Trinity United Methodist Church
Methodism comes to Centre County.
In the first week of July, 1787, Philip Antes, a layperson of German Reformed tradition, with his wife and then-four children moved to Bald Eagle Valley, Centre County, near the site of Curtin’s Eagle Ironworks in Boggs Township (now Pennsylvania historical site Curtin Village located a few miles outside Milesburg).
He built a home and mill and quickly established a small home-based Methodist Society. Preaching was provided to the Antes group several times a month by pioneer Methodist Episcopal circuit riders, for whom he reserved a private room in his home for overnight stays. From 1787 until 1804, the preaching occurred at his house or his mill, until a chapel was built (by some accounts 1804, others 1806). Initially the chapel lacked windowpanes or doors and only later were such ‘luxuries’ able to be financed.
The church, initially named Bald Eagle Chapel and now Curtin Village United Methodist Church, with myriad modifications, updates, repairs and restoration, still serves this now 232 year old congregation. In April of 1825, Philip Antes sold his Centre County property to Roland Curtin, and Phillip and Susanna Antes moved to Clearfield County where they passed a few years later.
In 1887, the Methodist Episcopal conference declared that the Antes’ congregation was the first Methodist Society to be established in Centre County, and a 100th anniversary of its beginning was held at Trinity’s present church in July of 1887. Trinity’s own history begins with James McGee, a blacksmith who before he moved his business to Bellefonte, was affiliated with the Antes Methodists.
Trinity’s History Begins: 1817
When James McGee moved from the Antes’ neighborhood to the newly laid out town of Bellefonte in April, 1817, he quickly established a home-based Methodist Society of 9 people at his home at the southwest corner of Allegheny and Bishop Streets. This early home-church at McGee’s home in Bellefonte marks the beginning of Trinity’s history.
The First Location:
The original McGee home-church members were sufficiently established by 1820 to warrant a decision to build a physical church building. The site chosen was Lot 59 in Bellefonte’s original plan of lots laid out by co-founder James Harris. Harris sold the lot to General Miles, who in turn sold it to the Methodists for $25.
The first and also second churches built by our congregation were both built on Lot 59 across from the back of the Courthouse. In present day terms, it is the lot on the upper side of the intersection of East High Street (downhill side) and North Penn Street, and is directly across from the present exit to the judges’ parking lot at the back of the courthouse.
As a result of having had two buildings on Lot 59, and a 50-year presence there, in many quarters that side of East High Street became known as “Methodist Hill” . The grading of this hill is not for the faint of heart - wasn’t then and still isn’t. And that appears to be the main reason the present church is where it is.
The Stone First Church Building:
The church’s first physical building was erected over the course of 1820-1822, constructed largely by volunteers and congregation members. It was made of stone, heated with ten-plate stoves and used handmade wooden pews and altar furniture. It was used as a church from 1822-1853, served by circuit-riding preachers from Bald Eagle Circuit, later renamed the Bellefonte Circuit.
The only known depiction of the first Methodist Church building of which the writer is aware is found in a lithograph by Thomas S. Sinclair created in 1847 (see Appendix). The lithograph shows a panoramic view of Bellefonte drawn from a position which in today’s terms would be the intersection of North Allegheny and East Linn Streets. The Methodist church is barely seen on the left of the scene, consistent with its then-placement next to the courthouse. In contrast, an earlier building of the oldest church in town, First Presbyterian, is shown at the opposite, far right of the lithograph, consistently with all three of First Presbyterian’s church buildings having been on the same site on North Spring Street where its present church stands.
In the Sinclair lithograph the stone Methodist church appears to have a steeple, but in all other respects the Conference archivist has advised that it likely very much resembled the Methodist shrine “Old Stone Church” in Berwick, Columbia County, PA, built in 1808 (see photo of the Berwick church in the Appendix). The Bellefonte Methodists’ stone church was razed in 1853 to permit the building of their second church on Lot 59.
The Second Church Building:
The second physical church building, though used for only 23 years by our congregation as a Church (1853-1876), stood until 2001, and arguably has the most intriguing history of our three buildings and most suggests there is yet more to be learned for a diligent historical researcher.
By 1853, the membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Bellefonte had grown significantly. The congregation’s decision to raze the stone church and build a second church on Lot 59 that year coincided with the church becoming a “station” - that is, a single church served by and responsible for the needs of a full-time pastor, rather than sharing a circuit rider. It also dovetailed with the end of a long public struggle in Centre County to raze, rebuild and enlarge all but the porch portion of the Centre County Courthouse, which had reached a state of significant deterioration. The major courthouse rebuild was finally approved by the County government to start in 1854, headed by George Tate, a contractor and member of the Methodist congregation.
A new church, two-story frame and by all accounts (and the architect’s drawing) quite beautiful, a new full-time pastor, a parsonage to maintain. The church was built in 1853. The reconstruction/enlargement of the Courthouse took place the following year. Everything was razed but the front portico and rebuilt. So, where did court proceedings occur? During the courthouse reconstruction Centre County rented the first floor of the newly-built second Methodist church to hold all legal court proceedings there. (See Appendix copy of Pa. Session Law Act 6 of Session of 1856 (Jan. 16, 1856, authorizing this arrangement).
Attached in the Appendix to this history is a detailed architectural sketch of the new church on Lot 59. Note that the sketch also contains a depiction of a stylistically-matched much smaller building labeled ‘office’. At first the office appears to be across Penn Street from the new church, but a closer look reveals that the office sketch is an overlay in which the office is next to a taller ‘shadow’ building. It seems likely that while the church faced East High, the office faced Penn but was built also on the long rectangular Lot 59.
There is much to suggest 19th century practicality in the timing of the building of the new church, Lot 59’s proximity to the soon-to-be-demolished courthouse, the costs of church construction and the County’s payment of rent for the use of the church’s lower level for court proceedings. And most of all that a church with a new station status and full-time pastor to support would feel the need to build an office building as well, particularly one stylistically matched to the church.
Once the courthouse rebuild started, obviously there would be an urgent need for an alternative location to hold court, a place to house records, afford judges a chamber for meetings, cloister juries, and close enough for jail/court transports. And arguably a separate entrance needed for court business on Penn Street while church functions used the main entrance on East High Street.
In 1875, the Methodist congregation decided to leave Lot 59 for good and build the present church at Spring and Howard Streets, a lot which was then occupied by their parsonage. The immediate reason was not any defect or deterioration of the second church, but the physical exhaustion required for members to climb “Methodist Hill”. The third church was built in brick rather than frame but in configuration not unlike the second one, which also appears to have had a 2nd floor sanctuary. The ground floor of the third/present church building was completed in February of 1876 and the 2nd floor sanctuary/auditorium completed and dedicated in the summer of 1876.
At the time that the Methodists moved to the present church in 1876, the Baptists in Bellefonte were newly organized and not yet ready to build. The Methodists rented their second church to the Baptists from 1876 to 1879 when the Baptists lost their pastor. After two years of waiting for them to find another one, the Methodist trustees, on March 16, 1881, sold the church on Lot 59 to Thomas Meyer of Bellefonte, the great-great grandfather of current church trustee Bill Tressler, Esq.
The 1853 church was sold for $1,000, for use as a multi-family apartment dwelling, in a hand-written document. At some point in time the church was altered to create a residential appearance and the cupola was removed.
In 1854, John Tonner, a local church member and lay speaker received a letter from a former circuit rider who had once served the church, asking how things were going. Toner noted: “You know that our people have here erected one of the prettiest churches in all this region of country - I have not seen any out of the city that I prefer before it. I wish you could see it.” (Emphasis supplied)
There is much to suggest the second church on Lot 59 had stained glass sanctuary windows. And a question raised as to whether the stained glass windows in the ground floor reception area of the present church, which are very different in construction/style from those in the second floor of the current church sanctuary, were harvested from the 1853 building.
See the Appendix for a 1960s newspaper photograph showing the church after many years of use as a multi-family housing unit. It is recognizable as once having been a church only from the side view which reveals its window symmetry.
The second church on Lot 59 served another 120 years as a multi-family residential unit before it succumbed to fire on the evening of December 11, 2001, at 148 years old. Lot 59 was in 2003 purchased for $115,000 by Centre County for use as supplemental parking for courthouse employees.
The Third (Present) Church Building
The first floor of the present building was completed and dedicated in February, 1876. The sanctuary/auditorium was completed and dedicated in the summer of 1876. The builders of the present church were George Tate, who had headed up the courthouse restoration, and his fellow builder and also Methodist church member William V. Hughes. The Pastor was Rev. George W. Miller.
The church sanctuary in news accounts of its dedication in 1876 is referred to as an ‘auditorium’ rather than sanctuary. It does have many of the physical characteristics of a well-engineered auditorium and has excellent acoustics for music performance. We welcome you as you share in this gift during Bellefonte Victorian Christmas’s annual Concerts at Trinity, and Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s Sunday Afternoon Chamber Music series throughout the year.
Governor Daniel Hastings and his wife Jennie were members of Trinity. In 1889, then Adjutant General, Hastings rose quickly to state-wide recognition as the result of his widely-commended work in directing relief efforts in Johnstown after the Memorial Day 1889 flood. After his subsequent term as Governor, he and his wife moved back to Bellefonte, where Mrs. Hastings in 1901 gave the present church a mechanical action Hook & Hastings pipe organ. The two-story current church building was extended rearward to accommodate the organ chamber and choir loft, the extension visible on the rear roof.
The organ was originally powered by a Ross water-driven engine, then by electric blower. The organ underwent restoration in 1941, again in 1991, and in 2018 had all of its worn tuning devices replaced. It is now 118 years old, in excellent condition and regular use. It is historically intact save for the replacement of a rank of pipes by a now-deceased tuner in the 1970s for reasons and authorization/lack thereof both unknown.
You will note from the photo of the present church (Appendix) that it previously had a rather large steeple. Following the collapse of the Presbyterian church steeple across the street in a 1913 winter windstorm, the Methodist congregation in 1920 agreed to voluntarily remove its steeple lest history repeat itself.
The manufacture date on the church bell is said to be 1852. If so, that would suggest that it was originally in the cupola of church 2 on Lot. 59, built in 1853, and was moved to the present church when it was being built, a practice engaged in by at least one other of Bellefonte’s historic churches.
In 1962, an Education Building was added to the present church, which currently houses the church office and a day care center. An elevator, outside ramp and other accessibility changes were made in the 1980s and more recently inside ramps installed.
In 1970, consistent with changes in the national structure of US Methodism, the ‘Methodist Episcopal’ designation was dropped and the present church was renamed Trinity United Methodist Church. As many other former ME churches also chose the designation Trinity, our church is referred to by the Methodist Conference (and on our Church’s website and Facebook page) as “Trinitybellefonte.”
Trinity, now in its 202nd year as a congregation, is led by Pastor Doug Conway. Services are at 9:30 AM with a reception/fellowship afterward. Please feel free to join us anytime.
Other information sources:
Ebenezer - available for printing cost (approximately $6) at M&M copies in Bellefonte (att: Peggy Warnaka) (open 9-5 M-F, 814-355-7290) (contains histories of all 8 still-active Bellefonte 19th century congregations)
Centennial of the Introduction of Methodism into Centre County, Pennsylvania - Keystone Gazette Print, 1887 - available at PSU, State College Campus, Carnegie Library, Pgh, listed in World Cat
Bellefonte Methodism: Behind the Scenes (letter between church member Tonner and former circuit rider Rev. Thompson Mitchell concerning the second Methodist church Building) - available online
Original Bellefonte 1847 lithograph of Thomas S. Sinclair, PSU Palmer Museum Collection, PSU, State College Campus
Deed transfers of 1853 Methodist church between 1881 and 2003 - Centre County Recorder of Deeds, Willowbank Building, Bellefonte, PA
Prepared by Karen Arnold
BVC Chair, Concerts at Trinity
Trinity UMC Music Director