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'Older than our nation': The history of Hanover's St. Matthew Church

Written by Lyzz Jones/The Hanover Evening Sun | Aug 12, 2018 5:19 AM

The roots of St. Matthew Lutheran Church trace back to 1743.

And as the congregation celebrates its 275th anniversary this year, it has become a time of reflection on both the past and future.

"We are celebrating our past, remembering the past, while focusing, too, on our present and trying to help prepare this congregation for the future generations," said Pastor Dan Yeiser, who has been at St. Matthew since 2004. 

The church had its humble start in a log cabin and has grown and moved locations five times to its current spot on West Chestnut Street in Hanover. 

"It's a large church, and a lot of people say you get lost in a large church but believe it or not, I can tell you if someone has missed two Sundays," said Vicki Wildasin, a life member of the church and co-chair of the 275th anniversary committee. "It's a big church with a small church feeling."

St Matthew Lutheran Church.jpg

The front of the nave of St. Matthew Lutheran Church features "Resurrection Morn," a stained glass window created in 1928 by Charles Mente of Tiffany Studios in New York City. (Dan Rainville/The Evening Sun)

Here are four things to know about the history of St. Matthew, considered the mother of Lutheranism in western York County, Adams County and Carroll County, Maryland: 

'Our church is older than our nation'

The St. Matthew congregation predates the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

"Our church is older than our nation, is one way to put it," Yeiser said. 

The records are "a bit sketchy," but it is believed that St. Matthew is tied with four other Lutheran churches as the 48th established in the United States. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's unofficial list shows 47 current congregations that organized before 1743. Records indicate that the first church formed in 1649 in Albany, New York. 

But for many older congregations, the organization dates are a guess, according to an email from Joel Thoreson, an archivist for the ELCA. 

To put it into current perspective, there are currently nearly 10,000 Lutheran churches in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the ELCA.

St Matthew window.jpg

"Resurrection Morn" created in 1928 by Charles Mente. (Dan Rainville/The Evening Sun)

Five buildings 

Early settlers in the Hanover area worshiped in the home of the first minister, Rev. David Candler. Then a log cabin was built in Midway at about 251 or 253 Third Street.

"A traveling pastor, John Casper Stoever, was getting congregations up and running and was in the area from 1733-1743," Yeiser said. "In the very early church after Christ's death, resurrection and ascension, that was how worship began, in people's homes, and that was happening here 1700 years later."

On April 14, 1743, the church was organized as the Evangelical Lutheran Congregation on the Conewago.

The next church was built in 1756 in the area where the current All Saints Episcopal Church stands on McCosh Street. The congregation's name was changed to St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

An altar table built for the second church is thought to be the "oldest existing altar from any Lutheran congregation in the United States." The altar resides at the current location on West Chestnut Street.

The ground-breaking for the third church was in 1802 on the ground where St. Matthew's Fellowship Hall sits today. in 1878, that church was torn down, except for the spire, and the fourth building was erected. 

The fifth and current building was built starting in 1922 and dedicated in 1924. 

"There used to be a cemetery on the (current) grounds, behind the parking lot and the church itself," Yeiser said. "They dug up the graves, and whatever remains they could find went to Mt. Olivet." 

German vs. English split

The services at St. Matthew were originally held in German because of the large number of German settlers in the area. 

In 1863, a group of congregants decided to split off and form an English-speaking church. 

According to an Evening Sun article from 2013:

Within a week of that decision in 1863, the first service of the new St. Mark congregation was held, and within two weeks, the Carlisle Street lot was chosen for the new church building, purchased from William Beard for $2,100. The cornerstone was laid on July 20, 1864. The church was dedicated in September 1865. 

St. Mark currently sits on Charles Street.

St Matthew pipe organ.jpg

The organ at St. Matthew has 14,470 pipes and over 230 stops and is the 10th largest pipe organ in the world. Scott Fredericks, the Minister of Music for the last 37 years, is the church's organist. (Dan Rainville/The Evening Sun)

One of the largest pipe organs in the world

In the 1920s, Clara Glatfelter Moul gifted St. Matthew a pipe organ, which originally had nearly 5,000 pipes. 

Today, the pipe organ boasts 14,470 pipes, making it the 10 largest of its kind in the world. 

"As you'll notice, you'll see very few pipes," Yeiser said. "Most are up in the ceiling, behind walls. But you won't see them. They can range from huge monstrous pipes to something small."

The organ recently underwent a six-year, 1.5 million renovation. 

Timeline of St. Matthew

1731: A baptism was recorded by John Casper Stoever, a traveling pastor.

1743: St. Matthew's predecessor, the Evangelical Lutheran Congregation on the Conewago, was organized. The first house of worship, a log cabin, was built in the Midway area.

1754: Start of the French and Indian War

1756: The second church building was built where the current All Saints Episcopal Church stands on McCosh Street. The congregation was renamed St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

1763: Richard McAllister lays out Hanover

1775: Start of the Revolutionary War 

1776: Declaration of Independence is signed

1802: Third church building built on the grounds where the current church sits on West Chestnut Street.

1858: The name was changed to St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

1861: Start of the Civil War

1878: Third church is torn down, and a fourth is built.

1922: Work begins on the fifth and current church building

Source: St. Matthew Lutheran Church website

275th celebration

The community is invited to St. Matthew to celebrate the church's anniversary. Worship services will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 and 8 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28. Bishop James Dunlop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod will deliver the message at the Sunday services. 

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