MIFFLINTOWN - It was 1861, the year that began one of the United States' greatest conflicts - the Civil War.
That same year a small group of Lutherans in the Licking Creek Valley of Juniata County decided to begin their own church.
Last Sunday, St. Stephen's Evangelical Lutheran Church members, some of whom directly descend from the congregation's founders, celebrated their 150th anniversary at the tree-lined brick church.
Families attending the St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church 150th anniversary pose for a photo Oct. 16 in Licking Creek.
Photo submitted by GREG SPANCAKE
Members of St. Stephen’s participate in a special service to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary on Oct. 16. During the service, a time capsule was opened from 1986 and then a lunch was held at the Milford Grange Hall. Bishop Robert Driesen of the Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America participated in the service.
Photo submitted by GREG SPANCAKE
The Rev. Chris Mathiason, who has served the church since 2006, said their anniversary celebration culminated Sunday with a visit from their diocese bishop and a ceremony to open a time capsule from the 125th anniversary.
"History ... tells us who we are, tells our story," Mathiason said. "We connect with the people who came before us."
As the congregation looks back over its history, it is easy to think times were better "back then," Mathiason said.
But the church's ancestors had their challenges, too, he said.
The church was founded during a time of turmoil in the U.S. - the beginning of the Civil War, he said.
Looking back through history helps everyone understand that "faith can get us through the tough times," Mathiason said.
On Dec. 8, 1861, 54 members of the first church dedicated the original church building "to the services of the Triune God according to the forms of the Evangelical Lutheran Church," according to a history of the church.
Almost three decades later, the congregation erected its current building and gave it the name St. Stephen's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
In 1914, a storm blew the original steeple and bell tower off St. Stephen's. It was not until 1999 that the congregation replaced the steeple and rededicated the entire building.
As the church grew older and required more modern conveniences, the congregation added a Sunday school and social area, a parking lot and a basement. In the early 1990s, the church remodeled its office and added more Sunday school rooms.
In 2012, the congregation will embark on another large renovation project.
Mathiason said they plan to break ground next year for a new sanctuary, which will be larger than the current one and handicapped accessible.
"The biggest issue is accessibility," Mathiason said. "This church was built in the 1800s when they didn't worry about wheelchairs ..."
The old sanctuary will be converted into a fellowship hall, and new Sunday school rooms will be added, he said.
St. Stephen's held anniversary events throughout the summer, including visits from former pastors, a talent show and pig roast, a memory-sharing day with Don Whitesel, and a history of the Boy Scout troop that the church sponsors, the pastor said.
The church also is compiling a history book, and selling T-shirts and crocks for the celebration.