Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: January 1993 Volume 31 Number 1, Pages 3–14

A New Presbyterian Church in Berwyn in 1892

Barbara Fry

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A meeting of the congregation of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Berwyn was called for February 6, 1889 to consider the building of a new church building. Berwyn had been the site of unrelieved prosperity for the past dozen years since 1877, and the first Presbyterian church building had been dedicated in December of 1862, when the village, then Reeseville, numbered only about ten houses and a few outlying farms. Although some of the older members of the congregation had an especially strong attachment to that old church, now a larger church was needed and a grander church was a possibility.

The meeting to consider a new building opened with prayer, after which the pastor, Thomas Jefferson Aiken, was elected president of the meeting. The motion to build the church was made by Mrs. Hugh J. Steen (Mary Lobb Fritz Steen) and was adopted unaminously.

A committee of the congregation was formed at this first meeting to act with the trustees in the building of the church. The members of the committee were J. F. Beale; Thomas Aiken, the pastor's father; and Joseph S. Burns, with Pastor Aiken an ex officio member.

The congregation further agreed to build a one-story building with a basement. A motion was also made, and approved, to limit the cost of the new building to $10,000, but, after discussion, it was amended to raise the limit to $12,000. This concluded the business of the meeting.

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(At the meeting Frank H. Stauffer also read a proposal to amend the charter:

the original charter was for the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Reeseville, with the proposed amendment changing it to the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Berwyn. The new charter, however, was not filed until February 11, 1901.)

One week after this first meeting, on February 13, 1889 the trustees met with the Building Committee of the congregation. The officers of the trustees at this time were William H. Fritz, president; William H. Ewing, secretary; and Hugh J. Steen, treasurer. On motion by Frank H. Stauffer the Board of Trustees agreed to build a new church on the site of the old one at a cost not to exceed $12,000. The trustees then approved a motion by William H. Burns that a committee be appointed to confer with building movers to determine the cost of moving the old church.

On February 28th the Committee on Moving the Church reported back to the trustees that the cost of the operation would be about $1000. (Although the committee was continued at the meeting, it was never mentioned again in the Minutes. The fate of the old church building, however, is found in the specifications for the new building as written by the architect, John Fraser, who noted that "as far as possible the stones of the first church will be used in the foundation of the new church". The bell from the old church would also be hung in the new church.)

In further business on February 28th the trustees agreed that $6,000 be secured by subscription before they would proceed with the building. To oversee this effort a Collection Committee was appointed.

The trustees next met on April 12, 1889. The first order of business was to respond to a letter from the Baptist Church in the Great Valley, written by Isaac Cleaver, the clerk of that church, in which it offered the use of its chapel while Trinity's new church was under construction. It was proposed that the pastors alternate the leadership of the Sunday and Wednesday night services, with the Baptists to accept as compensation the prayers of the people of Trinity. The offer was extended to November of 1891. Trinity's trustees replied with gratitude for the generous offer, and said it would be accepted if the need should arise during the specified time period. (As it turned out, no such need arose.)

At the trustees' meeting on April 17, 1889 two important committees were appointed. The first was a committee to act with the Building Committee appointed by the congregation; the trustees selected were Frank H.Stauffer, W. F. Drennan, William H. Ewing, and Hugh J. Steen, with William H. Fritz, the president of the trustees, serving ex officio. The second committee appointed was a Committee on Plans; chosen were Ethelbert A. Lobb, William H. Burns, and Frank H. Stauffer. Both Lobb a,nd Burns were builders in Berwyn.

The necessary committees were now all appointed and at work.

At the next formal meeting of the trustees, held on July 16, 1889, the Building Committee reported back that it had received the plans from the architect and had invited three local contractors to bid: Lobb & Jones,William H. Burns, and J. M. Ruth. Lobb & Jones did not submit a bid; Ruth's bid was for $15,199; and Burns' bid was for $15,000.

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The trustees then voted to have the bids set aside, and asked the Building Committee to go back to the architect and ask him to adjust the plans to stay within the $12,000 limit set by the congregation.

On July 31st, however, the congregation was called to a special meeting and agreed to accept the lowest bid, the $15,000 bid of William H. Burns, even though it was over the limit. It also gave the Building Committee full authority to build the new church.

I suspect that the architect, John Fraser of Philadelphia, was well known to many in the congregation, as he had been closely associated with the 3rd Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia [now Old Pine Street Church] in the years that the first church in Berwyn was getting underway, and that church was fully involved with our beginnings.

John Fraser was one of a number of Scotch emigre architects who practiced successfully in Philadelphia in the 19th century. He was born in Scotland in 1825, and it can be assumed that his education as an architect took place there, although he was barely 23 when he came to Philadelphia. He filed a declaration to become a U. S. citizen in September of 1848; very soon after that he set up an office and worked independently.

In Philadelphia he designed both private homes and schools and other public buildings, among them the armory in Philadelphia and rooms for the Athenaeum. He designed the alterations for the Old Pine Street Church in 1857. He drew the plans for the Union League building in 1863; it still is standing on Broad Street in Philadelphia, with little change in its brick and brownstone face. From 1867 to 1871 he was in partnership with Frank Furness.

In 1870 Fraser went to Washington, D. C. to become supervising architect for the U. S. Treasury buildings. His drawings from this period are in the National Archives.

Shortly after he designed the new church for Trinity in 1889 he returned to Philadelphia to establish a firm with his son, Archibald Alexander Fraser. Three years later, in 1892, he designed the Wayne Presbyterian Church, built the following year. After his son Archibald died suddenly in 1895, however, Fraser, 70 at the time, limited his practise, and soon retired to Riverton, New Jersey.

Surprisingly, there is little mention of the proposed building in the Minute Books of the regular quarterly meetings of the trustees for almost two years. In the account books of tire Building Committee, however, we can see the congregation busy raising the needed money, principally by additional subscriptions but also by selling pictures of the old church and Chinese lanterns and sponsoring a party at the Wynburne Inn.

Finally, on May 5, 1891 a special meeting was called to sign the contract with the contractor and to select the stone for the church.

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In the original specifications the architect had selected Indiana bluestone, but the stone finally chosen was Avondale limestone, the name given to the stone from the Thomas Leiper quarry. (In the revised specifications the trustees were to transport the stone themselves, so we can assume that it was transported by them from beyond Media.)

[The bound pages of the first Minute Book of the trustees were now filled. They cover the period from 1861 to 1891, with the last official entry the minutes of the April meeting of 1891. The minutes of the meetings after that are recorded on loose sheets in the back of the book, some of them with a notation that the page has been copied into a second book. This second book, unfortunately, has not been found, but we can continue to follow the progress of the new building on the loose pages. The official minutes of the Session also give us the exact dates of important mile-stones in the project.]

The pastor of the church at the time, as previously noted, was the Rev. Thomas Jefferson Aiken jr., the son of Thomas Aiken sr., a weaver and a farmer. Young Aiken had first served the church in 1868 while finishing his studies at Princeton and was called to be pastor at Trinity after his graduation. At that time Trinity was in a joint charge with the East Whiteland Church. (From 1864 to 1874 his father was Clerk of the Session and Superintendent of the Sabbath School.)

In early 1873 there was a conflict between the original founders of the church and the newer members who were establishing their homes here and commuting to their work in Philadelphia. The founders were outmaneuvered and some of them, including the Aikens, left the church to join the Wayne congregation. Just before this happened, the young pastor had accepted a new charge. In 1885, however, the congregation sought out the Rev. Thomas J. Aiken and called him back. It was a move of reconciliation that strengthened the church, as Pastor Aiken was a caring and capable leader. And at the same time, his remarkable family returned to Triniity with him.

The lay leadership of the church at this time was in the very capable hands of Frank H. Stauffer, who had been Clerk of the Session and Superintendent of the Sabbath School since 1874. While still a very young man he had established himself as a writer of national reputation; his work was both serious and light, and reached all levels of the population. He came to Berwyn on the eve of its great prosperity and was instrumental in establishing several major institutions in the village, being a founder of the Berwyn Hall and Library Association and of the Berwyn Savings and Loan Association. He was also a leader of the Odd Fellows Lodge and the Berwyn Lyceum, commuting to Philadelphia to his position as Literary Editor for Saturday Night. In 1885 he was a Justice of the Peace in Berwyn, establishing a real estate office here.

The president of the trustees during this period was William H. Fritz, who only recently had taken over the management of the Fritz Lumber and Coal Yard, a business started by his father, Henry Fritz, and grandfather, William Lobb. Henry Fritz had been killed in 1870 in a tragic accident, and his mother and her brothers had kept the business going until young William Fritz was ready to assume control.

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(His mother was by this time married to Hugh Steen, also a trustee.) The Fritz lumber yard had a commodious warehouse, with a track or siding of the Pennsylvania Railroad coming right into the property. Flour, phosphates and building hardware were also part of its trade.

In 1870 the church had built a parsonage on the west side of Waterloo Avenue, but surprisingly it was not often used. When he returned to Berwyn in 1885 the Rev. Thomas Aiken built a brick house on the Aiken property farther to the west in the village, and the parsonage was rented out. Accordingly, the church leaders agreed that selling the parsonage and, at the same time, buying the old Berwyn Hall and Library building that adjoined the church property would be good for the church. The congregation gave its unaminous approval. As a result, the parsonage was sold to William Ewing, a storekeeper in Berwyn and the secretary of the trustees, for $2200 and the Hall was purchased for $2500. The Hall became known as Prebyterian Hall, and was in frequent use for socials and recitals as well as a place for Sabbath Schools and services for fledgling new churches in Berwyn. (It was later sold to the Treen family in 1912, but was repurchased by the church in 1959.)

After the contract was signed with the contractor, William H. Burns, in May of 1891 the building began in earnest. Burns was a member of the congregation, and as prominent a builder as could be found in Pennsylvania at that time. He had begun his building career in 1877, erecting a number of homes in the rapidly growing village. His grandfather had been a carpenter and ship builder during the Civil War, and had also been president of the Board of Trustees when the first Trinity Church was built. His father, Peter Burns jr., was a builder in brick and stone throughout his lifetime, and did the brickwork on the Berwyn railroad station and erected many stone bridges across the state. He also did the stonework on the new church building.

William Burns at this time was building both large residences in Devon and public buildings: he had built the Easttown School in Berwyn, and also the elegant Wynburne Inn, on the foundations of Joseph Smith's old barn. He lived on Kromer Avenue, and behind his home he built a planing mill where all kinds of builders' materials -- sash, blinds, windows, frames, stairs, molding, and so forth -- were made, products used principally in his own extensive building operations. The lovely paneling and massive ceiling boards of the new church were all formed at the Burns Planing Mill.

Burns was married to the pastor's niece, the former Ximena Wells. Both of them were musical and participated frequently in local music events. They had six children at the time the new church was being built; two years later Ximena Burns died giving birth to their seventh child.

The construction plan was to construct the Sunday School annex, against the first church, first. In that way, services could be held there while the rest of the new building was under construction.

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In the minutes of the Session for August 5, 1891 it was reported that the necessary arrangements would be made for appropriate opening of the Sabbath Building on the last Sabbath of that month. It was also reported that Communion would be held for the last time in the old church on September 6th.

Following this service the demolition of the old church started. The cornerstone for the new church was laid on October 22, 1891, precisely thirty years after the laying of the cornerstone of the first church.

According to the minutes of the Session, on December 6, 1891 there was a large attendance and it was a solemn occasion as the Communion service was held for the first time in the Sunday School Annex of the new church building under construction.

Construction work on the new building continued through the spring and summer of 1892. By September it was completed, and from September 11th through September 18th a week-long dedication was held at the opening of the new sanctuary.

At the opening service, on September 11, 1892, the Sunday morning sermon was given by the Rev. J. A. Worden, D. D., the general superintendent of the Presbyterian Sunday School work in all the United States. On that Sabbath afternoon, at three o'clock, a children's meeting was held, again conducted by Dr. Worden, with the Sabbath Schools of Berwyn, Paoli, and Howellville all present. (During the period of the construction of the new church the Trinity Church was also establishing these other Sabbath Schools, providing preaching and teaching workers as well as music and materials. The Paoli Sabbath School, incidentally, later grew to be the Paoli Presbyterian Church.)

On Thursday afternoon, at three o'clock, the official dedication of the new church took place. At that time the keys to the building were transferred from the Board of Trustees to the Session of the Church. On Sunday morning, September 18th, the first Communion service was held in the new sanctuary, ending the dedication service.

Throughout the week services were also held each evening.

[The week-long activities, along with a detailed description of the new church building, were noted in the Daily Local News of September 13, 1892 in an article by J. A. Worst. It is included as an Appendix.]

The 1892 church is truly Gothic in style, having a tower, buttresses, large areas of glass windows, and arched ceilings, but is far more simple than larger Gothic buildings. The quiet beauty of the sanctuary is in the walls themselves; graduated, unadorned arches reach skyward, with plain, recessed arches built into the lower walls. Open arches between the church and annex are uncovered today, but originally the Sabbath School room was curtained off except for special occasions. In 1892 the walls were of a dark buff, and with the dark, highly polished wood of the ceiling beams, pillars, and panelling they were typical of the dark, rich Victorian colors. Today the walls are the off-white of the brighter 20th century decor.

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Program of the Dedicatory Services of the Trinity Presbyterian Church Beginning Sabbath Morning, September 11th, 1892 and Continuing During the Week

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Architect John Fraser had been asked to design a church that was "imposing, pleasing, and attractive, but [its] ornamentation should not detract from the dignity of the structure", and this charge he met fully.

A number of church symbols appear in memorial windows. " The large window on the wall behind the choir loft was given by the Aiken family in memory of the pastor's mother, Elizabeth Aiken. She was an Irish girl who came to this country as a bride in 1832, settling with her Scots husband Thomas first in East Whiteland and then in Howellville. She died in 1870, the year that Thomas Aiken bought ten acres of land in the little village of Reeseville.

The largest stained glass window is on the north wall of the church. Its most prominent symbol is the descending dove, the strongest symbol of the living church. The Fritz family gave this window to the church in memory of Henry Fritz, who, as we noted earlier, also died in 1870. (He had gone to the aid of a woman who was having difficulty holding her horse at the old Eagle station: the animal "spooked" as the train approached, and a fatal blow to the head from the horse ended the life of Henry Fritz.

The smaller stained glass windows are predominantly of soft pale yellows and lavendars, and each has its own story. One of them is dedicated to the pastor's son, who died at an early age, and another to the pastor himself, after his death in 1909.

The congregation, by 1892, had raised $8,000 by subscription to finance the construction of the new building. (In addition, windows, carpeting, and furniture were provided for through memorial gifts.) In late September of that year the congregation met to approve securing a mortgage for $8,000 to pay the remaining bills which had been incurred.

The period from 1889 to 1892, the years of decision to build and complete the church, was perhaps the only time in the history of Trinity Presbyterian Church that such a church could be undertaken and completed. The architect was near the end of his career, and Frank Stauffer, the lay leader, was to die suddenly in 1895. The pastor was totally dedicated, but he too would leave, in 1901. The two generations of the Burns family who were so greatly talented were both in their prime. And the prosperity of the village gave the congregation the courage to go ahead.

But that golden time was just about over. The country was about to suffer the Panic of '93, and local businessmen would lose their businesses and local home owners would lose their homes.

Although the interest was paid on the $8,000 mortgage, nothing was paid on the principal until 1898. At that time a movement among the women of the church raised enough money to make a payment of $500, and a similar effort in 1900 resulted in the payment of another $500.

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Finally, in 1902, under the new pastor, the Rev. Robert Powers, a grand effort was made by the trustees to pay off the remaining $7,000 on the mortgage by subscription. The subscription was completed in 1903, and the final payment on the mortgage was made on December 29, 1905.



from the Daily Local News : September 13, 1891

The new Presbyterian Church at Berwyn has been completed in every detail, and will be dedicated to the Almighty God with appropriate ceremonies on Thursday afternoon at 3 o'clock. The preliminary services leading up to the dedicatory ceremonies were begun yesterday (Sunday) morning at 10:45", when a highly interesting sermon was preached to a large congregation by the Rev. J. A. Worden, General Superintendent of Sabbath School Work in the United States. Remarks concerning the history of the growth of Presbyterianism in Berwyn were made by the Dastor, Rev. T. J. Aiken, after which subscriptions to the amount of $1,100 were raised to defray the debt incurred by the erection of the new church building. The afternoon services were opened at 3 o'clock by an anthem rendered beautifully by an augmented choir of select voices. This meeting was devoted entirely to children, and the little ones seemed to appreciate the distinction, as they turned out en masse.

The Berwyn, Paoli and Howellville Sabbath Schools were in attendance, as well as a large concourse of people. Rev. Worden conducted this meeting in his highly interesting manner.

Last evening long before the hour announced for the beginning of the services the large auditorium of the church and the spacious Sabbath School room were crowded with a fashionable congregation. When the Rev. Dr. R.M. Patterson arose to deliver his noted sermon on the "United States, a Protestant Nation," ewery seat was occupied and standing room was at a demand. All the secret orders of Berwyn and surrounding towns attended in a body. The learned Doctor's discourse of the religions of this and other nations was a masterly effort from a Protestant standpoint.

This evening the Rev. W. A. Patton, D. D., pastor of the Wayne Presbyterian Church, will fill the pulpit. To-morrow evening a sermon will be delivered by Rev. L. Y. Graham, of Olivet Presbyterian Church, of Philadelphia, and on Wednesday evening the services will be conducted by Rev. H.A. MacKubbin, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Coatesville. The ceremonies attending the dedication of the newly-erected church will begin at three o'clock on Thursday afternoon, when the sermon of the occasion will be preached by the Rev. S. Wilbur Chapman, D. D., pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, of Philadelphia, and the dedicatory prayer offered by the Rev. W. W. Hebberton, Treasurer and Secretary of the Ministerial Board of Relief. Miss Lizzie Baker, accompanied on the organ by Prof. James Baker, will sing a soprano solo, and a large choir of picked voices will render hosannas during the ceremonies. The services of the day will be ended by a sermon from the lips of the Rev. John Hemphill, D. D., pastor of the West Arch Street Presbyterian Church, of Philadelphia, in the evening. The dedicatory services will be followed on Friday evening by a sermon preached by Rev. W. D. Roberts, D. D., and Communion on next Sunday morning will end the greatest week known in the church history of Berwyn. The music for the services of the week is under the direction of Professors Wilson and Morrison, of Philadelphia.

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The handsome, newly-erected church which is undergoing dedication is, without a question, the most attractive and -beautiful edifice devoted to the worship of God in that section of the country, and the citizens of Berwyn, as well as the Presbyterian congregation, have every reason to be proud of this magnificent addition to their town. The ground was broken for the foundations of the building in the autumn of 1890, and the cornerstone was laid on October 22 of the following year. Work on the building progressed slowly until the beginning of the past summer, when it was rapidly pushed to completion.

The building is patterned after the Gothic design of architecture, and is constructed with Avondale limestone. It occupies the most commanding site in town, being built on an elevation that brings it prominently into view from all points of the compass. The same site was occupied by the little brown church which served the purposes of the congregation from the early days of the Rebellion up to within a few years ago, when it was razed to make way for the present building.

Exteriorally, the building is an imposing structure, and pleases the eye of a lover of true symmetry and perfection of detail. The facade is highly attractive, but ornamentation has not been allowed to detract from the dignity of the structure. Facing on the north, this wall of the building is broken by three handsome windows with sashes of varigated stained glass. The dimensions of the centre window, which is a beautiful design of flowing tracery, are 22 feet in height by 14 feet in breadth. At the northeast corner of the building, fashioned after the pattern of those ancient castles, a large square tower stands, with its turret surmounted by a unique weather-vane, sixty-five feet high. This is the most attractive feature of the structure and reflects considerable credit on the architect who designed it. The embrasures, merions and bulwarks are perfect in detail, while the lower windows add considerably to the picturesqueness of the whole. Two entrances to the building are effected on the north and east sides of the tower, which are protected by massive oak doors swung on fantastic strap hinges of brass. The eaves of the roof of the building proper extend to the square of the first story and the roof is composed of green-hued slate. Adjoining the main building on the west is a handsome little chapel for Sabbath School purposos. The roof overshadows its half dozen or more beautiful memorial windows of stained glass, and a flight of stone steps, fancied after a rocky cause- way, leads to the main entrance.

The interior of the church compares favorably with the exterior. Entering the doors in the base of the tower, a spacious vestibule, the dimensions of which are square, is reached. Access to the auditorium is gained through two doorways. The dimensions of the auditorium are 60 feet in length by 50 feet in width, and the height of the ceiling varies from 30 feet at the apex to 10 feet at the side walls. The rafters of the roof are exposed to view and are finished in polished wood. The roof is supported by a number of pillars of wood polished to such a high degree that they resemble high-polished granite, and an equal number of ornamentally carved hemmer-beams. A large memorial window, placed in remembrance of Rev. T. J. Aiken's mother, directly above the pulpit in the south wall, seven smaller memorial windows in the east wall and three large apertures in the north wall admit sufficient light during the day, and by night the supply is furnished by two handsome chandeliers pendant from the ceiling, and by drop lights in the vestibule and chapel.

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Gas generated by apparatus in the basement will be used for lighting and steam for heating purposes. In the south end of the auditorium the pulpit is built, with a private entrance on the left, while the choir is located in an alcove formed by arches and pillars on the right. The pews are arranged in semicircular lines, presenting a solid front to the pulpit, access to them being gained by aisles extending along the sides of the room. They are constructed from ash, relieved with black walnut, and are provided with comfortable backs, arm rests and upholstered seats. Between 300 and 400 yards of Brussels carpet cover the floor. The room is well ventilated by a number of small dormer windows in the roof, and underground drainage insures good sanitary conditions. The chapel is separated from the main auditorium by arches supported by pillars, the open spaces of which are hung with portiere curtains. During occasions of extraordinary large attendance the two rooms can easily be made communicating and afford a seating capacity of 600. Underneath the church there is a large basement which can be used for suppers and fairs. There is also a large cistern in the basement.

The Rev. T. J. Aiken, pastor of the Berwyn congregation, has worked faithfully and untiringly for years to accomplish this great work, and a very great deal of credit is due him for his efforts.

The church building, furnished, cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

J. R. Worst



from the Archives of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Berwyn:

The Trustees' Minute Book : 1861-1891

The Second Book of Sessional Minutes : 1874-1887

Accounts Books of the Building Committee for the 1892 Church : 1890-1899

Church Charters : 1861, 1901

for information on the Fritz Lumber Company and Burns Planing Mill

Boyd's Annual Business Review of Chester County, 1891 Philadelphia : Pennsylvania Publishing Company pp. 60-61

For information on John Fraser, architect

Tatman, Sandra L. and Moss, Roger W. : The Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects. Boston : G. K. Hall and Co. 7901 -

Webster, Richard : Philadelphia Preserved. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1976

Halle, Betty : Known Works _of John Fraser John Fraser 1825-1906 unpublished papers in the Archives of the Riverton Historical Society, Riverton, New Jersey

for contemporary newspaper accounts

Clipping files of the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pa.


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