New Castle News

October 4, 2013

Photos, Story: Calvary Independent has moved a few times in 75 years, but its focus has not budged

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — In 75 years, members of Calvary Independent Church have built three structures they’ve called home.

One may or may not have had walls. Another featured a baptistery set against a background made to look like a river. And the third has an annex that used to be a funeral home.

Despite their differences, though, the buildings had one thing in common: the congregation’s cornerstone.

“What started back in 1938 was because of a doctrinal issues,” present-day pastor Chuck Fombelle said of the congregation, which formed when members of what was then Calvary Presbyterian Church withdrew from the Shenango Presbytery.

“They saw some differences there, and they chose to stand on the word of God,” Fombelle continued. “And that has continued to be the mainstay: the word of God and the power of God to change us.

“That’s one of the things we push when we celebrate anniversaries — the priority of the word of God and faithfulness in service to God.”


Though the church counts only 75 years of existence, its seeds actually were sown in 1912 when two local laymen launched the East Side Mission, a Sunday school that met a public school building in East New Castle. The group moved to a room over a blacksmith shop in 1915 before building a church in 1919-20, which stood across Ellwood Road from the old Shenango Township Fire Hall.

In 1931, the worshippers approached the Presbyterian Church for membership and were accepted into the Shenango Presbytery as Calvary Presbyterian. However, in March 1938, the congregation would renounce its membership over doctrinal differences, and wound up being locked out of its building.

Undeterred, members built a pavilion — or tabernacle — in which to hold services and carry on the work of the church.

“I was 7 or 8 years old when that happened, and I can remember it pretty vividly,” said Miff Peterson. “It was kind of like a picnic shelter. I don’t remember if it had any sides on it or not (although Fombelle says that old photos indicate it may have had hinged walls that could be opened and closed). But there was a big coal stove to heat it. It was a dirt floor.

“Every summer for six weeks we’d have  Bible conference. We had to go every night, work in the garden first, then go to the meetings.”

When it became apparent that the congregation was going to lose all rights to its church building, members got to work putting up a new building on Vogan Street (which today houses Allegheny Wesleyan Church).

“I can remember carrying food down to my dad,” Peterson said. “He was down in the basement hole with the other men.”

The first service in the new building — using the benches from the pavilion — took place in December 1938, with the congregation now calling itself “Calvary Gospel Tabernacle.”

Photos of the Vogan Street building show a baptistery installed as part of a scene meant to look like a river setting.

“It looks like they had rocks and other things around,” Fombelle said.

Still, despite that attention to detail, Peterson recalled that when she was married in the building in 1948, there were still parts of the church that were not completed.

“The interior of the building hadn’t been finished,” she said. “They started putting ceiling tile and probably wall stuff. My future father-in-law was on the board and he was very pushy about getting this done before the wedding.

“My wedding was on Nov. 25, 1948. So the men hurried and got that finished in time for it.”


In the early part of the 19th century, Thomas Morehead was one of New Castle’s prominent businessmen. A partner in Knox & Morehead, the city’s largest fire insurance company, he lived in a fine brick house atop a hill that overlooked Laurel Boulevard. Though it fronted on Laurel, the home was actually closer to Moody Avenue, near where it intersects with Delaware.

Later, in the 1940s and ’50s, Morehead’s house and its large living room would be transformed into the Campbell Funeral Home.

And when, in 1956, Calvary Independent Church — a name the congregation had taken the year before —  realized that it needed additional space, it sold its Vogan Street digs and purchased the funeral home as its new worship site.

“I remember coming here at the opening of the new church,” Peterson said. “Our Home Builders class was young married couples. As we progressed in age, we eventually changed our name to the Ambassadors because we were no long building homes.

“The last Friday of every month we had a get-together – a class meeting we called it – and we went various places, even up to Presque Isle and for breakfast and cooked our meals. That was one of the great memories for me. The class still meets today, but there are not very many of us left.”


The Morehead home/funeral home at 424 E. Moody remains part of the church to this day, housing a chapel (the one-time living room), Sunday school rooms, offices, a library and youth facilities. All this is only possible, though, because congregation members would again volunteer their time, starting in 1957, to build a sanctuary and basement fellowship hall on the west side of the original home.

“Before the sanctuary was added, whenever they would hold the service, they would hold it in the chapel,” Fombelle explained. “They would also pipe the sound up into the second and third floor.

“So people would come in, and if they didn’t have room for everybody here, they would go upstairs. They would open up the curtain, and they said the people would also sit on the stairway (just outside the chapel).”

Peterson recalled her father-in-law overseeing a bond issue to finance the new sanctuary, with teams sent out to sell as many bonds as they could.

“My husband and I sold bonds,” she said. “We weren’t the top sales people, but we did pretty well.”

Ground was broken for the sanctuary on June 9, 1957, and the first blocks were laid Aug. 5. Less than a year later, on Aug. 3, 1958, the building was dedicated.

“I remember my dad saying that they spent almost every minute that they were off work working to finish the building,” said Karen Gavroy. “It was built almost all by church volunteers; even when we needed professionals, we had professionals among the congregation at that time.

“To have such a big building and to have it basically built by its members is really amazing. And when you think of the camaraderie that that brought, you realize they were building more than just walls. I think the friendships lasted a long time.”

Gavroy, too, made some friendships of her own, recalling the scores of children that once were part of the congregation.

“The third floor is now all youth, but back when I was in preschool and primary, it was all kids,” she said. “ We probably had 40 kids up there every Sunday. We had some pretty neat youth groups. Church camp experiences were very good. We spent a lot of time together.”

“We had a lot of families with four or five children,” Peterson added. “As they grew up and went to college, they left. But when they were all here, my husband (John) was Sunday school superintendent and we had 300 (adults and children).”

Today, Calvary’s Sunday morning worship averages around 130 people, but while the numbers may have declined, the passion to serve has not.

“We still have a large volunteer base here,” Fombelle said. “There are still a lot of faithful.”