Seaford Presbyterian celebrates 50th anniversary

By Lynn R. Parks

Half a century ago, there was no Presbyterian Church in Seaford. Not that there weren't Presbyterians.

"There were many," says Seaford resident Ken Bryson. "But they were going to the Methodist church, the Baptist church, the Lutheran church and the Episcopal church."

That changed on May 2, 1965, when the brand new Seaford Presbyterian Church held its first service at Darby's Chapel, now the Cranston Funeral Home, in west Seaford. Two months later, the fledgling congregation, which included Bryson, a charter member, purchased land along alternate U.S. 13 for construction of a church building. Groundbreaking was July 9, 1967, and the building was completed in Dec. 1967.

This year, the church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding. Members have sponsored activities centered on the number 50collecting 50 backpacks for the local Head Start program, for example, picking up 50 pounds of trash along area streets and roads, and, in October, committing 50 acts of kindness. This fall, the congregation will hold a golden anniversary dinner at the Nanticoke Senior Center and a special worship service featuring a Seaford native who grew up in the church and who is now a minister at a Presbyterian church near Raleigh, N.C.

Bryson, who is retired from the Seaford School District, where he taught French, was ill recently and unable to attend church services for two months. He is recovering, though, and last Sunday was able to go to the church that he helped to found.

"Our church is small and very close-knit," he said. "It felt good to be back."

For other members, the church has been a refuge in times of grief. Jean Gandek has been a widow for 27 years. After her husband, Andy, died in 1988, church members kept in contact with her. "For weeks, after all the hubbub was over, people would call me, just to maintain contact," she said. "That's the kind of caring that people here have, meeting whatever the need of a person happens to be."

Gandek moved to Seaford in 1966, shortly after the Seaford Presbyterian Church was started. Her next-door neighbor was Emily Moore, one of the church's charter members.

"She came over and said, 'We are starting a new church'," Gandek recalls. "'Why don't you come?'"

Gandek has a Quaker background. But she followed Moore's suggestion and she was hooked. "I felt very comfortable here and have been coming for 50 years," she says.

Lorraine Graves of Bridgeville moved to the area from Newark, N.J., in 1987. She had been attending a Presbyterian church in Newark and wrote to Chuck Nixon, the minister at the Seaford church at the time, to ask about joining his church. "He said that he would be glad to have me," she says.

She likes the Presbyterian denomination because of the way its churches are governed. "The people run the church, not the minister," she said, a system that Laurie Hiller, minister at Seaford Presbyterian, calls "the priesthood of all believers."

"We don't have any bishop or district superintendent," Hiller added. "Everything is run by local and regional committees." The Seaford church is part of the New Castle Presbytery, or district, the first presbytery in the United States.

Like Gandek, Graves is a widow. When her husband, Joseph, was ill, friends from the church took them food and sat with Joseph so that she could attend church. After he died, "I never considered not staying," she said. "Everybody is so close here. This is like home."

Linda Neill, who has been a member for more than 16 years, echoes that sentiment. "Coming to church here is just like walking into a family gathering," she says. "I was gone from Seaford for 20 years and when I returned and came back to this church, it was like I'd never left."

That's a hallmark of Presbyterians in general, says Hiller. "We are very open," she adds. "We believe that a person's interpretation of the scriptures is based on that person's understanding and experiences. That makes for a lot of lively discussions, but that is something that's definitely encouraged."

Not encouraged is divisiveness. "We have had some people come to our church who had some problems getting along," says Margaret Nixon, Chuck's widow. "But it's almost as though the church itself spits them out. The people here don't want anything to do with confrontation and the people causing trouble go away."

Melinda Merkley King grew up in Seaford and is now associate pastor of community and discipleship at the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, N.C. She will be the guest speaker at the Sunday, Oct. 11, 50th anniversary service.

"The Seaford Presbyterian Church is definitely part of my call story," she says. "I grew up around people who lived their faith and who were trying their best to love God and to love thy neighbor."

Hiller says that it didn't take her long to understand that the Seaford Presbyterian Church is special. She was on hiatus after serving as pastor at a church in Islip, N.Y., and substituted in the Seaford church to help her decide if she wanted another pastorate. "I didn't know if I wanted to do this," she says. But long-time member Gladys Wetherhold had no doubt. "Make no mistake," Wetherhold told Hiller. "You were born for this."

Shortly after that, in March 2003, the church lost its minister. Hiller, who lived in Dover, was offered the position.

"My job in Islip was a wonderful experience," Hiller says. "But when I came here, I felt as though all my favorite people from Islip had been packed up and moved here. Now, this is home for me, because of the mix of people, their friendships and their love for each other. It is very clear to me that I am called to the ministry with these people in this place."

Wetherhold grew up in the Baptist church and has been attending Seaford Presbyterian since 1989. She is active in its Mary Martha Circle, which supports area causes as well as global missions.

"This is my family here," she says. "I'll continue coming to church here. Where am I going to find anyplace better?"

The windows Kathy King and her husband, Irv, have been members at the Seaford Presbyterian Church since 1977. About 10 years ago, when the congregation was considering replacing the original windows, which had stencils on them, with real stained-glass windows, a contractor suggested that it would be less expensive if the church came up with its own design for the colored glass. "I like to do art and they wanted a window," King says. "I thought, 'I could design a window.'" King started with a small oval window behind the altar. She designed it to have rich jewel tones that glow when the sun shines through them. After that window was installed, King designed a large window for the back of the church, looking toward the Bridgeville Highway. It has the same jewel tones as the smaller window. King says that she was happy to be able to help her church. "We love this church," she adds. "I call it the best kept secret in Seaford. The people are so wonderful here  it's like a big family."

The organ Margaret Merkley has been organist and choir director at the Seaford Presbyterian Church for 42 years. The pipe organ that she plays was donated to the church by the Dover Presbyterian congregation in 1967. "It arrived here in bits and pieces," Merkley says. A group of men, many of them engineers at the DuPont Co. nylon plant in Seaford, assembled the organ. Merkley says that the organ, which has 12 ranks, or groups, of pipes, dates to the 19th century. An account in The Leader newspaper when the organ arrived in Seaford says that the instrument was built in Germany and that some of its components were even made in the 18th century. According to The Leader, the organ was in the Old Brick Church on Governor's Avenue , where the Dover congregation held services from 1791 to 1924. (In 1949, the members donated the church to the state to be used as a museum. Now, while the state still owns the building, a children's theater group it for administrative offices.) Merkley says that the organ "plays wonderfully well." It has two keyboards as well as a row of foot pedals. "This is a wonderful instrument for our church to have," she adds. "It adds so much to the worship service. A pipe organ has a volume and depth that an electric organ just doesn't have." Between it and the church choir, she adds, "we really do make a joyful noise."

The servuce Seaford Presbyterian Church "is a very service-oriented church," says long-time member Jean Gandek. Its Mary Martha Circle women's group raises money for missions work and supports a school in Malay. Members also collect school supplies for area children, make blankets and participate in the Fellowship of the Least Coin, a worldwide ecumenical movement encouraging peace and reconciliation. The church as a whole also donates to causes, including Love Inc., area food closets, and Emma's Shoes, an effort to collect used shoes to fund water projects in Africa. In 2007 and 2008, members built a Habitat for Humanity house in Concord. The church also holds regular study sessions, led by minister Laurie Hiller. The weekly sessions, held over a six- to eight-week period, address topics such as the history of the church, surveys of the Old Testament and the New Testament, world religions and age and dying. The next seminar, for which Hiller has not decided a topic, will start in September. For information, call the church, 629-9077.

The celebration The Seaford Presbyterian Church will hold a golden anniversary dinner Saturday, Oct. 10, 5 to 9 p.m. at the Nanticoke Senior Center. Tickets are $18 and reservations are required by Sept. 1. On Sunday, Oct. 11, the Rev. Melinda Merkley King will be the featured speaker at the 50th anniversary worship service. The service will start at 10 a.m. at the church and will be followed by a reception. The church is located on Bridgeville Highway, next to the armory. For more information, call the church, 629-9077.

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