History of Bethlehem Lutheran 

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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.

 

From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come

It was the vision of Rev. William B. Claney, Sr., pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church Etna, that a new church was needed for his people in the Undercliff Area. On June 24, 1930, the synodical Board of Home Missions of the Pittsburgh Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church instructed Missionary Superintendent the Rev. John J. Myers to lease a lot at 900 Mt. Royal Boulevard 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.*

 

A frame chapel was quickly erected that summer and first used on August 10, with Sunday School service at 9:15am. 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 congregation was formally organized on September 14, 1930, when the charter members were received and Council was installed. Laymen William Meyer conducted worship services until seminary student W. Blair Claney, Jr. (pictured here) was called as the first pastor upon completion of his training from Mt. Airy Seminary (later, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) in May, 1931.

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 room 30 feet square for greatly needed Sunday School space. Amazingly, only $3 was spent on labor. 

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In the seven years that Pastor Claney served at Bethlehem, the congregation grew to 371 baptized members, and the original building would serve the congregation for almost 20 years. Due to Second World War building restrictions, expansion was temporarily out of the question. But by the end of the war, the congregation was already preparing plans. As the population center of Glenshaw was drifting northwards, three lots on Mt. Royal Boulevard at Campbell Place caught their eye. This property was purchased on January 2, 1944, and later, an adjoining lot. 

 

Now under the leadership of Pastor Schmid, construction was delayed again until May of 1947, this time because of high building costs. Ground was finally broken the following summer, and the corner stone was laid September 26, 1948. The formal Dedication Service was April 3, 1949, two weeks before Easter. But the ultimate vision was yet to be realized.

Bursting at the Seams

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 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 yet another expansion. The Building Planning Committee proceeded with plans for an expansion to seat 400 plus accommodate room for a Sunday School of 300 students.

 

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 congregation.

Coming soon: The REST of the story

      * Standard Bank is there now, between Z Florist and RiteAid. Louisa Braun lived to be 91 and is buried in Mt. Royal Cemetery.