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Rehoboth Church preserves the Welsh language

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Oct 6, 2016 12:10 PM
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There is a little church built in 1891 in the small town of Delta, in the southeast corner of York County. It has a slate roof, slate windowsills and a slate-slab foundation.

 It is the Rehoboth Welsh Church, built by Welsh miners who worked in the old slate quarry in the region. It is thought to be the last church in North America which still regularly holds part of its weekly services in the Welsh language.

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Reverend Dick Baskwill giving Welsh lessons

Reverend Dick Baskwill has been the minister at Rehoboth Welsh Church since 1982. His great-grandparents emigrated from Wales to the area in 1850 to work in the slate mines. He has a mission to preserve the Welsh language.

He points out that "The Welsh language is a very ancient Celtic language. It's much, much older than English."

He also says that the language is very beautiful and lends itself to singing.

In addition to providing free lessons in Welsh to the community, the church started the Rehoboth Welsh Choir in 1984. It is now one of a handful of Welsh language choirs remaining in North America. They have sung throughout the region as touring Wales, England and France. In 2000, the choir provided all the music for the wedding of actors Michal Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones.

As Reverend Baskwill explains, "Catherine Zeta Jones is Welsh. And she wanted to surprise her parents, who were being brought over for the wedding. So they did an internet search for Welsh churches in this area, and we're the only ones who came up."

The Welsh were among the earliest European settlers here. It was slate which brought them. Not just any slate, but Pennsylvania Peach Bottom slate, arguably the best roofing slate in the world.

The Welsh miners knew slate from generations of mining, and they were unequalled in the art of slate-splitting. An old Welsh working song declares that "You must get the Welshmen to break the stone. For the rock does not speak English."


Don Robinson is a longtime resident of the area, with a wealth of knowledge about its history. He helped write a book about the region called The River and the Ridge, covering some 300 years of the local history.

"When you hear the term 'slate-splitter'," he says, "that was an upscale artist or skilled craftsman that people looked up to around here. Their job was to split these big blocks of slate into thin pieces and work with it. So they were the highest paid employee in the quarry."

Walk the slate sidewalks of Delta and you see old slate roofs everywhere, many still in fine condition. Centuries-old slate tombstones in the local cemeteries still show hardly any sign of wear. Names can be read as if they were chiseled yesterday. It's all evidence of the quarry which was a booming operation from 1785 until 1941, and the heritage of the Welsh miners.


The quarry is closed down now, but Reverend Dick Baskwill and the Rehoboth Church keep the ancient language alive. Twice a year they hold the Gymanfa Ganyu,  (guh-MAHN-va  GAN-ee) a festival of singing of Welsh Hymns.

Lovers of the Welsh language come from all over the region to sing the old hymns and to hear performances by the Rehoboth Welsh Choir. Special guest performers such as the Three Welsh Tenors have often performed as well.

The next Gymanfa Ganyu is coming up October 9 starting at 2:30 and followed by a Welsh tea.  It's all part of maintaining the heritage.

Reverend Baskwill remembers hearing those of a previous generation saying that the Welsh language would not last through another generation here. But he and the Rehoboth Church have managed to draw in and interest younger people in the beauty and history of the language.

As he says, "Their children and their grandchildren and their grandchildren's friends are coming. So we have managed to keep the thread going here." 

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