By Preston Knight - firstname.lastname@example.org
MT. JACKSON -- St. Mary's Pine Lutheran Church is not as old as the hills, but it is as old as it is because of one.
The challenges facing churches today are vastly different from centuries ago, and when you reach 250 years old, as St. Mary's has this year, that fact becomes all the more impressive. For example, when the church was officially established in 1760 -- according to a written history, worship started possibly as early as 1745 -- worshippers met at the northern edge or foot of Rude's Hill near the Caverns Road-Interstate 81 interchange because it needed to defend against Indian attacks. Members walked five to 10 miles to church.
That, like much involved with St. Mary's, now at 7103 South Middle Road, is ancient history, but it is a part of what is being celebrated all year long for the church's 250th anniversary. Each month, the church is trying to hold one special event, but activities planned for Saturday and Sunday are making this weekend the "big weekend" in terms of celebrating, said Lenord Wilkins, St. Mary's council chairman.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, local historian Robert Frye will give a presentation, followed by an old-time hymn sing featuring a number of groups and then a reception. On Sunday, Judy Zirkle, whose husband grew up in the church, will be on hand for Sunday school before the 10:30 a.m. service, which will be attended by former pastors and the Rev. James Mauney, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Virginia Synod.
"Then we eat," Wilkins said.
He proudly states that, too. For one thing, church attendance, which averages about 60, always seems to be higher when meals are involved, Wilkins said. Additionally, a meal means the church gets to showcase its social hall, the biggest addition since the current structure was built in 1873.
The hall, added in 1995, cost about $300,000, and $52,885 is left to pay on it, Wilkins said. St. Mary's hosts two steak dinners a year, treating as many as 430 people, to help pay for the room. It sold its 1940s telephone stock, worth about $50,000-$60,000, to serve as a "good down payment," Wilkins added.
Between the church's stay at Rude's Hill and its current location, worship was conducted a few hundred yards away on South Middle Road, starting in 1776.
The Rev. Karen Van Stee, who has served as St. Mary's pastor since 2006, said the church stands out for its strong sense of community. Wilkins said that takes shape in such ways as its men's groups planting potatoes for the hungry, the women's group designating a cause to promote each month, and the entire church adopting three or four needy families for Christmas.
"Doing God's work," Van Stee said.
After this weekend, St. Mary's will still pay tribute to its anniversary, with ideas including a lawn party, old-time Thanksgiving and an outdoor service at the original site on Rude's Hill.
That would bring the church full circle, and when Van Stee rattles off all the things it has overcome, it makes for a pretty wide one. St. Mary's has endured wars, a depression and more, but it is still around, she said. And, who knows, it might be for another 250 trips around the sun.
"Could that really happen?" Van Stee said. "Well, it certainly could."