Sunday service will kick off 175th anniversary events at Greensburg's Zion's Lutheran Church

Jan. 14—A difference over languages spurred the founding of Zion's Evangelical Lutheran Church of Greensburg.

"A number of people wanted to worship in the language of commerce, which is to say English," said the Rev. Brian Chaffee, 23rd in the line of pastors who have led the congregation since Jan. 16, 1848. That's when it separated from Greensburg's First Evangelical Lutheran Church, where services in German were the standard.

First Lutheran did make an attempt to offer services in English.

"In December of 1847, they started them every other week, but that didn't make it a month," Chaffee said.

So, 40 members and assistant pastor John Rugan left to form Zion's. The congregation settled into its current location, 140 S. Pennsylvania Ave., in 1851.

Now, 175 years later, as church members celebrate that beginning, they're also thankful for the renewed ties with the body from which that earlier generation split — and for many other relationships they've nurtured through outreach efforts.

"We're friends now," said Barbara Hillis, 85, of Greensburg, a lifelong member at Zion who serves on a committee organizing the church's anniversary observance. "We combine with (First Lutheran) for vacation Bible school."

With close to 300 members, Zion has become known for its Lenten services and luncheons that are open to the Greensburg community.

"Every Thursday, we have a service of 20 to 25 minutes. Sometimes it's shared with different Lutheran ministers," Hillis said. "We have a luncheon afterward."

The menus, posted in advance around town, vary each week of Lent. Chicken pot pie has been a favorite entree, Hillis said.

"Originally, the idea was that people from the courthouse could come, eat lunch and then go back to work," she said.

The range of attendees has since expanded.

"We get a lot of people off the street, and after those people have eaten, they leave with food," said Darlene Delaini, a fellow member of the anniversary committee.

The Sew 'n Sews group has met regularly at the church since 2011, crafting items of clothing and blankets sent to those in need in the United States, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and in other countries in Africa and Central America. Sadly, Chaffee noted, there has been a need for white burial garments for those killed in Haiti earthquakes.

The longest combined tenures at the Zion pulpit belong to the Rev. J. Paul Harman, who served from 1932 through 1964, and his son, John Harman, who ministered to the congregation from 1974 to 1999.

The elder Harman had a reputation as a strict shepherd of his flock.

"He made us behave when we met every Saturday morning for confirmation class," Hillis said.

The younger Harman started out just the opposite, Chaffee said.

"He was the little trouble-maker," Chaffee said. "He would just push his father to the edge. He pushed it far enough that he threw a paper airplane from the balcony during the middle of worship."

The second Harman pastor received payback during his farewell sermon. "On that final Sunday, there must have been 50 paper airplanes sent from the balcony," Chaffee said.

Among Hillis' favorite memories from her childhood are attending Zion's late 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service.

"When I was a little girl, I felt that was a grownup thing to go to that," she said. Now, she goes to the 7 p.m. service, where children add a series of figures to gradually complete the church's creche scene.

"That's my favorite, every year," Chaffee said.

Many nonmembers have discovered the church for the first time during Greensburg's pre-Christmas Luminary Night festivities. Chaffee said the event has attracted as many as 250 people to the church, to hear musically gifted residents sing hymns and carols.

"I hear so many say, 'I drive by almost every single day, and didn't know this was a church here,' " Chaffee said of the visitors. "Maybe it's because they're so focused on the traffic light."

The current home of the congregation is the second at the corner of Pennsylvania and Second Street. The first church was destroyed in 1877, when a fire spread from a nearby opera house, Chaffee said.

Irwin Walthour is said to have braved the hazard of flames, smoke and falling timbers to rescue the Bible from the pulpit.

The current church building was erected two years later and was greatly modified in 1938, with the addition of an education wing. Further renovations occurred in 1952 and 1985.

The church has a prominent tower, where a bell will be rung for a 9:30 a.m. service Sunday that will kick off a yearlong series of activities celebrating Zion's anniversary. The service will be followed by a reception in the church's social room.

Those entering the social room from Second Street will notice the gravestones of early Greensburg landowner Col. Christopher Truby (1736-1802) and his wife, Isabella, set into the wall opposite that of Michael Eyster, the church's second pastor. Truby donated the land on which First Lutheran sits, at Main and Third streets.

The remains of the Trubys and Eyster were moved to the Zion's crypt in 1938 from a former German cemetery just south of Greensburg's City Hall. Most of the others buried there were re-interred at St. Clair Cemetery when the land was redeveloped.

Other Zion's anniversary events are planned throughout the year, including: a pie social on April 22 that will feature a review of church history; an anniversary dinner celebration on July 16; and a Golden Age Dinner on Sept. 10, with a display of photos from baptisms and youth gatherings.

"Every month we have an activity planned," Delaini said.

The anniversary observance will end with a closing litany on Jan. 14, 2024.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff by email at or via Twitter .