By David Meade
The Pelzer Presbyterian Church and Williamston Presbyterian Church congregations recently voted to unify and establish a new church. The two churches have discussed joining as one church for about eight years and have actually been worshiping together as one congregation since 2013.
They have shared a pastor for several years and have been worshiping together as one congregation since 2013, with alternating monthly services being held at both churches.
Under a proposal recently approved by each of the congregations, the new church will include a new name not associated with either current name. Members will have the opportunity to submit possible names, which will be narrowed to three and then voted on.
The current pastor for both churches, Rev. Aaron Ochart, will continue to be the minister of the new church. According to Rev. Ochart, the Pelzer Church is not being dissolved. The members are combining with the Williamston Church and establishing a new church.
The proposal presented to both congregations states all assets of the existing churches will be combined into one church and explains that existing funds of the Pelzer Presbyterian Church will be held in a separate account to maintain repairs, maintenance, utilities and other expenses associated with the Pelzer church property.
The church building in Williamston will be the primary building for the newly formed congregation.
The new church will retain ownership and oversight of the building in Pelzer, which will continue to be used for special services and possibly for weddings, community meetings and rental to anouther congregation in need of a facility.
According to the proposal, no additional funds will be added to that account other than income from leasing the property or other income that may be generated.
It state, “If those funds are exhausted, it would then be up to the Session of the new church to determine the economic feasibility of continuing to maintain the property in Pelzer.”
With the recent unification vote, all tithes and contributions to the new church will go to support the salaries of the minister, organist, choir director, benovolences, etc. along with maintaining the properties in Williamston.
“It is the hope of the Joint Session that continued growth of the combined Church will not only allow for the justification of maintaining both Church buildings but necessitate it to support the growth and outreach of the new church.
According to the proposal, it is the intent of the Session to preserve as many of the elements of both current church buildings as possible and incorporate them into the current worship now and in the future.
It states: “It is the intention of the Sessions to evaluate the incorporation of important components of the Pelzer Church into worship to represent the joining of our two former Churches into one body of Christ.”
Items of particular interest are the historic pipe organ, the baby grand piano, select furniture, and paraments within the Pelzer Presbyterian Church sanctuary.
The proposal also states, “It is also agreed that the stained glass windows can be best preserved in place until they can be incorporated into a new Church building in the future. Regardless of the future use of the Pelzer building, every effort will be made to preserve the safety and integrity of the stained glass windows.”
The new unified church will select elders to begin service in 2015. A new Session will then be formed including four elders from each church. Two more elders from each church will rotate off the Session at the end of 2015 with one new elder from each former Church being elected for a new three year term.
By 2017, there will no longer be any further separation of, or reference to, previous Church membership.
The Pelzer Presbyterian church has 44 members on the rolls with about 20 being active. Williamston Presbyterian has 65 members with about 40 being active.
The Foothills Presbytery Committee evaluated the proposal at their June meeting and it will be sent to the August Presbytery Meeting.
Some items currently used in the church including Paraments, table, baptismal font and chairs will be moved and used at the Williamston sanctuary.
There was some consideration of moving the organ, which is one of only two existing in the US according to church members.
The proposal states, “Due to cost of refurbishment, architectural changes to the building and public sentiment, this move is currently not feasible nor wise.”
Both churches have historic significance to the area.
The Pelzer Presbyterian congregation dates from 1881 and was formally organized in 1883 by prominent members of the Town of Pelzer, including mill president Ellison A. Smyth. The Pelzer Presbyterain Church is one the National Historic Register.
The Williamston Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest in the the Williamston area, established in 1852 and the founding of the town of Williamston.
The joining of the two congregations has some members of the Pelzer Historic Commission concerned about the future of the historic Pelzer Presbyterian Church building.
Members Dianne Lollis and Larry Coker are both concerned that the building and contents including the stained glass windows and the organ will be moved or sold.
Coker said, “I really don’t care if they move (the congregation) to Williamston, just don’t destroy the church. Don’t take the historical stuff out that belongs to Pelzer that Captain Smyth put in there.
The Pelzer Presbyterian Church building was constructed in 1896. It was one of five sanctuaries constructed in the town mostly with funds donated by the Pelzer Manufacturing Company. It is the only one of the original five churches still standing.
The large pipe organ was purchased from the George Jardine Organ Company of New York and was donated to the church in 1897 by Captain Smyth.
Smyth also donated the leaded and stained glass windows which adorn the sanctuary and front vestibule.
The hand-pumped organ has twenty-three pipes hand-painted with goldleaf which adorn the face of the organ. It was restored to its original appearance in 1972 and was converted from pump to electric operation.
Members of the Pelzer Heritage Commission have been in contact with several orgnizations in an attempt to find funding to preserve the building.They are also in the process of establishing a historict district in Pelzer, in which the Pelzer Presbyterian Church would be a key part.
The group met with Michael Bedenbaugh, Executive Director of The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation recently.
Bedenbaugh said the uniqueness of architecture on houses and buildings are key to having properties placed on the historic registers.
The Historic District in Pelzer which could include 28 houses and buildings including the historic church building.
The Pelzer Mill Village is one of only a few that is still mostly intact, he said.