First Presbyterian Church celebrates 230 years of service

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown’s First Presbyterian Church turned 230 this fall, but if Sunday was any indication, the house of worship on Spruce Street isn’t showing its age one bit.

One of the sermons repeatedly referenced Spider Man, Hulk, Iron Man and other social justice-seeking denizens of the Marvel universe.

One of the songs — an original, penned and performed by a First Presbyterian member — gave a contemporary cast of the story of Jesus’s birth.

And one of the prayers was for WVU students embarking upon final exams this week.

The Rev. Zac Morton, whom congregants refer to as “Pastor Zac,” or simply, “Zac,” said he was happy to have signed on with a church able to ping-pong with its past and present.

Morton is a western Pennsylvania native who grew up in Houston, Pa., a little borough about 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh.

“Yep, I’m a yinzer and I shop at Giant Iggle,” he said, gently poking fun at his hometown region’s distinct dialect.

He came to First Presbyterian last May after postings in Kansas and Atlanta, and said he was impressed right off by the church’s main language of service and outreach.

Well, he allowed, the longevity is pretty amazing, too.

“We’re as old as the Constitution,” he said.

Founding fathers, firm principles for social justice

Yes, the Constitution, the nation’s founding, milepost document that was ratified June 21, 1788. Four months to that day, Oct. 21, 1788, First Presbyterian held its first service in Morgantown.

The pioneering Presbyterians, according to church history, met in a court house “somewhere” along High Street. Those congregants built their first church in 1822, also on that same thoroughfare, at a cost of $1,850 (land included).

While First Presbyterian put down roots, it didn’t drop anchors of oppression or rigid thinking.

It sent missionaries to India, China and Thailand through the 1800s.

First Presbyterian was in the first row in the fight for racial equality in America.

In 1946, it helped build the first integrated swimming pool in the state of West Virginia at The Shack Neighborhood House, an outreach center in Osage.

In 1948, a black family welcomed into the congregation sat at the front of the church during services.

In 1963, well before Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the National Mall, First Presbyterian officially proclaimed its doors opened to anyone who wanted to worship.

While Vietnam roiled in the 1970s, First Presbyterian sponsored two refugee families, in 1975 and 1979, who were fleeing the war and its aftermath.

“I’m proud of that,” Morton said.

Today, the church regularly reaches out to the LGBTQ community.

Respecting those who went before

It also did something else in 1954. It venerated its Colonial congregants in a loving, permanent way.

First Presbyterian grew over the years, and ’54 was when it built its current church at the corner of Spruce and Forest streets.

Trouble was, the planned site also included the church cemetery.

While First Presbyterian’s church elders went ahead with the plan, they also went about the business of respectfully tending to the dead.

Descendants were notified through probate court of plans to relocate the graves — but the plots were so old that nothing remained in the pine box coffins but scraps of fabric and maybe a button or two off a shirt or dress.

A church was built on a once-graveyard, but the headstones stayed, and were incorporated into a courtyard wall in back.

Call it a divine time-bend.

While Julie Zuercher, and Katherine and Wyatt Zuercher-Kirby lit the Advent candle Sunday, Julie T. Berkshire, who finished her Earthly work on April 16, 1837, got to bear witness.

While Chris Haddox played his guitar and sang the song he wrote about Joseph on the night Jesus was born, George Hill, who finished his journey in 1848, was spiritually part of the proceedings.

While guest minister the Rev. Shelly Barrick Parsons mapped out that mythic Marvel pantheon, Col. William McCleary, who fought for his new country in the Revolutionary War and marched off this mortal coil in 1821, was in on it, too.

“This is who we are,” Morton said, greeting the people (many couples with young children), as they filed out at the end of the service.

And so went Dec. 9, 2018, in the ongoing life and times of First Presbyterian Church.

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