CUYAHOGA FALLS: If the walls at Pilgrim United Church of Christ could talk, they could probably share some interesting stories and offer an answer to whether the building was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s never been proven or disproven, but we know several of the founding members were involved in the anti-slavery movement and we know there is a tunnel in the basement that looks like it could have been used to help move people to freedom,” said the Rev. Kirk W. Bruce, pastor at the church. “Pilgrim has a history of being committed to equality. We are an open church for people who are seeking the presence of God — we find God in many ways.”
The congregation will celebrate its 180th anniversary during the 10:30 a.m. service Sunday at the church, 130 Broad Blvd. During the service, the pulpit area will be rearranged to look like it did in the 1800s and the order of worship will be changed to reflect the 1920s.
“We want to give people a glimpse into the past to help them appreciate the history of the church,” Bruce said. “Historically, this church has had members who worked to make a difference. Our challenge is to build on that foundation by continuing to reach out and uplift society.”
Pilgrim was organized on Feb. 14, 1834, under the name First Congregational Church. The congregation still worships in the same classic Greek Revival building that was erected in 1847, making it the oldest church building in continuous use in Summit County. The building has been expanded three times and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The church dissolved its association with the Portage Presbytery [which had ties to the slave-holding South] in 1847 because of its commitment to the abolition of slavery. It became part of the United Church of Christ after the denomination was formed in 1957 with the merger of the Congregational, Evangelical and Reformed denominations. It changed its name to Pilgrim United Church of Christ in 1964 and has the distinction of holding a service every Sunday for 179 years.
Janis Morgan joined the church 67 years ago, when she was 13 years old. She said that while she has seen changes over the years, the heart of the church has remained the same.
“I was at Pilgrim when the parsonage was next door and when it was taken down. I saw the religious education addition be constructed and a center aisle put in the sanctuary. When I was growing up, what is now our social hall was used for basketball games,” said Morgan, 80. “We put in new pews and rearranged the chancel. We no longer use the balcony. The pipes from the organ are no longer visible. The old pastor’s office is now a room where brides change.
“There have been a lot of changes,” Morgan said. “But for as long as I can remember, we have been a very, very friendly church. We’re very outgoing and very accepting. We are a giving church. We are a family. For me, this place is home.”
One of the ways the congregation gives to the community is making the building available for meetings and other activities. It is the place where Boy Scout, Girl Scout and Cub Scout groups meet. It is also the host site of several Alcoholics Anonymous groups.
Last month, the building became a place for piano lessons — something Amy Malyuk Sauriol is thankful for. Sauriol, who became Pilgrim’s music director in mid-November, is a piano teacher and staff accompanist at the University of Akron.
“The congregation has been so welcoming and really involved in encouraging and guiding me. I have really been inspired,” Sauriol said. “When I got married in December and moved to Barberton, I was going to lose most of my students that I had been teaching at my home in Cuyahoga Falls because of the distance. When I asked if I could teach my students at the church, they were happy to let me use the space.”
Bruce said the church cannot be effective if its doors are only open on Sunday morning.
“The members here want to make a difference and we understand that an empty building doesn’t serve anybody,” Bruce said. “One of the joys of the church is helping people build a faith life by using their resources and talents to make a difference — Amy is a good example of that.”
Embracing the past
The congregation also offers tours to share the history of the church and some of the artifacts that remain sprinkled throughout the church building, including the round Sill-Danner stained glass window located in the social hall. The window was donated by the Rev. Edgar Danner, who served the church as pastor from 1866 to 1889, in honor of his wife, Mary Sill Danner, and his father-in-law, Elisha Noyes Sill, a founder of the church and the city of Cuyahoga Falls.
At the center of the L-shaped building is the Heritage Room, which serves as the primary meeting area. The room includes relics from the sanctuary and a display that honors Ellen Knight Crawford.
Crawford, a former member of the church and school teacher, was elected to the school board before women were given the right to vote.
The steeple bell, which was added in 1913, is one of the last things brought to the area via the Ohio and Erie Canal system before it was destroyed by the Great Flood.
Perhaps one of the most interesting areas in the church is the basement tunnel that leads to a closet in the narthex. The closet floor is removable and all of the floor joists have been removed. It is believed that slaves were lowered into or lifted from the tunnel under the church foundation through the closet floor as part of the Underground Railroad.
The network of people who helped runaway slaves on their way to freedom in the northern states and Canada provided concealed rooms and hiding places, secret tunnels and trails through dense woods. The system was known as the Underground Railroad.
More than eight years ago, a local archaeologist investigated whether the site could have been a stop on the storied railroad. Although the evaluation was inconclusive, church researchers believe that it was. Among their evidence is the fact that several of the churches founding members — Elisha Sill, Henry Newberry and Ogden Wetmore — were involved in the Portage County Anti-Slavery Society. Wetmore served as secretary of the organization.
“People are always amazed to see the tunnel. It certainly starts a conversation about who some of the church founders were — people who were not afraid to stand up for what they believed, even though federal laws imposed fines and prison sentences for harboring an escaped slave,” Bruce said. “Building on that tradition, we try to inspire people to develop a faith foundation that they can rely on in everyday life as they work to make a difference in society.”