Our History - Part 1

Palm Sunday (April 18, 1943) - Parishioners leaving our first worship service (The Chapel on Fisher Road)

Palm Sunday (April 18, 1943) - Parishioners leaving our first worship service (The Chapel on Fisher Road)


Part 1 - A Vision For A New Work – The Establishment And First Year Of St. Mark’s

Sometime in the year 1941 a young man by the name of John P. Cranston, Jr. “caught a vision for a new parish in a new neighborhood.” At the time, Rev. Cranston was 28-years old and the pastor of 2 independent churches – one in Parkland and the other in Logan, Pennsylvania (12 and 7 miles from here, respectively). He had previously been a resident of Jenkintown and he had family in nearby Abington. As we read in the booklet that this parish published to celebrate its 1st Anniversary (1943): “Mr. Cranston’s attention was centered in this area … the desire was strong within him to found a new work, a denominational parish in a suburban area, and somewhere in the York Road section.” While pastoring those churches, Cranston was a student at The Reformed Episcopal Seminary and it was there that he became “strongly attracted to the Reformed Episcopal Church” and thus began (in May 1942) to investigate the possibility of becoming an Anglican presbyter and beginning a new REC parish in this area. At the recommendation of RES faculty, Bishop William Culbertson (the diocesan bishop), gave him his blessing to begin to inquire amongst Jenkintown-area residents as to their interest in being a part of this potential new work. Before long, Cranston had found 20 households who shared his desire for the establishment of a REC parish here and thus he petitioned the Bishop and his Standing Committee to allow him to use the name of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the building of a new parish. Provisional permission was granted, provided that the group (when formed) be willing to sign the Article of Association and Conformity.

With episcopal support thus secured, Cranston stepped up his efforts to recruit potential parishioners. Judging by the speed at which these events transpired, he must have been a man of considerable energy and vision. But, that being said, the fruitfulness about which we are about to read must be credited not to his ingenuity or energy, but to the providence and grace of Almighty God, for as the Psalmist instructs us: Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain (Psalm 127:1).

Almost immediately Cranston saw that the neighborhood’s response to the vision that he was casting was greater than he had anticipated. His initial plans to borrow someone’s basement or store room had to be revised, for they would not be commodious enough to house the gathering crowd. He began to believe that they needed “a home that would house the church amply, and also his family, so that he could be in the center of activities.” Soon his attention was directed to a property which he believed would meet their needs. It was in Jenkintown – 200 Fisher Road. The rent, however, was high and funds were scarce. Help came in a demonstration of great support, which surely was very encouraging to him and those whom he had gathered, as the Diocese offered to pay the first 6 months’ rent for the property, thus giving the nascent congregation time to grow.

With the bishop’s blessing, a pledge of financial support from the diocese and a rental property secured, Mr. Cranston called an organizational meeting for June 29. 30 people attended, sitting in the living room at 200 Fisher Road to pray and hear plans for the new parish. In attendance alongside Cranston were Bishops Culbertson and Higgins (the latter being Bishop-Coadjutor) and 2 members of the Standing Committee. Events were developing quickly now! A year later one of those who had been present wrote: “The meeting was very enthusiastic, and several signed the Article of Conformity. The first service was soon planned for July 19, and the Founding Fund (to equip the church) was started.”

A couple of weeks later, on July 13, the Standing Committee convened and accepted the Article of Conformity (which had been signed by 16 individuals), thereby receiving the parish into the diocese. Remarkably (and perhaps inexplicably) all this had taken place before a single worship service had been held! With this official act of the bishop’s Standing Committee, St. Mark’s Reformed Episcopal Church was “born.” Now that the diocese had a new parish to nurture, the members of the Standing Committee made good on their promise and immediately gave the parish $900 to cover the first 6 months rent of 200 Fisher Road. With those funds in hand, they signed a 1-year lease and as simply as that – St. Mark’s Church had established a presence within the community to which they believed God had called them to minister.

If these dear people had thought that the events leading up to July 13 had moved quickly – they were in for a surprise, for now (all of a sudden as it were) St. Mark’s needed a place in which to worship in just 6 days time. It was their opinion that 200 Fisher Road was not ready for a worship service and so the (soon to be) Rector and a friend of his named Mr. W. D. Pierce (he was a parishioner of one of Cranston’s former parishes) began work to transform the living room of the house into a small Chapel.

The longsuffering Mr. Pierce worked 60 hours that week, constructing the simple but dignified chancel that is pictured here. It had all the basic elements which one would have expected to be present in an Anglican chapel – a pulpit and a lectern (these being distinct in construction from each other as opposed to our present construction!), an altar rail and kneeler, and a simple Table centered under a cross. There is even a matching hymn board, on which were displayed the hymns, etcetera. (Later, when the parish build our present facility at Meetinghouse and Beverly Roads, this chancel would be removed and re-installed in the Church School Chapel, which was a large room on the north side and second floor of our present building (many years ago that chapel was divided into 2 rooms to accommodate a growing congregations’ need for classroom space)).

As is often the case when seeking to accomplish an ambitious project on a low budget and without enough hands to help, these 2 men worked until nearly the last minute to complete the living rooms’ transformation. Over a year later Mr. Cranston was still talking about how he and Mr. Pierce were still staining the wood at 6:30 Saturday evening before the opening service. It was early in the morning of July 19, when Mr. and Mrs. Cranston finished cleaning up the sawdust and arranging the 40 comfortable seats that had been bought for the chapel. They had reached the finish line just in time.

Thus it was that at 10:45 am on the 19th of July 1942, just 6 days after being constituted as a parish of the Reformed Episcopal Church and only hours after the completion of the chapel itself, St. Mark’s held her inaugural service of divine worship. “We will always remember the first service” remarked one of those in attendance. Mr. Cranston lead the congregation in Morning Prayer, Mr. Harry Forsythe (an organist from Philadelphia) was the pianist, Miss Jeanne C. Harry (Mrs. Cranston’s sister) sang the Lord’s Prayer and Mr. Cranston preached his first sermon, all of which was “to the complete, worshipful enjoyment of the 33 persons who attended. Everyone was thrilled at the appearance of the former living room – indeed (later) some would even regret having to leave its quiet, sanctified atmosphere for the new Chapel.”

The following month, a Sunday school was organized (with chairs borrowed from J. E. Helwig of Jenkintown) and a variety of teachers were assigned to each age category. The Rector took an active part, teaching the eldest children. The number of children in attendance grew from 15 to 50 over the course of the year.

Over the course of the next few months, more and more new faces began to join the little congregation for worship in the living-room turned chapel. As they prepared for their first service of Holy Communion, the Rector’s aunt (Florence L. Barley) spent her vacation making a “beautiful kneeling pad for around the chancel rail and on August 16, the first Holy Communion was celebrated at St. Mark’s, with a Communion set borrowed from the Parkland Church.”

With regular services now being held, the congregation slowly began to grow. All this activity attracted some unlooked for attention and it was at this time that “the first dark cloud appeared.” An Abington Township building inspector informed the Rector that the parish would have to file a petition with the Township Zoning Commission, asking for an exception to the zoning ordinance which would allow for the property to be used for religious purposes. The date for the hearing was set for August 25. The parish archives note that it was at this time that “we discovered that there was some opposition for our obtaining this permission.” To prepare for the hearing, a petition was circulated on behalf of the church and 30 persons in the neighborhood signed it to indicate their support of the parish. On the date of the hearing, 4 individuals were present to protest the granting of the exception and 12 attended to support it. “The hearing was quite lively, as such affairs are wont to be, and was not without its clashing of personalities, as well as the scene of some beautiful testimonies for the work of Christ from some of the friends of St. Mark’s.” The senior editor (Mr. McMahon) of Jenkintown’s local paper, The Times-Chronicle devoted its lead story and headline in support of the parish’s petition (the story was also covered by metropolitan papers). On September 1 the Zoning Commission gave its unanimous opinion in favor of St. Mark’s, which gave the parish the legal right to gather for worship at 200 Fisher Road.

Later that month (September 22), a provisional Vestry was installed (to be ratified at the first parish meeting) so as to allow a formal invitation to Mr. Cranston to become the Rector (pending the bishop’s approval) as well as the appointment of a Secretary (Mr. Gellert) and the formulation of a financial structure for the parish. While that meeting was taking place, a number of the women in the parish met in an adjoining room so as to form a Guild which later did much good work for the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, as well as arranging numerous “very successful social events.”

The Rector, “having always been vitally interested in” reaching youth with the gospel and seeing to their discipleship, formed a Youth Fellowship – the inaugural meeting of which was October 11 at 6:30 pm. “Until the summer recess, this fine group of young people have met weekly with Mr. Cranston leading them in worship and open discussion periods. The young people have also enjoyed many social times together.”

Evening services began at St. Marks on November 1 at 7:45 pm, with Bishop Howard D. Higgins as the guest preacher (Bp. Higgins had become the Bishop Ordinary after the resignation of Bp. Culbertson in August). The vested choir of Parkland Church (where Cranston continued as pastor) sang. 60 people were in attendance. Nine days later (on November 10th), musicians from St. Mark’s gave their first recital (Hans & Karola Hassinger, pianists and Jeanne C. Harry, soloist). In our parish archives we read: “These events have been repeated several times in the past year to the increasing enjoyment and appreciation of the parish. St. Mark’s has been singularly blessed in its talented and generous Ministry of Music.”

Though the parish was yet very new, God had already provided many examples of his provision towards them. One dramatic example took place in late November as the parish gathered together on Thanksgiving Day for worship – it was a day that “will long be remembered at St. Mark’s.” As you may recall, in July of this same year (when the parish was just beginning) a Founding Fund had been established. This was to provide the funds to address various needs of the new church. Initially the goal was to raise $300, but later this was increased to $500. Keep in mind that in 1942, the average American salary was $2,400, a car cost about $1,200 and minimum wage was 30 cents an hour, thus the parish was attempting to raise a sum that was about 20% of the average annual salary. It is not surprising, therefore, that it took approximately 4 months for the parish to contribute $365.00 towards that fund and thus “on November 22, we had but $135 yet to be raised, and one of the friends of the church said that if we raised the $100, he would give the remaining $35. We accepted the challenge, and in three days received almost $200, so that on Thanksgiving Day (the deadline), we reported the Fund had been oversubscribed by almost $75.00.” God had provided for the parish, through the generosity and sacrificial giving of those within and without the parish.

As the winter progressed, the parish readied herself for her first Advent and Christmas. From all accounts, the month of December was a wonderful month for St. Mark’s. The parish was rapidly expanding, so much so that she was already outgrowing the little chapel that had been made out of the Cranston’s living room. To find more space, it was determined that the parish should purchase 200 Fisher Road and then turn the garage into a chapel. Bishop Higgins and 2 members of his Standing Committee visited the parish, after which an invitation was given to the Rector and Secretary of the Vestry (Mr. Gellert) to attend a board meeting of the Looney-Hoffman Fund (a fund established when Bishop Hoffman generously gave $500,000 so as to provide a means of furthering the Christian ministry of Reformed Episcopal parishes). Seeing the parish’s need and believing in their vision, the trustees of the fund agreed to loan St. Mark’s the monies needed to purchase 200 Fisher Road, alter it into a chapel and purchase an electric organ. The loan was for just over $23,000. And so, only 5 months after her first worship service – the parish gathered for her first Christmas in the knowledge that, through God’s gracious provision, they would soon be building and occupying a more commodious space. Our archives record that “this first Christmas at the church saw a great and generous outpouring of gifts to the work of the church and many joyous services, including a beautiful candlelight service” of Holy Communion on Christmas Eve at midnight. Perhaps it occurred to them, as they heard the Christmas story read, that though there was no room in the Inn for the Incarnate Son, God the Father had graciously given them not just 1 but now 2 fine places in which to gather to hear his Word, receive his Sacraments and offer to him the sacrifice of their praise and thanksgiving. Truly, God was showing favor to his fledgling company of his people.

On Sunday January 17th, the new electric organ was used for the first time (the Rector at the console) and 2 days later (on Tuesday, January 19, 1943) the parish regathered to celebrate her 6-month anniversary. The anniversary was “a time of great rejoicing and thanksgiving. Beautiful flowers, sent by a neighbor, music on the piano and organ, a piece by our local soloist, and a social time around the festive board gave us all a song in our hearts for the goodness of God and His people.”

In anticipation of their purchase of the property, the Vestry had accepted a bid the previous month to convert its 3 car garage into a chapel and thus, just 7 days after the sale was finalized (which took place on March 5, 1943), the construction project began. Once again we turn to our archives to hear the exuberance of those who lived through those days: “What busy and happy days those were!” As the construction work was being done, various members of the parish were busy preparing to furnish the new space. A chair fund was established and soon it had received $25 more than the $150 which had been asked. Through the efforts of a Mr. Burton, indirect lighting fixtures had been donated by the Westinghouse Electric Company. The living-room chapel was going to be left completely intact and thus all new chancel furniture was ordered for the new chapel. The women’s guild was at work furnishing new hangings for the lectern and pulpit. Beautiful new brass flower vases were purchased by Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Rothrock; Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Elliot furnished the prayer desk and flower stand; Mr. and Mrs. Charles G. Pfeiffer bought the Minister’s chair and Mr. Gellert bought the Baptismal Font (in memory of his father). Mr. Pierce, who had worked a very long week to prepare the living-room chapel, was again called into service to build a new pulpit and altar rail. Women of the church went to work to provide a kneeling pad to be placed before the rail for use in Holy Communion.

And so it was that through an outpouring of generosity and much hard work, the little parish soon had all that it needed for worship services. One can easily imagine that these early days in the life of St. Mark’s – marked by so much fruitfulness and growth – must have really energized the individuals involved. Over the course of just a few months, the parish had been established, significantly grown, and had built not 1 but 2 fully furnished chapels. Reading about our early history is very encouraging. In the years to come, there would be more significant growth of the parish and expansion of its property, but there would also be some very trying and difficult days as well. A historical review of the past should tutor us to stay the course, remaining steadfast in our commitments to the Lord, whether we are in seasons of plenty or of want.

The new chapel was completed on April 15, 1943, just 3 days before the first worship service, at which 72 people gathered at 10:45 am on Palm Sunday (April 18) for Morning Prayer. On the evening of that same day, the chapel was again crowded with those who came to hear the Presiding Bishop (the Most Reverend Dr. Frank V. C. Cloak) preach the dedicatory sermon.

Hearing one of the founding members describe their new place for worship, it is clear that the people of St. Marks were delighted with their new chapel: “The contractor, T. Wilmer Fesmire, and sub-contractors and accomplished wonders in the transforming the three-car garage into a beautiful, commodious worship place. Complete with venetian blinds, storm enclosure, and ample heat radiation, the room made an unusually attractive chapel with its sand finished plaster walls and ceiling, and the chancel and woodwork painted in ivory with walnut trim.”

The parish worshipped throughout Holy Week (mainly in the evenings), including the traditional 3-hour Noonday service on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday all the chairs were occupied as 90 worshippers “witnessed the church’s first Resurrection Day Service” at which 16 people were received into membership and 2 infants received Holy Baptism. “The congregation welcomed this glad day in a room that was gorgeously decorated with seasonal flowers given in profusion by friends and members in memory of loved ones.”

The parish’s first Annual Meeting took place on Easter Monday. Wardens were appointed and a vote confirmed the election of Vestrymen. A Constitution and (later) by-laws were also duly adopted. The first episcopal visit was made by Bishop Higgins on Sunday evening, May 23rd. “The Rector presented to him ten young people for Confirmation, St. Mark’s first class. These young people have taken an active and vital interest in the affairs and worship of the Church.” As I write this today, 75 years later, it is satisfying to note that one member of that first confirmation class – Miss Beatrice E. Trautvetter – is presently a member of the parish (Mrs. Robert (Bea) Foedisch) and though she was away from St. Mark’s for most of the intervening years, today (having transferred her membership about 5 years ago) she is still taking that same “active and vital interest” in the life and worship of the parish.

In July 1943, St. Mark’s Church gathered to celebrate her first anniversary. A Holy Communion service of Thanksgiving was said on July 11, a Birthday Musical was held on July 13 and an Anniversary Service on July 18 (at this service 2 new members were received, bringing the total membership at the end of the first year to 51). The archive reads: “All of these services were exceptionally well attended in spite of the summer weather.” In the days before air-conditioning, one can read between the lines that despite the fact that it was swelteringly hot inside the chapel, people still showed up!

Let us conclude with a long quotation from our unnamed archivist: “Thus ends the story of One Year at St. Mark’s Church, a story that in the telling has recaptured thrills and past moments of glory that illuminated all of our lives in the days that have slipped by since that first service on July 19, 1942. Just as a child who has come upon the threshold of manhood looks back at the tender memories of childhood as days whose thrill can never be relived, so we look back, in pleasant retrospection. But there are the responsibilities of manhood ahead, and so with gratitude for the year that has past, and all of its accomplishments, we face the future realizing that the history of St. Mark’s has not been written – it’s hardly been started. There is much ahead of labor, of joy, and, perchance, of sorrow, for those who build in God’s Kingdom. But our solemn prayer is that those who write the future histories of this parish may be able to record that we builded upon a sure foundation, the only foundation for God’s House, Jesus Christ, His Son, and our Redeemer.” The booklet celebrating our first year concludes with the following verse: “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2a).