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The Borough of Lansdowne Pennsylvania The Borough of Lansdowne Pennsylvania

Lansdowne Presbyterians Celebrate Their Centennial

(Reprint from Fall 1987 Borough News Letter)

By C. W. Miller

PresbyterianOne hundred years ago, on a wintry February night in 1887, ten men, huddling around a potbellied stove in the Lansdowne railway station, agreed to organize a Presbyterian church in the area. The impetus for their decision came from the missionary zeal of the Rev. Dr. James Roberts, Pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Darby, and from the lay leadership of Joseph L. Davis, an experienced Philadelphia churchman who had recently relocated in the southcentral section of old Upper Darby Township. Six years later, in 1893, approximately one square mile of that land was incorporated as the Borough of Lansdowne.

Fifty-one persons attended the first Sunday School morning session on February 27, and 80 gathered for Dr. Robert’s first service of worship in the late afternoon. For one year the growing congregation met in a refurbished warehouse on Wycombe Avenue, lent them rent-free by Joseph Powell, a member of the Lansdowne Society of Friends.

On Sunday, February 26, 1888, the members walked in procession from the warehouse, up Lansdowne Avenue to their newly completed sanctuary with a seating capacity of 365. The small church had been built on a 120-foot-wide strip of land running from Lansdowne to Owen Avenues, just south of Greenwood, the gift of Mr. & Mrs. W. Albert Johnson from their large farm. The manse facing Owen Avenue was completed in 1891, the same year in which the first small public school was erected on Highland Avenue.

With church-going Christians, mostly Protestants, moving from Philadelphia to the more quiet, greener suburbs, Lansdowne and its new churches – Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic – began to burgeon. Lansdowne property with an assessed value in 1892 of $100,000 rose to $31,488,875 by 1908. The population estimated in 1880 at 200 jumped by 1908 to 4500.

When the new pastor, the Rev. William A. Boyd, arrived in the Spring of 1893, he found that he had more members than seats in his sanctuary. By 1900 he had in hand an architects drawing for the present larger church, and in May, 1916, midway between the outbreak of World War I and our own country’s involvement, the congregation held its first service of worship in the new edifice. By Armistice Day the church was free of debt and members were planning to put in place a stained-glassed Victory Memorial window to honor their76 returning veterans and the four Gold Star members.

This past May the leaden box which had been placed in the cornerstone of the present church at its dedication in September, 1915, was retrieved under the direction of church historian J. Edwin Flannery. In it he found a Bible, documents on the early history of the church, and unique copies of. two 1915 Lansdowne weeklies. On June 14, 1987, at a rededication service new material was sealed into the cornerstone for opening in the 21st century.

Dr. William B. Sanford, Dr. Boyd’s successor, during his eleven-year pastorate (1923-34) did much to expand the church school program and supervised the building of an addition to accommodate the larger enrollment. The stock crash of 1929, however, affected Lansdownians severely and obliged the retiring Dr. Sanford to leave his successor, Dr. G. Malcolm Van Dyke (Pastorate: 1935-66), with a large indebtedness which made his first decade a difficult one.

Once World War II ended, the church enjoyed its fullest years: a Moller organ in 1946, increased staff, and especially generous gifts to benevolent causes. The membership soared in 1954 to 1833, with the Early Christian Men’s Class attendance reaching 300 on particular Sundays.

But the movement in the late 1950’s from South and West Philadelphia to Delaware County of a new wave of Christians with established family ties with the Roman Catholic faith led inevitably to the decline of membership in the Protestant churches. Even more conducive to change in the Lansdowne churches has been the trend since the late 1960’s toward an increasingly secular society with people less inclined to attend and support traditional forms of worship.

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