Alma Willits has been a member of the Scottsville United Methodist Church in Lower Southampton since 1949. As the church historian, she'll have a place of honor Sunday when the congregation celebrates its 150th anniversary.
The 94-year-old resident of Wood River Village in Bensalem said she's attended services at the church for so long because it's "such a wonderful place. There are people who care."
Three members of the congregation became ministers, Willits noted, including the current pastor, the Rev. Don Keller, who grew up in the church. Eight former pastors are expected to attend Sunday's festivities.
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The anniversary celebration will start with a 10 a.m. service at the church, 2400 Brownsville Road, and be followed by a luncheon served by volunteers from the nearby Langhorne United Methodist Church.
"We're Methodist. We have to have a meal," Keller said.
The pastor said the congregation wanted the lunch to be accessible. "We didn't want to charge," he said, so he asked the Langhorne church staff if their congregation could help with the luncheon and, in exchange, the Scottsville congregation would make a contribution for the Langhorne church's roof fund. "It worked out well for both churches," he said.
As he lined up mementos of the church that members donated to put on display during the celebration, Keller said his parents were married at the church as well as his sister and he and his wife, Patsy. His daughter plans to be married there in December, he added. "I grew up in this church. This is my home," he said.
He will display a small silver Communion cup and wafer holder that former pastor, the Rev. Howard Reeves, used on visits to members who were too ill to come to church.
"When I started in ministry, he was retiring and willed this to me," Keller said. He estimated that the silver set dates to the early 20th century when Reeves first became a minister.
"We're expecting the place to be full," he said for the Sunday service. The church can seat about 330 people, which is a little more than the number of congregation members.
Church member Joe Toner, who lives just over a hill from the church, was busy Monday placing stones around an outdoor prayer garden, which features a statue of Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane donated by longtime members of the congregation. He and his wife, Georgeanne, lead a service there on Memorial Day weekend — what the church calls "Patriotic Sunday," so he was preparing the garden for both the anniversary celebration and the patriotic service.
Nearby, children in the church's pre-school for 3- to 5-year-olds played on some playground equipment.
Ruth Irwin, of Lower Southampton, chairs the anniversary committee. She also grew up as a member of the congregation and now works with the church's young people, helping with the "Junior Church" for children from age 3 to fourth grade, and with the popular Vacation Bible School the church holds, for free, each summer for children in the neighborhood, no matter their faith.
She said what she likes about Scottsville is sharing her faith with the "old timers" like her mother who have been worshipping there for years, as well as with her own children and the youngsters coming now.
"There's three generations. It's definitely a family atmosphere," she said.
A group of Methodists founded the Scottsville church in 1866 on ground donated by Hazel Scott and his wife, Sarah, who operated a store at the intersection of what is now Bristol and Brownsville roads in Lower Southampton. It was a year after the Civil War ended and the Bucktail Regiment that fought for the Union Army, wearing the tail of a buck deer in their caps, were coming home, Willits explained in a history of the church's early days.
Farmers and tradesmen built the original church building in their spare time. "Each of the original charter members physically helped to build the church," Willits said. When times got tough financially for the small congregation in the early 1900s, the church was closed for a few years, but then was reopened as a Sunday school in 1911. By 1914, it reopened as a church. Willits said the roof was so leaky that when it rained, "the congregation would sit in the church with umbrellas," until 1919 when Ladies Aid paid $800 to have the roof repaired. In 1921, congregation members hand dug a basement under the building to hold the Sunday school.
Over the years, as the region turned from rural to suburban, the congregation realized it needed a new facility. In the 1960s, it bought six acres of land further up Brownsville Road from farmer Walter Sebastian and, in 1968, opened the current church.
Both Keller and church member Carol Drioli, who is Lower Southampton's zoning officer, praised Willits' work on recording the church's history over the years.
"She's the reason we could put it all together," said Drioli. "She took care of the first 125 years. She was the gatekeeper."
"A lot of the history of the town is in the history of the church. It had rough patches, just like the community it served. It's a real reflection of the community," Drioli said.
The church's spiritual programs and outreach are among its strengths, the members said. It supports missionaries, a program for shut-ins called Aid for Friends, as well as children's charities like Bethana and the Ronald McDonald House. Irwin said it hosts Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous programs as well.
She hopes the young people she works with will be able to celebrate their Christian faith at the Scottsville church well into the future.
Willits is optimistic they will: "They carry on and their children are carrying on."