walls, Rev. Nathan R. Leslie was ordained and installed as the next pastor of the Bessemer Presbyterian Church. It was a proud and joyous moment for the people of the Bessemer Church, one after many years of both trials and triumphs. Thus began the next phase of the congregation’s life and ministry.
Also that year, to honor Pastor Bud for all his work with us, Rev. Green was hired as our Parish Associate, preaching and providing pastoral care when Pastor Nathan is away, and offering the congregation help with evangelism and church growth. Because of Bud's health issues, the congregation has become much more aware of the needs of the blind, and was even introduced in 2012 to Bud's helper dog, Albert.
The year 2011 marked the congregation's 100th Anniversary. To celebrate this, the church held a dinner and time-capsule opening on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. A second celebration coincided with the Bessemer Community Days, including a centennial homecoming worship service on Sunday, July 31, 2011. Also, in that year, the Young Adult Bible Study began, and the Evangelism and Discipleship committees were officially gathered together and re-established for the work of further renewing and revitalizing the church. Additionally, in November 2012, Pastor Nathan began a formal partnership with two other area youth pastors to begin the "Mohawk Coffee House" for the purpose of reaching out to our community. The congregation has agreed to support this endeavor and to encourage members to participate in it. Opening in December 2014, many of our members volunteer or regularly meet and patronize MoCo House as a place for meeting others in the community.
As of summer 2016, the membership of the congregation is 105 persons and the average attendance in worship is about 55 people. Though facing many trials and triumphs over the past century, the Bessemer Presbyterian Church remains committed and faithful to the proclamation the Good News of Jesus Christ among its members, the community and the world. Bessemer Church has also equipped several members to discern their calling to ministry. Arthur E. Connor and Bernard W. Nord have both been ordained as Ministers of the Sacrament and Word. Clara Hedberg also served as a foreign missionary.