Keeping the Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church afloat for 175 years has not always been easy.
Like many religious institutions, the church on Sweet Air Road in Phoenix, just west of Jacksonville, has seen a significant decline in participation and membership during the last quarter of a century.
Yet, you could say that in its 175th anniversary year the congregation and its elders remain upbeat despite being downsized by almost 70 percent during that span.
Those elders, elected by the congregants to undertake leadership roles and perform administrative duties, are not giving up on the church community or giving in to the trend of secular matters trumping spiritual ones.
Instead, Pastor Andy Gathman and elders Skip Flenniken, Diane Caso, Karl Mech, Sarah Gilbert, Rita Ennis and Jane Foard are more resolved than ever to keep the church contemporary and vibrant while honoring a long and rich history of faith-based values.
Toward that end, the yearlong anniversary celebration has featured a variety of events and a capital campaign that has raised $175,000 for refurbishments and refinements of the church, maintaining a tradition of such projects every quarter of a century.
The final event of the year’s celebration was held Dec. 1, when the Westminster Ringers appeared “as part of our musical gift to the community,” according to the church’s website.
In addition to the concert series, which was used to invite the wider community to join the anniversary celebration, a May weekend was dedicated to highlighting events that helped to put the focus on the past, present and future. It included a documentary-style video and a written history of the past 25 years to complement a history that was compiled for the 150th anniversary.
There was also a rededication service in September.
All of the elders played a part in either or both the fundraising and anniversary events, with Mech, a thoracic surgeon, taking the lead as chairman of the anniversary celebration.
He said he “triggered and proposed” the refurbishment project that included an updating and opening of the sanctuary, the installation of a new pulpit and audio system and the makeover of what are termed “castle doors” — the original heavy wooden doors and their hardware.
The doors were in rough shape, according to Phoenix resident Ennis, and in great need of restoration — with a more contemporary twist.
The original doors were solid wood and now boast stained-glass inserts consistent with the design of both the historic door and the other windows in the church.
“It was very important to us that the windows also allowed us to see the people approaching the doors and greet them or attend to their needs,” Ennis said.
Moreover, custom-made iron nails to fasten support bars were fashioned by former congregant Jessie Reid, now a blacksmith in Williamsburg, Va.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Gathman, who took over as pastor four years ago.
The nails reflect the resourcefulness of the congregation and the dedication of a former Chestnut Grove churchgoer living nearly 200 miles away, Ennis added.
While getting all of the work done was important, Mech said that fiscal responsibility was a priority.
“We wanted to do the project, but we only wanted to do what we could afford,” he said, noting that the renovated church was a gift to the nearby Jacksonville community.
Caso, the church’s treasurer, said that her job was to make sure financial obligations were met.
“I kept track of who made pledges and donations, and I helped with the financial aspects of the celebration events and renovation,” she said.
The elders initially turned to Bob Vogelsang, an architect with a great affinity for historic preservation, to take charge of planning the renovations, before he died suddenly in April.
His legacy, though, was to be an inspiration for the project.
“Bob left us a full notebook of contacts,” Mech said. “We were stunned by his death, but in talking to the pastor I thought we could go ahead with the project. I knew we would have Bob’s vision and the vision of previous generations to guide us.”
Vogelsang, who had designed renovations to the Gunpowder Friends Meeting House in Glencoe, the Aigburth Vale Senior Community in Towson and the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore among his local projects, was more than qualified to lead the charge.
With his plans in mind, the work proceeded with Gilbert’s expertise playing a large role in the activity.
“Sarah was a natural fit,” Mech said, alluding to the Monkton resident’s background in a family construction company.
Gilbert, with infant son Luke in tow, said that one of the major goals of the renovation was to expand the chancel, an area near the front of the sanctuary where the clergy serve and choir perform during a service.
“We relocated the choir loft, organ console and piano while adding risers within the chancel for the worship band musicians,” she said. “We wanted more flexibility in our space and for the many ways that we worship."
Ennis said that her late husband had “infused her with enthusiasm” for a wide variety of projects, from polishing brass candlesticks to being one of many people writing lyrics for the “Chestnut Grove Song,” a hymn earmarked for the anniversary celebration.
In other words, her jack-of-all-trades’ ability was highly valued, as were the dozens of people whose work made the anniversary possible and the dozens of financial donors.
“Whenever Karl said, ‘I need somebody to do something,’ I would fill in,” she said.
Gathman said that every ounce of work by the volunteers was greatly appreciated.
“The energy put into the project is a symbol of what God is doing in the congregation,” he said. “Chestnut Grove, like many churches, is a congregation facing a number of challenges, and our mission is to redefine and re-establish our place in the wider community. The project is part of a larger attempt to step into the future with vitality.”
Mech’s summation put the situation into perspective.
“A recurrent theme here is to honor the past, live for today and look toward the future of Chestnut Grove in Jacksonville,” he said.