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Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA
Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, Pennsylvania,
The building is a spectacular Gothic masterpiece, a true architectural
gem, featuring a spacious nave, several side chapels, and some
magnificent stained glass. It was begun in 1929 after the merger
of two congregations. Cornerstones from the old churches of
both congregations were included in the foundation. A massive
$2 million renovation has just been completed, including repairs
to the stonework, restoration of the interior appointments,
newly protected and cleaned stained glass, significantly enhanced
lighting, acoustical improvements, and a major overhaul of the
sound system. The renovations are the subject of a book, Let
There Be Light, by James R. Steadman, a local attorney,
history buff and amateur photographer. Seemingly every detail
was attended to in both the original construction and the renovation.
Church of the Covenant was formed in the 1920s by the merger
of two downtown Presbyterian churches. In the 1970s, the First
Presbyterian Church merged with Covenant, hence the long name.
The membership is divided into several parishes based on postal
ZIP code, each served by its own staff of deacons. They sponsor
a number of group ministries aimed at young people, adults,
individuals, couples, men, women, people with common interests,
and people with great diversity of interests. They maintain
two libraries, one for young children and the other for teenagers
and adults. They boast an excellent music program and publish
a choir newsletter, Lofty Thoughts, that lists the
anthems for the month as well as choir members' prayer requests
and matters of general interest.
Erie is an old industrial city in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania,
on the shore of one of the Great Lakes that gave the city its
name. Said location makes the city prone to the weather phenomenon
known as the lake effect – cold winter winds blowing over
the Great Lakes pick up moisture which is then dropped as heavy
snow upon lakeshore cities. Once a major industrial center,
Erie today is home to General Electric's railroad locomotive
manufacturing division. Downtown Erie features some old commercial
buildings and theaters, lovingly restored, as well as Millionaires
Row, a collection of 19th century Victorian mansions, many of
which have been converted into law offices and accounting firms.
The church's main entrance is on Millionaires Row, but the church
grounds (including educational buildings and parking facilities)
extend a full block deep.
The Revd Dale E. Southorn, pastor and head of staff, and Brian
Lasher, a lay assistant. The organist was Shirley Wilson, music
associate. Steven Skinner, minister of music, directed the choir.
The date & time:
June 6, 2010, 10.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The central part of the nave was comfortably full. I would guess
there were 350 to 400 there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. An usher bid us welcome as he handed us the service leaflet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard issue pew with a seat cushion. There was a comfortable
amount of space between pews.
How would you describe the pre-service
Quietly chatty. The organist played some "gathering music"
and the service began right on time.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul."
What books did the congregation use during the
Presbyterian Hymnal and pew Bibles.
What musical instruments
Organ and, for one of the anthems, piano. The original EM
Skinner organ has been refurbished and augmented over the years
by several firms. The chancel, antiphonal and chapel organs,
plus the trompette en chamade at the rear of the church, are
all controlled from the same console.
Did anything distract
Well, the architecture, appointments and stained glass are really
over the top, but it was not a distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Standard, solid, Protestant worship, but without attempting
to be all things to all people. It felt like a church service,
not a performance. The congregation were engaged, not merely
witnessing as an audience. The music and especially the hymns
were, as Mrs Eagle Eye put it, just wonderful. The hymns were
the sort everyone loves to sing: "The Church's One Foundation",
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", etc. The organist,
Mrs Wilson, played with sensitivity to the text and freely indulged
in the practice all good organist seem fond of – going
all out on the last verse. And did they ever sing! All undergirded
(but not overpowered) by that thundering organ. It made what
little hair I have left stand on end.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
10 Dr Southorn has the ability to deliver a sermon with
a smile. It was a genuine, pleasant smile and it made you feel
good to be there. His clear and direct delivery was refreshing
and conversational, no doubt enhanced by the revamped acoustics
and the nearly invisible microphone he wore.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
His text was Acts 20:17-24 (Paul's farewell to the church at
Ephesus). Dr Southorn spoke of the conclusion of the church's
renovation project, deftly weaving his comments into a number
of beginnings in the congregation just now: babies being born,
a new associate for missions, newly graduated high schoolers,
etc. He called to mind a visit to Westminster Abbey and the
various worthies buried or memorialized there, and then mentioned
the great cloud of witnesses who had given to the construction
and renovation of the church.
Which part of the service was like being in
The 30 plus voice choir sang a beautiful arrangement of "Kumbaya"
with piano accompaniment, but for me that last verse of "Love
Divine" was really heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
None. No squealing babies, hearing aids or microphones. No cell phones went off. No ambulances roared by.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Impossible. We were immediately asked to join the congregation
at the coffee hour.
How would you describe the after-service
On this particular Sunday it was a full-blown brunch in honor
of the high school graduates. There was egg strata, salads,
sweet rolls, and all the rest.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 I'd want to visit again just to make sure the quality of the preaching and music is consistent. I am heavily involved in my own church and not even a Presbyterian, but if I were new in town, I'd be there again next week.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. The solid program is a refreshing change from the
usual slap-dash worship we seem to expect these days.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
The total experience. It was about as good as worship gets:
authentic, genuine and well done.
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