The wooden-frame church sits high on a hill — Icy Hill, it’s called — just before the nearby southeastern York County road slopes to the Susquehanna.
The Chanceford Township congregation began worship in a log church building on that hill in 1772, and members and visitors have been worshipping in that attractive wooden church building since 1889.
How does this church in the wildwood keep praying, worshipping and witnessing for 25 decades?
Signs in the churchyard help answer that question from a human perspective.
There’s the usual official church sign with the name of the congregation, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, and the service time and a welcome to all. The sign’s winsome background is the shade of blue that picks up the sunshine on bright days and stands out when it’s overcast.
There’s a sign for a small Zumba class, and a nearby portable sign tells how to take in the worship service at home on a computer. It also promotes St. Luke’s preschool, joined by a sign on the 200th Anniversary House out back where the school meets.
Another sign bears particular significance this year. It tells about the congregation’s 250th anniversary.
The signs do not clutter this peaceful campus near New Bridgeville. They inform and indicate how a congregation must change and adapt — be willing to host dance workout classes and to accept smaller Sunday morning turnouts as some congregants watch from home, even after the worst of the pandemic has passed.
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Markers of another kind
And there are signs of another kind: markers in the nearby cemetery bearing the names of the dead, many of whom contributed to big chunks of this congregation’s 250 years.
One gravestone bears the name “Gipe,” the resting place of a congregant who not only made history locally and nationally but wrote this church’s story. Florence Meda Gipe (1895-1983) might have been destined to be a nurse, her first name matching that of the famous nurse Florence Nightingale.
This daughter of St. Luke’s graduated from Red Lion High School and then York Hospital School of Nursing in 1919, a school she later headed. She held nursing directorships with ever-progressing responsibility and earned a doctorate in education along the way, complete with a 720-page dissertation.
Now Dr. Gipe, she became a professor and first dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
The university’s School of Nursing website credits Gipe with creating the first undergraduate and graduate nursing programs in Maryland.
“Under Dean Gipe and her successors,” a story on the website states, “School of Nursing students were socialized into a profession that demanded the ability to think critically, learn new skills, and assume leadership.”
For her part, Gipe was known to crisply express her philosophy about nursing education: “You train dogs, you educate nurses.”
In remote York County
When St. Luke’s, or Stahley’s, was formed in 1772, it was one of 16 county Lutheran congregations to predate the American Revolution.
As today, the rural congregation was off the beaten path. But when it was formed, there was barely a path, the log building standing on the edge of the American frontier. It might have been a blessing to have the wilderness as a buffer because this German church was the only Lutheran congregation in this predominately Scots-Irish Presbyterian region of the county.
As with most Lutheran churches of the day, it formed a union with a German Reformed congregation, the agreement stating that the church would remain “Reformed and Lutheran so long as sun and moon exist … .”
The union church arrangement did not quite last that long, dissolving at the time that the cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1889.
Some of the Reformed congregation joined the nearby New Harmony Presbyterian Church in Brogue, their Calvinistic foundational documents — or confessions — lining up with those of their fellow Scots-Irish parishioners. Further, the German language likely was fading as a tie that formerly bound community members.
So St. Luke’s would stand by itself atop Icy Hill as the congregation entered the 20th century.
Chicken corn soup special
As the years passed, the congregation became known for its annual Sunday school picnic. And a feature of such festivities was St. Luke’s trademark chicken corn soup.
A story told by St. Luke’s member and York County historian June Burk Lloyd focuses on that dish and tells a bit about the congregation and the county at the same time.
In 2009, Lloyd was staffing the soup carryout window at the Sunday school picnic.
Up walked a nice man, probably about 40, wearing a black T-shirt.
He purchased 2 quarts of chicken corn soup and made extra sure the lids were on tight.
That soup was going home in the saddlebags of his motorcycle.
Harleys from the factory and chicken corn chowder from the farm.
“Pretty well sums up York County, doesn’t it?” Lloyd wrote.
And it explains St. Luke’s congregation. Its picnic and other forms of outreach have produced strong connections to its community — to farm and factory.
They met only once
Gipe retired from the University of Maryland in 1966, drawing accolades from Maryland’s governor, the university’s president and others.
She returned to York County and moved into a home on Wise Avenue in Red Lion. She took up Civil War studies, a rarity for women in that day, and often visited battlefields.
She also returned to St. Luke’s — she was a member there all her life — and taught Sunday school and served on the church council.
And she left a legacy for her beloved congregation, penning a history of the church in connection with its 200th anniversary in 1972. The first chapter’s title sets the book’s theme: “God’s House in the Wilderness.”
Lloyd is one of the leading York County historians in the past 50 years and, as such, has quietly been among the most influential community members of her generation. She and her family have been members of St. Luke’s for generations.
Gipe’s St. Luke’s history formed a bridge between the two women: two faithful St. Luke’s members whose lives of achievement have consecutively spanned from 1895 to today.
The two met only one time.
“When she found I didn’t have my own personal copy of her history,” Lloyd wrote,” … she immediately autographed a copy and gave it to me.”
“I wish I had known her better.”
One more sign?
In Gipe’s 200th anniversary history, she included a poem from congregant John F. Schmuck.
It’s titled “God’s Church,” an application to both the universal church and St. Luke’s. He ended it with these words, sentiments no doubt held by the church’s congregants for 250 years.
“You are my fortress, strength and love, / You are the hope that makes me free. / True and just, yet gentle as a dove. / Standing for truth to Eternity.”
As part of 250th anniversary observances, that verse perhaps should gain prominence on a sign somewhere on that hilltop that has hosted St. Luke since 1772.
250th at St. Luke’s: Pastor Joshua Craley, who grew up in St. Luke’s congregation and has been pastor of New Hope United Church of Christ in Landisburg for 15 years, will preach at the Homecoming Sunday service at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 14. Former pastors and older members of the congregation will be recognized.
On Oct. 23, Lutheran Bishop James Dunlop will preach.
The 2022 St. Luke’s picnic is set from 3 to 7 p.m. Sept. 24. Musical entertainment will be Tall in the Saddle, and chicken corn soup will be available.
Jean Robinson and June Lloyd will lead a St. Luke’s Cemetery tour focusing on veterans buried there from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam. That tour is set for May 7.
Sources: June Burk Lloyd’s Universal York blog; Charles H. Glatfelter’s “York County Lutherans,” Florence Gipe’s “A 200th Anniversary of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.”
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: St. Luke’s Lutheran Church celebrates 250 anniversary in York County