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.”