Bobbie Atkinson • Heritage Committee Member

There is nothing permanent except change. These words are true today as we witness changes occurring in almost every aspect of our lives including religious practices, economic and governmental systems, educational focus, social values, cultural norms and of course physical structures. Our physical church is no exception and this article seeks to briefly explore the evolution of our church buildings over the past 300 years. 

Worshiping in this place occurred around 1724 as frontiersmen and women gathered near a spring and pool of water. Other local churches were founded near a spring, so this watering source must have been an important location to gather and perhaps refresh themselves and their horses. Minutes of New Castle Presbytery in 1729 record a request from Derry Church for a supply pastor and Rev. Anderson was appointed to minister these settlers every fifth Sabbath. An actual building did not appear until Derry called its first minister, Rev. William Bertram (1732-1746). The Session House was built in 1732 and served the church and the local community in a variety of purposes including as a pastor’s study and meeting place for church officials, a classroom, a lending library, and community post office. By early 1741, Rev. Bertram and some Derry Church members petitioned the sons of William Penn for the land upon which Derry Church would be built.

Our second pastor, John Elder, became pastor in 1746 and served until 1791. As the congregation grew, the need for a larger structure was recognized and “Old Derry” was built in 1769 and later underwent repairs in 1831 costing $500. This structure served the congregation until 1883.  We have seen photographs of this clapboard structure with the communion table and chairs located outside the building, along with a pewter communion set. Today the pieces of furniture have been in continuous use and are used in our Chapel. The pewter communion set is still present at our worship services. When “Old Derry” was renovated in 1831, a new pulpit was installed. That 1831 pulpit is now restored and hanging on the wall of the east transept in the sanctuary.

In the 1870s, after the Civil War, church attendance began to drop. Frequently Derry was without a pastor and very few services were held in the church building. Maintenance on “Old Derry” was minimal at best. The church leaders decided that it was too expensive to restore the building, so in 1883 “Old Derry” was demolished. With a very small membership, future looking church leaders organized a Sunday School. Classes were held weekly and attendance began to increase with an average of 59 students per class. But, since there was no main church building, the church records were relocated to Paxton Presbyterian Church’s manse for safekeeping, but that backfired. In August 1894 there was a fire at the manse and most of Derry’s records were destroyed.

Since membership at Derry was very low in 1883 and there was no pastor, the building of a stone church was truly an act of faith. The community recognized the historical importance of Derry Church, so the Dauphin County Historical Society was instrumental in establishing a building committee for a new church building. The cost of this endeavor was estimated to be $7,000.  To raise funds for this project, Mrs. Charles Bailey of Harrisburg and Mrs. G. Dawson Coleman of Lebanon, along with descendants of former members, led this effort with assistance from Henry B. McCormick, member of Pine Street Presbyterian Church and a member of the Harrisburg Historical Society. Neighboring churches also contributed by donating funds for the Chapel’s stained-glass windows.

Derry broke ground in 1884 and by October of that year the cornerstone was installed. Construction delays were common due to slow fundraising, but the leaders persisted and the church was dedicated on January 6, 1887 during an 11 am worship service led by Rev. Albert Williamson. 

The original Chapel consisted of a bell tower, a west transept which held the choir, a sanctuary with chancel and a rear entrance. Beneath the Chapel (on a lower level) was a furnace room and classroom. Later in 1917, the women of the church (Ladies Guild organized in 1910) paid for the first indoor toilet located on this lower level. By 1928 the church leaders began to make plans to expand the Chapel. Plans included breaking through the east wall and adding an east transept and four classrooms on the first floor (our present Hammond Library and John Elder Classroom) with an assembly room and kitchen on the lower level.

Plans went forward but the stock market crash of 1929 temporarily suspended this project. In October 1934 Henry McCormick again stepped up and offered Rev. John Corbin a donation of $5,000 to help with the expansion plans. Non-member friends of Derry also donated over $6,000, so with construction loans from the Presbytery and Synod and pledges from the congregation, money was raised to cover the entire project’s cost of over $25,000. In addition, in 1935 Milton Hershey gifted each of the community’s five churches $20,000 each to help defray financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression. Since Derry was already expanding, the gift from Milton Hershey allowed Derry to add a vestibule to the Chapel entrance as well as improvements to the chancel and choir section, new chancel furniture, new carpet, and furniture and equipment for the newly added classrooms. A new pulpit was also built, its design inspired by the original pulpit from “Old Derry.” On December 8, 1935, Derry Church conducted its first worship service in its newly renovated and expanded building, now called the John Elder Memorial Chapel.

By 1950, the church Sunday School was well established and well attended. Church growth resulted in the need to expand the church building. Rev. Sheldon Blair was called to serve Derry (1950-1959) and during his tenure ground was broken on October 29, 1950 for an addition to the east of the Chapel. On November 11, 1951, the Christian Education Building was dedicated. This building added a new entrance and foyer, a nursery and children’s classroom, and office space on the main floor. The new lower level included a large social room with a raised platform at one end and a modern kitchen at the other. Today this space is known as rooms 6 and 7.  Additional classrooms filled the rest of the lower level.

When Rev. Ira Reed was called as pastor (1959-1987), the need for a larger sanctuary was soon evident. The Chapel had room for 135 congregants and membership was growing. Although a new sanctuary was a few years away, improvements to the Chapel were made. Rev. Reed did not like preaching at the existing pulpit as his back was to the west transept and choir so a lectern was installed at the back rail in the center of the chancel and space for 40 more seats was found. This brought the total number that the Chapel could hold to 175 people. This expansion was still not sufficient, so a Building Committee was established. Groundbreaking for this Sanctuary occurred on March 7, 1965 and on February 13, 1966 the Sanctuary was dedicated along with its new organ. Significant features of this new building were an A shaped rear entrance facing East Derry Road and a long rectangular sanctuary with a center aisle. The chancel area was raised and faced with wood. The choir loft and organ were located above the chancel. The pulpit could be in the center of the chancel or moved to one side. This large sanctuary allowed Derry to grow its membership and church programs.

Rev. Dr. Richard Houtz was installed as pastor on May 6, 1990, and shortly thereafter the church leaders began considering how they might enlarge and improve the church facility. Rev. Houtz thought there were so many nooks and crannies and stairs connecting the various areas of the church due to additions and renovations over the years. He felt that there was room for improvements that would facilitate better use of the building. Before anything could be built, more land was needed so the manse had to be demolished. This three-story home with 18” limestone walls was used as a residence for ministers since 1924. Demolition was accomplished in 1993.

After rejecting one architect’s proposal, the architectural firm of Alexander/Muelken Studio submitted a proposal for the expansion. The church accepted the proposal and Chuck Alexander, son of church members Bill and Marion Alexander, served as design architect for the job. As someone who grew up at the church, he was able to keep the original orientation of the sanctuary, adding east and west transepts and a larger chancel area to facilitate Derry’s investment in its numerous music programs. The choir loft and organ were lowered to the chancel floor, a narthex area was created before one entered the front of the sanctuary, the main entrance to the church building was relocated to this narthex area and a lounge was added to the west transept. This expansion also included new offices, choir room, bathrooms, nursery, the atrium and a new Fellowship Hall. Interior designs were also implemented to accommodate this larger sanctuary. This remodeled sanctuary was dedicated on January 29, 1995.

Since then there have been additional interior and external cosmetic redesigns. In 2015 interior design renovations and a new exterior courtyard and walkways were added to our main entrance. Rev. Dr. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker was installed as pastor in 2017. The need for a larger, more powerful organ for the sanctuary was soon recognized. A new-to-Derry 1951 Aeolian-Skinner Organ was installed and dedicated in 2021.

As Derry approaches its 300th anniversary, it is important to remember the history of the people who worshiped here and the buildings that they created. Derry’s history is filled with productive times, and times when as a church it almost folded, but dedication, faithfulness and strength of our early friends and congregants have given us a legacy that we should cherish, uphold and adapt to our changing times. Our church is steeped in history and tradition, but it is also flexible, warm and welcoming, reflective of those who now call this our church home.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the evolution of Derry Church’s buildings, join members of the Heritage Committee at 9:15 am Sunday, April 30 in the John Elder Classroom and streaming.