During its 185-year history, Trinity Church, Carbondale, has suffered floods, furnace glitches and financial hardship. Through it all, with clergy and without, the gritty congregation has continued to gather for worship and faithfully minister to the community.
“There is something special happening here,” says member Jerry Williams, explaining his devotion to the church and the spirit that has kept it going.
This month, the entire diocese can see for itself. The 146th Convention of the Diocese of Bethlehem will be held in Carbondale from September 29-30, with the Friday evening Eucharist held at Trinity Church.
Being chosen as a site for convention is just one of Trinity’s latest blessings, says longtime member and senior warden Bonnie Bay. Last December, in what appeared to be a calamity, a new furnace coated the interior of the church with more than 100 years of soot accumulated in the radiators from decades of heating with coal. Grime covered everything from the pews to the walls to the Tiffany windows to the 1,200 organ pipes. Trinity’s members were sure that meant they couldn’t host convention this month, but with the help of the diocese, the entire interior of the church was cleaned.
“Church insurance covered everything,” says Bay, still marveling. “Even the ceiling is clean. It took three stories of scaffolding. Do you know how many times I climbed up that scaffolding just to touch the ceiling because I knew it was the only chance I would ever get? The ceiling lamps were washed. There’s a stained glass window of Jesus over the altar. One parishioner said, ‘Bonnie, have you ever seen Jesus’ face?’ I hadn’t because before it had been so dirty that you couldn’t see his face.
“So much good has come of this,” Bay says. “The music clearly bounces off the clean ceiling and freshly painted walls. This has been a totally unexpected turn of events, but again, it has brought us all closer together and more aware of the blessings that can come from disaster. My goodness what one little puff of air can do…or one big breath of God!”
Just a few years ago Trinity, which seats around 360, had seen its Sunday attendance dwindle to 12. It’s been a tough journey, but thanks to committed lay leaders, its ministry has continued, Sunday attendance has climbed back to around 40, with about 60 pledging members.
When Williams joined Trinity in 2014, he and his wife, Mary Lou, found, “…a small cadre of devoted Trinity members who experienced losing their pastor and the spiritual and community leadership essential for a parish. Undaunted, this team of believers forged ahead, certain that God had a plan for them and their church. We wanted to be a part of that challenge,” Williams says. “Our bishop’s decision to hold convention in Carbondale seemed to foretell more good things to come. It was an affirmation for us.”
The first service at Trinity’s current location on the banks of the Lackawanna River took place July 17, 1842. The cornerstone for the stone church, which replaced the original wooden structure, was laid in 1899.
“Over the years, this building has had at least three major floods that claimed the original 1905 organ and later a modern heating system,” says Williams, who is in charge of community outreach. “After each catastrophe, the congregation rebounded.”
In addition to the soot event, “we had a major roof leak and a chimney that was dropping bricks to the sidewalk. The century-old mortar was crumbling and endangering our facade, arches had chunks of material ready to fall, and the parking lot had craters worthy of a war movie.”
Williams says the fluctuation in church membership reflects the economics of the area.
“Our church was founded back in 1832 when the Industrial Revolution breaks out in America, and Carbondale was at the center of that,” says Williams, who was born in Carbondale but lived much of his life elsewhere. After his first wife died, he reconnected with Mary Lou, who had been a childhood friend, and the two of them moved back to Carbondale.
“America’s transition into the industrial age in the 1800’s can be traced directly to Bethlehem’s iron and slate and Carbondale’s coal,” Williams says. “The wealth from these industries of that era are reflected in many or our regional churches, Trinity included.”
As the economics of the region declined, so did Trinity’s membership and the financial health of the church.
The parish’s last full-time priest was the Rev. Stephen J. Matylewicz, who served from 1993-2004. Trinity had begun eating into its endowment, and it became clear the church could no longer afford a full-time rector. The Rev. Donald J. Schaible served half-time from 2008 to 2016 and helped the church get on more firm financial footing.
“We were using our investment principal to pay bills and payroll for several years,” Bay says. “Father Don helped tremendously in guiding us through some new things like renting the halls, hiring a sexton and a secretary, as ours had retired, and moving forward. He worked hard on getting us to the place where we were no longer taking money from the endowment.”
Since Schaible left, the congregation has been served by rotating supply clergy.
Through it all, the Episcopal Church Women “continued their take-out dinner fundraisers to help support us, and they even sent some of the proceeds to the local library and YMCA, besides feeding the firemen and police for free,” Bay says. “Wicky Walker, who passed away in 2013, had been president of the ECW for at least 25 years, and through it all, she kept all of us ‘happy to help.’ And Jerry Minton, our junior warden, he has been at the church almost every day working on getting things done.”
Williams says Bay gets a lot of credit, too, for helping keep the congregation going, saying “Bonnie has been at Trinity a long time. There’s the mortar that keeps the stones together kind of person, and that’s her.”
Keeping the church going has required an all-out effort from every member.
“Bear in mind that we are a very small congregation and everybody wears multiple hats,” Williams says. “We hold a free community dinner once a month. We cook dinner and serve about 100 to 125, sometimes more…In the summertime, we do fundraisers and donate from within the church to defray the cost of some of those kids going to day camp.”
Both Bay and Williams see a brighter future for Trinity and already are looking ahead at how best to continue serving the community.
“Our most recent blessing, and an answer to our prayers, is the coming of Father Bill McGinty as permanent supply priest,” Williams says. “We’re seeing the fruits of our trust and believe that the best is yet to come.”
The Rev. William J. McGinty joins Trinity this month.
“This guy is a godsend to us,” Williams says. “He is just like an answer to our prayers.”