A small book of hymn lyrics handwritten by Methodism’s founder John Wesley in 1780 keeps company with other modest, historic treasures in a protective vault deep in the basement of Philadelphia’s St. George’s UMC. The national landmark is the oldest Methodist church building in continuous use in the United States, beginning in 1769.
Wesley’s hymnal was one of several antiquities that fascinated about a dozen history-lovers who gathered there Oct. 19 to reopen and dedicate the newly renovated home of the Eastern PA Conference Archives. Costing the conference Board of Trustees about $158,000, the yearlong renovation was more like a transformation from a dreary, crowded, inconvenient space into a clean, well-organized, professional-looking research facility.
As the small group of celebrants gathered amid freshly painted walls, new fireproof storage cabinets and work stations, some might have sensed a larger cloud of virtual witnesses lingering there, especially in the reconfigured, lighted vault containing shelves of historical records and books.
The conference’s Historical Society, established by its predecessor Philadelphia Conference in 1867, is the steward of books and original documents contained in the archives that date back to the late 1700s. While tour groups visit the museum upstairs, marveling over pioneer Bishop Francis Asbury’s Bible and numerous other artifacts, scholars, writers and institutions rely on staff to mine the archives downstairs for precious research gems.
“There’s a long, wonderful tradition of using these documents to push our faith forward,” Senior Interpreter Donna Miller, gleefully told the gathering, which included Mother African Zoar UMC’s archivist Betty Henderson. “I’m just glad to have been a part of it.”
Miller, the former full-time archivist and church secretary, recently retired and passed those duties on to Ruth Scott Blackson, a young artist from London, England, whose hobbies include binding and restoring books. Miller now assists part-time with archival and genealogical searches, leads tours and presentations, and cares for museum holdings and displays. She thanked the gathered supporters–including conference and church trustees, members of the museum board and historical society, volunteers and a representative from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission–for helping to make the renovation and celebration successful.
With Scriptures, hymns and prayers, Bishop Peggy Johnson led in consecrating the refurbished archival space. Joining her was the Rev. Maridel Whitmore, who, as the church’s first female pastor is also its museum director, and the Rev. Fred Day, St. George’s former pastor and now General Secretary of the UMC’s General Commission on Archives and History.
“Crises are often opportunities for transformation,” said Day, recounting the day “pallets of materials from closed churches literally got dumped on St. George’s from people’s basements.” The conference paid for storage until the church could arrange to house and care for the materials.
Day, displaying his storytelling prowess, also recalled the popular story of how St. George’s members and supporters successfully repelled city plans in the 1920s to demolish the church to make way for construction of the Ben Franklin Bridge. The planned bridge location had to be moved.
“We’re known to some as the church that moved a bridge,” Day proclaimed, “but St. George’s houses a history that is powerful enough to move the church. What we have here is so important. It’s not just a bunch of old records to be put on shelves. These are the inspirational stories and experiences, pratfalls and triumphs of a church we celebrate…and many discoveries we haven’t even found yet.”
By John W. Coleman
Eastern PA Conference Communications Director
Photo: In the newly renovated Conference Archives space, the Fred Day (center) recounts the arrival of church records at Historic St. George’s UMC, while flanked by (from left) Conference Trustees Chairman Al Kingcade, Donna Miller, Bishop Peggy Johnson, the Rev. Maridel Whitmore and the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo. John Coleman photo