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New life for old church

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A slow restoration at Olde Presbyterian

By Jenny Arnold

The Olde Presbyterian Church on West Gay Street had a few bats in its belfry before a renovation project began last year.
Well, not exactly. The bats, more than a few – try 1,500 to 2,000 – found a home in the attic, not the belfry, of the roughly 140-year-old church.
Two species of bats, the little brown bat and Mexican free-tailed bat, colonized in the attic, raising generations of bats for at least 20 years, said Jason Peeples of Forest and Wildlife Innovations, a company that specializes in removing nuisance animals from populated areas.
Bats are extremely beneficial because they can eat their body weight in insects, such as mosquitoes, in a short period of time. But what goes in must come out, and that caused a problem for the historic church.
“Because of their fast metabolisms, they tend to poo a lot,” Peeples said.
Try 9 ½ tons worth of bat feces, called guano, in the attic of the church – so much of it that it caused part of the ceiling to collapse into the sanctuary of the church. The smell inside was unbearable, Peeples said.
Last year, Lancaster City Council decided to fund $200,000 worth of renovations at the church, which is the second-oldest brick structure in the county, next to the historic Lancaster County Courthouse. It was the first brick church built in the county in 1862 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Clearing out the bat colonies in the attic came first.
Forest and Wildlife Innovations didn’t exterminate the bats. Instead, a crew installed one-way doors in the openings in the roof and cracks in the mortar where the bats were getting inside. The bats went out at night to feed, and when they returned to the church, they couldn’t get back in.
The wildlife company built bat boxes around the city to encourage the bats to live elsewhere, but where they wouldn’t interfere with humans.
The company also cleaned out the guano. The company, which also has a contractor’s license, made repairs to the roof.
Local historian Lindsay Pettus said he’s taken scores of local students, community leaders and other groups inside the historic church over the years, but the tours had to stop because of the bat infestation and other structural issues.
He’s thankful to the city for investing in the old church and hopes to be giving tours inside the building in the near future.
“We’ve come a long way, and we’ve got a long way to go,” Pettus said of the restoration.
Church history
The land was deeded to First Presbyterian Church in 1835, and in 1860, the congregation decided to build the brick church. Sidney Redding built the present building for $5,132 and it was dedicated on March 29, 1862.
Bricks for the church, which was built in the early Gothic revival architectural style, were made at the brickworks known as Jacob’s Hollow, where the present Lancaster County fairgrounds are today. A high-arched open vestibule had doors that led to the upstairs galleries on three sides of the sanctuary. Pettus said the galleries were for the black servants of the Lancaster families who attended the church and also for free blacks who attended services there.
On Feb. 28, 1865, Union soldiers made entries in the church’s record. The church was occupied by the horses of Union Gen. Judson Kilpatrick of Gen. William Sherman’s cavalry.
It’s believed that the unit stole the church’s silver communion set, left the church and went down Gay Street. They made fireballs from turpentine and cloth and tossed them on the roof of the old jail. The roof of the jail burned but it was not destroyed.
“The floor underneath supposedly still has the scratch marks from the horses’ hooves,” Pettus said while standing on the shining, dark-wood floor of the sanctuary on Thursday.
First Presbyterian Church built a new building on the grounds where the Lancaster County Administration Building stands today, and later moved its sanctuary to its current home on North Main Street.
First Presbyterian held its last service in the Gay Street church in April 1926 and it was rented to Calvary Baptist Church.
During the renovations of the past year, the building’s stained-glass windows on the front have been restored and look like new. Stained glass was first installed in the church in 1899, Pettus said.
Dr. James Thornwell, a teacher and theologian, and Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the father of modern gynecology, were associated with the original church.
Col. Leroy Springs, founder of Springs Industries and his son, Col. Elliott White Springs, who later headed Springs Industries, attended services there.
Cemetery a treasure
The gravestones in the cemetery – some simple, some ornate – sit at jagged angles in the uneven grounds.
On some stones, the writing chiseled into them is barely legible, with the oldest legible one dated 1836.
Walking in the cemetery is like walking among the oldest families of Lancaster, or more appropriately, Lancasterville, as the city was known in the 1800s.
“It’s very satisfying to walk out here with the old people of Lancasterville,” Pettus said, as a warm fall sun shone on the cemetery Thursday. “It’s peaceful here. It’s like a little green space in downtown Lancaster.”
Col. James H. Witherspoon, commander of a Confederate regiment, is buried there.
The first mayor of Lancaster, Andrew Mayer, is also buried there. He was a tavern keeper and a charter member of Lancaster First United Methodist Church.
According to records, there are five veterans of the Seminole Wars buried in the cemetery, including George McCottry Witherspoon, who deeded additional land for the cemetery in 1835. There are two veterans of the War of 1812, two veterans of the Mexican War and 51 Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery.
Many Confederate graves in the cemetery are unmarked, while others have received new markers in recent years. Two Union soldiers, F.M. Aiken and a man with the last name Razor, are buried in unmarked graves.
YouthBuild helps maintain the cemetery grounds.
An assessment was conducted in 2005 that figured the total restoration of the church would cost about $455,000. Pettus believes the restoration is worth the money, and hopes to one day resume giving tours to students inside the church.
“We have to save it,” Pettus said. “It’s part of us.”

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Contact senior reporter Jenny Arnold at (803) 283-1151