The Hecla Union Congregationalist Church sits atop the steep hill on the corner of Cooper Street and Moore Road.
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Garry Thaler, describes it as “a small country church founded by farmers of the community. Honest and laid back.”
The altar is decorated sparsely with flowers, and candles, and during Lent, a rugged wooden cross. The beauty comes from the light that streams in through the blue, green, purple, and yellow stained-glass windows and it comes from within the people who gather inside it’s white walls.
“Working for God, I light up,” Pastor Phyllis Kitchen said after a Sunday service at the Hecla Congregationalist Church. “I can feel it. I just light right up.”
Kitchen has spent years and years working for God, and it has been weeks and weeks since she “retired” from the pulpit, at least she tried to. On Aug. 11 she was back at it doing the Lord’s work. It was the weekend that followed the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso.
“Sometimes it seems that if it weren’t for bad news, we wouldn’t have any news at all,” she said opening her sermon. “Sometimes it overshadows the good news.”
In the pews, we nodded our heads. We had already prayed for the victims, their families, our country, our leaders, and each of our individual concerns, some of which were equally heavy and grim.
“The answer to your questions is in this volume of 66 books,” Pastor Kitchen assured us holding up the Bible. “This is a book of hope, peace, joy, and love. God said to the Israelites, ‘I heard your prayers, I see your problems, I know you’re here.’”
“She’s helped deepen my knowledge of the Bible,” Trustee Christine Hansen said. “She loved doing the work for the Lord.”
But, she can’t anymore, at least not as the church’s pastor. I wrote about her official retirement in my April 4 column.
“I believe with all my heart that God has great plans for this church and that He knows the plan for each of us," she said at the time.
Now she’s more insistent than ever that the congregation finds a permanent replacement for her. But, it’s hard. She’s leaving enormous shoes to fill.
“We need a pastor that will inspire, educate, and motivate the congregation,” Hansen said. “(They have to) encourage children to be involved in Sunday School and other church events and bring new ideas to the church to increase attendance.
That last part is key in this age of decreasing church attendance.
“The Bible has all the answers, but the pastor needs to help interpret in a way that the congregation can understand,” Trustee David Callister explained. “The pastor needs to have a caring Godly disposition (and be) willing to take the time to get to know everyone.”
“This is a loving church,” Pastor Kitchen told me. “Everyone is greeted here one way or another. They all have roots here.”
The church was built in 1902 and the spaces between the pews are just a bit tight, sitting in them it feels like we are close to each other, and to her. It’s a warm and embracing feeling that has comforted generations of parishioners through 117 years of the same sorts of joys and concerns that we shared with one another at the beginning of the service.
Phyllis Kitchen has an aura of authenticity and realness. I told her that she reminded me of my grandmother, Lucille Spaven. She is probably around the age my grandmother was when she died, and like my grandmother, her words are kind, and have strong plainspoken wisdom that is direct and pragmatic.
“This is the last time I am going to do this,” she said firmly. “I came back because it was the first Sunday of the month and they needed to have Communion. I can’t do it again. They’ve gotten too used to my voice.”
I am grateful I was there to have communion with her, to hear her voice and to hear her hit a wrong note on the piano. Pastor Kitchen is musical and has a beautiful singing voice, but she is human, and that imperfect genuineness is her appealing strength. With her red hair and her beaming smile, she has a Sissy Spacek quality to her that is wholesome and makes you feel connected to faith and family, and God and country.
We sang, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and it felt American and right. Later a hymn I had never heard before called “Hold the Fort,” which was written in the 1860s by Phillip Bliss. It includes the lyrics, “Fierce and long the battle rages. But our help is near; Onward comes our Great Commander. Cheer my comrades, cheer!” The Gospel reading that day was from Ephesians. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”
The Hecla Congregationalist Church is strong in their faith, and they’ve had a strong leader in Pastor Kitchen. The people that make up this church and the faith community in Westmoreland are very supportive of one another. They will have to be because the transition will be difficult.
She hopes that my writing this column will help widen the applicant pool and allow them the comfort of knowing they have considered every option before they make a permanent decision. But she has faith that they are ready for that next step.
On Friday, Aug. 23 there will be a Family Fun night held in the Fellowship Hall with food and music by Brian Nelson, that will be from 6-9 p.m., and services are every Sunday at 10 am. Trustee Garry Thaler can be reached by phone at 315-269-8358 to talk to anyone who might be interested in the position.
“Most of God’s work is not done in the pulpit,” Pastor Kitchen said before leaving. “It’s done out here with the people.”
She has done a good job in the pulpit, and with the people, and she has earned to the right to perform her last task-turning the church over to a successor, with grace and confidence.
After everyone left, I carefully walked down the steep stone steps to the base of Moore Road. I crossed Cooper Street and looked up at the church as it sat atop the hill. It’s been there since the beginning of the last century, and I have faith it will endure as a beacon of stability and hope through whatever joys and concerns we have in this century.
“We need to look for the stronger things, lasting things,” Pastor Kitchen said in her sermon. “What God offers us is built on solid rock. You can build your life on it.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and Follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo