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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wenger Meeting House

Last evening we went to the dedication of the restored Wenger Meeting House at Jonestown.

This church was built in 1871 for a United Zion congregation on the northwest corner of Hans Wenger's 170-acre farm where a cemetery already existed. Hans and Hannah Wenger emigrated from Germany in 1748 and are believed to be buried in this cemetery. They are a not Leroy's Wenger ancestors but we went anyway because I've often heard of this church but was never there.
The building has been nicely restored inside and out. It was remodeled somewhere along the way and has been returned to the way it appeared in the 1920-30s. Notice the decorative ceiling tiles. Two of them needed to be replaced and the committee was stumped as to where to find matching tiles. While cleaning out the attic they found exactly two matching tiles. So the ceiling is all original.
The United Zion church, founded in 1855, has roots in the Mennonite church. In 1778 a group of Mennonites formed the River Brethren church. They were never part of the Church of the Brethren but got their name from their location near the Susquehanna River. The conservative element of this denomination is still known as River Brethren but the majority of them took the name of Brethren in Christ. In 1855 the Brethren in Christ disagreed on the construction of meeting houses. They had always met in homes and the majority wanted to preserve that tradition. A group who wanted to build a meeting house separated from the Brethren in Christ, built a meeting house, and became known as United Zion's Children (later shortened to United Zion).  About ten years after the split, the Brethren in Christ changed their minds and started building meeting houses too.
The United Zion church has always been smaller than the Brethren in Christ although they are very similar in belief and practice. The United Zion have about a thousand members today to the 24,000 the Brethren in Christ.
The Wenger Meetinghouse remained in use as a United Zion place of worship until the mid-1950s, by which time the congregation had expanded and then dispersed to other area congregations. The meetinghouse saw sporadic use after the mid-1950s. The congregation from nearby Moonshine United Zion Church used the structure in the early 1960s while its own house of worship was being rebuilt following a fire. Thereafter, Wenger Meetinghouse’s main use was for United Zion summer services. The building was eventually sold again in 1977 — this time to the cemetery association. Other than a brief period of rental to an independent congregation during the 1980s, the building fell into disuse until 2004, when the Wenger family began using the meetinghouse for worship and fellowship during their annual reunions, drawing together the descendants of Hans Wenger from across the country.
Unfortunately, by that time the building had begun to show its age and a decision had to be made whether to “fix it up or tear it down,” according to Warren Wenger, a descendant of Hans who has been active in the movement to restore and preserve the old meetinghouse. Thanks to a new slate roof, repointed brickwork, repaired plaster and restored windows and shutters, the Wenger meetinghouse was rededicated last evening at the opening of the 91st annual Wenger reunion.

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