‘Presbyterian Pew’ lives on after historic Alderson church closes its doors

By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV

Churches, like people, are born and someday die.

The sanctuary sits in still silence now, the pews all empty, no prayers, no hymns, no laughter or tears dancing up the vaulted ceiling, escaping the confines of the stained glass windows to witness to the street and sidewalk beyond the walls.  

Those sacred sounds will return to the Alderson Presbyterian Church when the congregation holds its final worship service on Sunday, July 7, at four p.m.

The congregation dedicated the current physical structure of the Alderson Presbyterian Church on July 10, 1927, but Presbyterian roots run far deeper in Alderson than just a century.  Local church and denominational history recognize November, 1876 as the genesis of the church.

Over the years, a dwindling population surrounding it, children growing up and moving away from it, and the death of congregants within its membership all coalesced to make the closure of Alderson Presbyterian an unavoidable reality.  When the church’s pastor, Rev. Lanny Howe died last year, conversation and planning for closing took on added urgency. They continued to worship in their building until the end of 2023. 

Though their organized church now faces its formal ending, the members of the Alderson Presbyterian Church continue to hold each other close, intentionally preserving their community, their sense of being a family. Once a week most of the remaining congregation has lunch together at Fruits of Labor in Alderson. The majority of the members now worship at the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church, a church whose history closely parallels the Presbyterian Church’s history, and sits, quite literally, just across the bridge, on the other side of the Greenbrier River.  The Alderson Presbyterian congregation sits together on a back pew they and their Methodist friends now lovingly call “the Presbyterian Pew.”

At a recent lunchtime gathering of the congregants of Alderson Presbyterian, Margaret Hambrick wiped away tears as she shared. “We have been intentional, and I am not going to make it through this,” she began, as another tear fell. “The church is not the building. The church is.  It’s sitting around this table. It’s the few that are not with us today, whether they’ve gone on or they’re out pitching mulch somewhere today, you know.  The church is the people, and in that way, the Alderson Presbyterian Church can live.”

In referring to that “Presbyterian pew,” Hambrick smiled. “You know, we just sort of slightly moved our community, and I think, over time, we may expand our community a little bit.”

In addition to their lunchtime gatherings and worshiping together on Sundays at Johnson Memorial, Hamrick also said that the Alderson Presbyterian’s endowments serve as “the other tangible piece that we left.” Through their endowments, the church has already made a sizeable donation to the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church for elevator repair, and the church regularly gives to support the ongoing ministry of one of its former pastors, Rev. Arpad Torei, in Romania.

Memories echoed through the air as the Presbyterians of Alderson ate together, and shared their stories. 

Barbara Sanders noted that she has belonged to the Alderson Presbyterian for her entire life—it’s the only church she has ever known. “I was baptized there, and my grandparents before me. It was full growing up. We all knew each other. We sang in the choir together, we went to Sunday School together. It was a family, a big church family.  It was busy, too.”

Ruth Kessler started attending church later in her life, although, she reflected, “All my life I wanted to go to church.”  She and her friend, Peggy, set off to go to church one Sunday morning, with the intended destination being the United Methodist Church. The duo drove right passed Johnson Memorial, crossed the river, and wound up in the parking lot of Alderson Presbyterian.  Although they recognized their mistake when they reached the front of the church and saw the sign, they still decided to go in.  Kessler remembers Rev. Lanny Howe up front in his robe, “and I said to myself, ‘This is nice,’” she laughed. 

“I told Peggy I wanted to go back again next week, and we did.  I was baptized. I joined the church.  I got a family,” Kessler concluded. When Tammy Skaggs, the longtime church organist died in 2015, the congregation asked Kessler to take charge of the music for worship. She doesn’t play piano or organ, but she decided she could pick out hymn on c.d, something she faithfully did for the remaining years of the church’s life.

Doris Kasley fondly remembers the church’s ministry with the aforementioned Rev. Arpad Torei. After he and his young family returned to Eastern Europe, the church continued supporting his ministry. Throughout the years, the church received letters from children in Torie’s church, students in his community, who benefitted from Alderson Presbyterian’s financial and spiritual support. “It was a voice from another country—what they were experiencing, what they were learning, how thankful they were for the opportunity,” she said. 

Like Ruth Kessler, Sandy Woodrum came to Alderson Presbyterian later in life. She attended Caldwell Presbyterian until it closed. Rev. Lanny Howe helped out the people of Caldwell Presbyterian by preaching an early morning service there, before worship at Alderson Presbyterian.  Woodrum said she just decided to follow Lanny to Alderson, a decision she cherishes.   “I found my forever home up here. I don’t have neighbors where I live as close to me as these people,” she said, motioning toward those gathered with her at the table. They are my family.”

Pat and Debbie Nash shared their ancestral connection to Alderson Presbyterian, with some of Pat’s relatives named on stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The connection has lasted throughout their lifetime to date, across years of worship and service.

When lunchtime ended and the members of Alderson Presbyterian Church stood up from the table to go their separate ways, no one doubted they would be together again, soon. No one doubts they would stay together for as long as life circumstances make possible. 

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