History of Bethlehem Lutheran
For over 90 years, the congregation of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church has been a vital part of Shaler Township and Pittsburgh's North Hills. Above, attendees celebrate the September 14th, 1930 dedication. Pastor Claney stands behind the boy wearing suspenders.
In the Beginning...
It was the vision of Rev. William B. Claney, Sr., pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church Etna, that a new church was needed for people in the Undercliff area. As he made calls to parishioners up the hill above Etna, it was evident that a mission church was needed in what is now the southern section of Glenshaw. He encouraged a group of twelve pastors plus his seminary student son to canvas the area and survey the community's interest. With reports of 252 families affirming, the synodical Board of Home Missions of the Pittsburgh Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church instructed Missionary Superintendent the Rev. John J. Myers to proceed. A 100' x 200' lot at 900 Mt. Royal Boulevard was leased from Mrs. Louisa Braun for the nominal sum of $1 per year. Ms. Braun became one of the early members and later gifted this lot to the church.
Initially the congregation worshipped in a modest 30' x 60' temporary portable shelter supplied by the synod. A frame chapel was quickly erected that summer and first used for a Sunday School service at 9:15am on August 10th. The cost of the mission building, including pews, altar, lectern and pulpit, hymnals, a reed organ, gas furnace, and electric lights totaled $5,500. Twelve adults and 14 children attended, with the first offering amounting to $5.19. With 62 charter members, prospective members, pastors, and members of Etna's Emmanuel Lutheran in attendance, Synod President The Rev. E. B. Burgess conducted dedication services at 3:00pm.
The Church's One Foundation
The young congregation received many gifts of chancel furnishings from sister congregations in the synod, and early members gave generously, too. One of the earliest projects was the excavation of a basement under the chapel, which was started in the unusually warm January of 1933. Because of the Great Depression, many were unemployed and gladly offered their services. Fifteen members dug through 9½ feet of solid rock, removed over 200 yards of earth, and created a 30-foot square room for greatly needed Sunday School space. Material cost was $624, and amazingly, only $3 was spent on labor.
Standard Bank now occupies the site, between Z Florist and RiteAid. Property donor and charter member Louisa Braun lived 91 years and is buried in Mt. Royal Cemetery. Lower left, the Sunday School in the newly excavated basement.
Pastor Blair Claney, Jr.
was called following his seminary education, beginning on June 1, 1931
The congregation was formally organized on September 14, 1930, when the charter members were received and the council was installed. Missionary Superintendent Meyers conducted worship services until in May 1931 when W. Blair Claney, Jr., the son of the man who first envisioned the new congregation, was called as the first pastor upon completion of his training from Mt. Airy Seminary (later, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia).
In the seven years that Pastor Claney served at Bethlehem, the congregation grew to 371 baptized members. However, with Pastor Claney's 1938 departure, Bethlehem faced a period of significant turmoil, both with leadership and facilities. Three pastors came and went in a short time. While the original building would serve the congregation for almost 20 years, the size of this original lot was restrictive. The structure having been erected so quickly left much to be desired. A new building was contemplated as early as 1938, but soon WWII building restrictions made expansion temporarily out of the question.
The arrival of of Pastor Schmid and his leadership brought healing to the congregation. Construction was delayed again until May of 1947, this time because of high building costs. But ground was finally broken the following summer, and the corner stone laid September 26, 1948. The formal Dedication Service of what was referred to as the Chapel Unit occurred on April 3, 1949, two weeks before Easter. But the ultimate vision was yet to be realized.
Let the Little Children Come to Me
As more post-war families moved to the northern suburbs, the congregation continued to grow. Average Sunday School attendance had increased to nearly 200. To accommodate all of the worshipers, a second service was added in October, 1954. By 1955, the year of the 25th
anniversary of the congregation, the baptized membership was recorded at 633 and the Sunday
School enrollment at 310. So, when in 1958 the $112,000 note on the Chapel Unit was fully paid
The renaming of Schmid Hall honors the vision and legacy of Pastor Herman Schmid.
The war ended, and the congregation was already preparing plans. As home building was booming up Mt. Royal Boulevard, three lots caught their eye less than a mile north at Campbell Place and across from the recently-opened new high school. This property was purchased on January 2, 1944, and later, an adjoining lot.
The new Bethlehem, before the trees got so big
But it was in the midst of this planning that Bethlehem was hit with a devastating tragedy: the untimely death of Pastor Schmid. For the past 15 years his ministry had inspired the congregation to dream big and aim high. Working through this grief while continuing the growth in mission, the congregation formed a call committee in 1959 even as it continued to work on the building plans. The Rev. Walter Koehler was called to be its next pastor, and Bethlehem continued toward the goal of a larger church building to meet the ministry needs of the growing
a pesky underground stream that had frequently dampened the basement of the Chapel Unit. Eleven months later, on December 3rd, the dedication of the addition that virtually tripled the size of the facility. Facing the boulevard, a white marble panel backed a 22-foot red granite cross, with its 41-foot aluminum spire above. The exterior stone came from the same Butler County quarry that supplied the stone for the original Chapel Unit. Eight magnificent stained glass windows took inspiration from contemporary modern artists. The cost of this expression of (and leap of) faith totaled $285,000, the equivalent of about $2.8M in today's dollars. The following year saw the installation of the two-manual, 996-pipe Moller pipe organ that continues to enrich our worship today.
off, a celebratory mortgage burning ceremony was held on Sunday, September 14 -- the congregation's 28th anniversary. Now almost bursting at its seams, the congregation turned its attention to the next challenge. The Building Planning Committee proceeded with plans for an expansion to seat 400, plus accommodate room for a Sunday School of
Pastor Koehler officiated the January 1, 1961 groundbreaking. Excavation that spring had to unexpectedly deal with an underground stream.
Bethlehem Gives Birth to Nativity
Just as back in 1936 the congregation of Etna's Emmanuel Lutheran had initiated the establishment of Bethlehem in Glenshaw near the southern end of Mt. Royal, BELC continued the tradition in June 1965 by supporting the founding of Nativity Lutheran Allison Park as a mission congregation five miles north at the other end of the boulevard.
Let Your Light So Shine
Pastor Steve Myers was called to lead us in 1972, and BELC's vibrant outreach ministry continued to look for additional ways to serve the greater community. That next summer, teams of adults and youth started travelling to Appalachia in the summer to help renovate local homes, and even a church building in need of repair, a tradition that continues to this day. Other fond memories from this era include overnight youth camping and canoe trips.
While Mark Nurnberger had started as part-time organist & choir director in 1979, it didn't take long before the staff was expanded to include Mark as our full-time Director of Music & Education. The music ministry was further enriched with the purchase of several octaves of hand bells and the formation of the bell choir. Mark would continue to bless us with his musical gifts and Christian education for over 40 years.
Pastor Gerald Huhn joined us in 1980, adding a more formal liturgical tone to our worship celebration with a processional cross,
Associate Pastor Tony Schneck joined us in 2001. The following autumn, a spoken word service was added on Saturday evenings 6pm to meet the varying needs and interests of the congregation.
Our 75th Anniversary was in 2005, but the celebration embraced another major building renovation. Made possible by the congregation's contribution of over 3,000 volunteer hours, this one included air conditioning for the sanctuary and narthex, new audiovisual systems and projection screens, the reconfiguration of offices and other spaces, and a Schmid Hall makeover. The property was re-landscaped and new pole lamps with festive banners were erected to add further exterior appeal. The completely invisible (but essential) installation of sump pumps and repair to drainage tiles along Campbell Place addressed once again that still pesky underground stream. Most noticeably, the construction of a new tower, entranceway, and elevator increased the accessibility of all floors for everyone.
This is the Day the Lord has Made
Pastor Dan Smail has been our pastor since 2010, and Pastor Ellen Lundie was called in 2019. As a team, they nurture opportunities for our congregation to worship, to grow in faith, to connect with others, and to put our personal gifts to good use in the service of others.
Lift High the Cross
Only 30 years from the congregation's founding in that modest structure, and barely a dozen years after moving up to a new stone church on Campbell Place, the ground breaking for the visionary new expansion started the new year on a cold January 1, 1961. One of the challenges was to redirect
lector torches, and sanctuary light. Also during his pastorate, glass etchings were added to the doors of the main entry and nave in remembrance of Pastor Schmid.
In 1990, Pastor Blair Morgan was called to Bethlehem. As we worked to become a congregation committed to being disciples concerned for the homeless, a close relationship developed with Northside Common Ministries. During this time, Glenn Sauer initially served as our part time youth director, followed by full time Director of Youth and Small Group Ministries
Mary Brown. That position evolved into a call for a second pastor when
Pastor Blair Morgan
Pastor Steve Myers
Pastor Dan Smail
Pastor Ellen Ludie
Pastor Tony Schneck
Pastor Jerry Huhn
Director of Music & Christian Education Mark Nurnberger
It is with a deep sense of gratitude for all that has been accomplished through faith and vision by the members who have come before us. Throughout the years, Bethlehem has given back to the Church a total of eight sons and daughters as ordained ministers to the ELCA. Amidst mortgage payments and building funds, the congregation has maintained a solid record of benevolence giving in support of the Southwestern PA Synod. And the consistent offering of time, treasure, and talent to the greater community beyond our walls has been unwavering.
Bethlehem is focused on a future of ever-expanding ministry, and we pray for God's continued blessing as we seek to "be and make disciples."
THE PASTORS OF BETHLEHEM LUTHERAN
The Rev. W. Blair Claney Jr. DD 1931 - 1938
The Rev. Luther M. Schulze STM 1938 - 1940
The Rev. Theodore H. Altof DD 1941 - 1943
The Rev. Stephen A. Bendes 1944 - 1946
The Rev. Herman J. Schmid STM 1948 - 1958
The Rev. Walter C. Koehler STM 1959 - 1971
The Rev. Steven J. Myers STM 1972 - 1980
The Rev. C. Gerald Huhn DMin 1980 - 1989
The Rev. Blair W. Morgan DMin 1990 - 2009
The Rev. Anthony J. Schneck MDiv 2001 - 2012
The Rev. Dan P. Smail STM 2010 - present
The Rev. Ellen S. Lundie 2019 - present
References for this history include Ernest G. Heissenbuttel's Pittsburgh Synod Congregational Histories (Studio of Printcraft, 1959).
Additional details and photo sourcing assistance by Pastor Steve Myers, Marty Burkett, Susan Fisher, and Pastor Dan Smail. Thank you!
Newspaper coverage of the January 1933 basement excavation
Pastor Claney's acceptance letter
The original women of Bethlehem
Pastor Luther Schultze was a civil engineer before entering the ministry. Called to BELC in 1938, he had to resign in 1940 due to a summons from the US Army, where he served as chaplain.
Pastor Ted Althof served us in the years prior to WWII. Because of the state of mind in the country at that time, his German heritage tragically caused his patriotism to be called into question by the government.
Pastor Stephen Bendes was called in February of 1944, but resigned 18 months later...only to have his resignation declined by the congregation. He resigned again the following January, and this time it was accepted.
Looking north up Mt. Royal in January 1944 from what would become our front yard. Across the street is the original high school school, and beyond is the new Shaler North Hills Library that had opened only five years earlier.
This field became the intersection of Campbell Place and Mason Drive. Houses visible on Mason include #109 on the left and #115 on the right.
Wible Run Road is just over the almost treeless ridge on the horizon.
Under construction in the summer of 1961. Once the beams were in place, we could see the new building take shape.
One early conceptual drawing of the expanded Bethlehem. A shorter tower similar to this one proposed in 1960 was subsequently added in 2006 when the elevator was installed.
THE SONS & DAUGHTERS OF BETHLEHEM LUTHERAN
The Rev. David H. Schmid 1953
The Rev. Allen G. Dietz 1961
The Rev. Harold S. Gardner 1961
The Rev. Ralph F. Schibler DMin 1962
The Rev. Charles L. Kammer III, PhD 1971
The Rev Donald E. Morris 1971
The Rev. Edward B. Saling 1972
The Rev Daniel M. Yeiser MDiv, PhD 1983
The Rev. Mary Q. Browne 2009
Bethlehem's 75th anniversary celebration in 2005. Comparing this with the 1930 photo, there is no young man in suspenders. But where's Waldo!?
The joyful noise that was the Bethlehem band in the early 2000's
Mission trips began in 1973, and continue today.