Sunday morning marked the end of one kind of worship at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church and set the stage for the beginning of another.
The 167-year-old congregation held its final service at 417 Howertown Road in Catasauqua, bidding farewell to a house of worship that saw many offshoots in the region, including nearby Holy Trinity Memorial Lutheran Church. Many of the members of that church, likely to become a home for St. Paul's congregants, joined their neighbors in the emotional service Sunday.
The property is poised for sale to the Almustafa Center, an Islamic congregation, according to church materials from Sunday's service, a fact that has concerned some congregants.
Leonard Witt Jr., vice president of St. Paul's church council, declined to name the prospective buyer Sunday, but confirmed that an agreement of sale was in place and would likely be settled by the end of June. The church property was listed for $1.4 million, Witt said.
The likelihood of another religion taking over worship at the church was confronted head-on by leaders during the service.
In his sermon, the Rev. Walter Wagner, an adjunct professor at the Moravian Seminary and professor of world religion at the Respect Graduate School for Islamic studies, urged congregants to "flush" whatever prejudices they may hold in relation to the Muslim faith and find gratitude that their beloved church would remain a holy place.
"This building will not become a bowling alley or a bar, not that I have anything against bowling alleys or bars," Wagner said. "But this building will still be used for prayer. This will still be a place of worship.
"Witness and ministry are not tied to a piece of real estate. They're portable," he continued. "That's the takeaway for today as you give yourselves the opportunity to serve in different ways."
Wagner went on to put Christianity and Islam into a wider context — a history full of conflict but also full of peace and harmony. Any religion, he emphasized, can be distorted to serve a political or ideological agenda that strays from the original message.
But saying farewell was still no easy task for the congregation. Witt said church membership has shrunk over the years, from Sundays with hundreds in attendance to only about 45 regular Sunday churchgoers now. For many who were part of the church, however, that connection runs the length of a lifetime.
Witt, at 66, has been attending St. Paul's since he was born, he said.
"And I'm one of the kids," he said with a laugh.
As Ralston Anglestein watched parishioners arrive from the small balcony overseeing the sanctuary, his eyes were already wet with tears.
Asked how many years he'd spent at St. Paul's, Anglestein was quick to answer.
"Eighty-eight," he said without hesitation, before adding. "And I'm 88 years old."
Anglestein was confirmed in the church, married here 65 years ago and saw his children baptized here. He said he's also seen many ministers lead services over the decades.
Lois Fisher was a member of the church throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She and her husband, Dennis, married at the church 48 years ago. Visiting Sunday was the first time they'd come to St. Paul's in decades, they said.
"This was very bittersweet," Lois Fisher said. "We have a lot of good memories here. I started to fill with emotion when [Bishop Samuel Zeiser] said the doors are finally closed."
Joanne Spengler, a member of St. Paul's since 1960, said she was grateful for the message Wagner provided a restless and worried congregation. Spengler sat with several other female congregants after the service, enjoying a breakfast buffet in the church annex.
"It was the perfect sermon," she said. "We needed to hear that so badly."
Keri Burrows, a member of only five years but whose father was a member of the church many years ago, agreed that news of a Muslim congregation taking over the property had created worries for some members of St. Paul's.
Burrows said Wagner's message of unity was especially important in a small town like Catasauqua, where exposure to another faith might be limited.
"I'm not sure we could have had a better sermon today," she said. "I just hope it fell on receptive ears."
Sally Chromiak, a congregant for half a century, said the sermon provided a sense of closure for church members and inspiration to move forward in their faith. She intends to continue worshiping, like the women with whom she was seated, at nearby Holy Trinity.
Irene Schubert, 90 years old and baptized at St. Paul's in 1929, felt grief in the closure but said her friends are insisting on bringing her with them to whatever congregation they'll call home next.
"I said I wouldn't, but they're making me go," Schubert said with a grin.
Holy Trinity pastor Brian Reidy, who led the closing service, said the congregants at his church have been praying for St. Paul's since late last year, when it seemed inevitable that the doors of the church would close. Witt said the writing was on the wall for a long time and budgets had run at a deficit for years. It was simply not sustainable, he said.
Hymnals, photos and holiday decorations were available to congregants to take as keepsakes Sunday. Witt said the baptismal font, a lectern, a set of handbells and a piano are among the items St. Paul's will donate to Holy Trinity's parish.
Riedy said he's hopeful that many church members will come to call Holy Trinity home. The church splintered from St. Paul's in 1890, one of the many churches with history intertwined with the Howertown Road congregation.
It's special, he said, to know that the church will continue to serve God — even within the confines of a different theology.
"I hope people heard about the oneness of God," Reidy said of Sunday's message. "We're all connected within this Creator. And this place will still be used to praise God and do ministry in God's name."