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St. Paul Lutheran could merge with Trinity Evangelical

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After more than 120 years in the community, an East End church will likely close its doors soon, a church official said.

The congregation of St. Paul Lutheran Church, founded in 1892, could merge with that of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. The churches are about a half-mile apart.

St. Paul's church building is up for sale and has a potential buyer, said congregation president George Schwarz.

The problem for the church has been low attendance, he said.

Forty years ago the church hosted 250 people on a given Sunday and nearly 300 on special occasion Sundays, he said. Today, about 20 people attend on an average Sunday, he said.

"That's a real strain on finances," Schwarz said. "We're having to operate on endowment funds. Those are finite. [There's] going to be a point where they're gone."

Schwarz attributes the attendance problems to fewer people going to church in general these days. Some churches do well, he said, but most churchgoers are looking for activities and trips to various places.

"When you get to be small like our church, you can't offer those things," he said.

Trinity started in 1924 as an offshoot of St. Paul after members of the two congregations had a disagreement.

"I'm not sure of the issue," Schwarz said. "It may have been [about whether] you can be a member of a lodge or not. That was a long time ago and we're not enemies anymore."

In fact, the churches have a good relationship with one another and have similar interests, Schwarz said. Both are active in the same East End organizations, he said.

Still, the idea of closing is sad for St. Paul members, Schwarz said.

"But we're excited about the opportunity the merged church has," Schwarz said. "Even though St. Paul will close after all these years, we'll keep going in another place."

The congregation of St. Paul met for the first time at the home of one of its members in 1892. Its first building -- a small frame church -- was built by 1894 at the corner of Court and Brown streets. The church's present building on Lee Street was dedicated Nov. 8, 1916.

The church organ accompanist, Ralph Mills, has organized a concert series this month in celebration of the church's long history. The next concert is scheduled for 12:10 p.m. Wednesday and features the music of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

There is another concert at the same time a week later, on May 22.

Mills said the concert series is dedicated to the church's history, the memory of John Jarvis, a former St. Paul's choirmaster and organist for more than 21 years, and in honor of James Litton, a former St. Paul member and retired director of the American Boychoir School.

Before the churches can merge, both congregations must agree with a two-thirds vote. If both churches don't agree to merge, the alternative for St. Paul is that each member of the congregation goes their own way.

Schwarz is confident that won't happen, though.

"I honestly believe the merger will go through," he said. "The merged church offers a whole lot to our members that they will be interested in.

"There are all kinds of opportunities for us over there to be involved in the community and be a church that serves the people. Our members will grieve over the loss of St. Paul, there's no doubt about it."

Charles Young, president of Trinity's congregation, said his church has formed a committee to consider the possible merger.

"I think everything is progressing very positively at this point, but I don't want to make any speculations," he said. "That would be premature."

If they did merge, the church would keep Trinity's name and current location, Young added.

Schwarz said St. Paul could financially afford to continue through the end of 2014.

"At that point we'd have to do something," he said. "We'd like to do something sooner. We don't want to spend all the money doing just worship services."

Schwarz did not say who the potential buyer is, but that whomever it is does not intend on using the building as a church. That's something that grieves the members of the congregation, he said.

Schwarz is comforted by the fact that none of the churches St. Paul started still exist today. Paul is the missionary from biblical times for whom the church is named.

"They come and they go. It happens," Schwarz said. "It happens for a variety of reasons. The larger church still goes on. Just because of this particular building closing doesn't mean it's the end of anything really. It just changes." Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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