Latrobe Presbyterians mark 250th anniversary of Unity Cemetery

Article courtesy of TribLive. See original article here.

Those who have found a final resting place at Unity Cemetery range from veterans of the Revolutionary War to iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers, who grew up just a few miles away in Latrobe.

“A walk through Unity Cemetery is a walk through history, not only the history of our community but also of our country,” said Mary Lou Townsend, president of the Latrobe Area Historical Society.

That history is being celebrated this year, the 250th anniversary of the cemetery in Unity and designation of a Presbyterian place of worship there.

Events scheduled throughout the year get underway on Sunday, with a special worship service at 11 a.m. at the affiliated Latrobe Presbyterian Church on Latrobe’s Main Street.

Also planned are a May 15 cemetery historical program and summer concerts featuring music from the late 18th century at Unity Chapel.

Now 150 years old, the red brick chapel is the third in a series of churches that have stood alongside the cemetery’s burial plots. Latrobe Presbyterian Church, which began as an outgrowth of that original Unity congregation, maintains the chapel and holds summer services and special events there under a long-term lease with the Unity Cemetery Association.

At Sunday’s service, some previous ministers are expected to return and the congregation will revive a historic annual fundraising tradition by distributing 125 small ceramic jugs to its member households. Created by a local potter, the jugs with slotted openings are replicas of an original believed to date from the 19th century.

In past years, the church “would have these pottery jugs made and each family in the congregation would save coins in them during the year,” said Latrobe Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Derek Campbell. “Then they would have a jug-breaking ceremony, collect the money and donate it to whatever mission was chosen that year.

“We discovered one that somehow had managed to not be smashed.”

Today’s church members will gather to break their jugs at a Heritage Sunday Worship and Family Day, slated for July 7.

Familiar names

Unity Cemetery’s 250th anniversary comes a year after Westmoreland County marked a similar birthday, and Campbell noted there are common links between the original events those celebrations recognize.

“When you look at the people who were involved in the founding of Unity Cemetery and some of the important people in the historical foundation of Westmoreland County, the names overlap and intertwine quite a bit,” he said, noting the associated Presbyterian congregation “was one of the really few early churches in the area at that time.”

Robert Hanna was one of the trustees who got the grant for Unity Cemetery,” said Townsend, who serves on the cemetery’s 250th anniversary committee and has been a member of the Latrobe Presbyterian congregation since 1983.

Hanna founded Hanna’s Town in neighboring Hempfield — the first Westmoreland County seat, where court sessions were held at his tavern. He was among the county’s first justices.

Hanna was one of four local settlers who were granted a deed on March 1, 1774, for 60 acres in order to establish a burial ground and meeting house for the local Presbyterian congregation. The deed was signed by John Penn, a grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn.

According to a 2020 history of the Unity cemetery and chapel, another of the land grant recipients was William Lochrey, who also served as an early Westmoreland justice. Lochrey’s Blockhouse, the home of his brother, Archibald, has been restored and now is part of the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at Saint Vincent College, two miles away from the cemetery.

The earliest documented burial at Unity Cemetery is the 1782 interment of Moses Watson. Watson is one of 32 Revolutionary War veterans buried at the cemetery, according to Townsend.

Another, she said, is Benjamin Beatty, who moved to the area after serving in a York County militia. He was among the troops who joined General George Washington in his famous crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776.

Townsend also has researched the backgrounds of some of the 144 Civil War veterans who share the same burial ground: William B. Coulter, a company captain in the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, lost his right arm in battle near Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862; Colonel John Oursler helped organize the Pennsylvania National Guard and his family’s Latrobe marble and granite works provided bases for several battlefield monuments at Gettysburg.

Though the cemetery was initiated by a Presbyterian congregation, Townsend said, “From very early on, it was pretty much nondenominational. After Latrobe became a town in the 1850s and more people started coming to this area, there were a half dozen different denominations holding services in the town.”

It’s estimated that nearly 15,000 people are buried at Unity Cemetery, though complete records date only from 1905. Through expansions over the years, the cemetery has grown to more than 200 acres.

The May 15 program will be highlighted by costumed volunteers portraying four of the people buried at the cemetery, including Lizzie Beatty.

“She was born in the mid-1800s and died in 1922, so she saw a lot of the changes in the Unity congregation,” Townsend said.

Changes through the years

The first church building at the cemetery — a log structure of roughly 40 square feet — welcomed worshipers in about 1780, she said. After it was lost to fire, an initial brick church was erected in 1830. The grounds at one time also included a parsonage, beginning in the 1850s, and a school.

After the founding of Latrobe Presbyterian Church, in 1869, membership grew there from an initial 110 while declining at the original Unity congregation, which voted to dissolve in 1920. A separate association was formed to carry on operation of the cemetery and assume ownership of the current Unity Chapel, built in 1874.

The chapel remained idle for more than three decades, but a series of restoration efforts began in the 1930s.

Additions to the chapel include some pews remaining from the 1830 Unity church and three stained glass windows behind the pulpit that originally were installed in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Presbyterian Church as a memorial to Mellon family members. The chapel also has benefited from a roof replacement, modern utilities and installation of air conditioning and a sound system.

A historic overlook behind the chapel was completed in 2002, funded by local golfing legend Arnold Palmer as a memorial to his wife, Winnie — both Latrobe Presbyterian members who attended services at the chapel.

Today’s Latrobe Presbyterian congregation has 435 members.

“I think it’s notable to look back over such a long and storied history,” Campbell said of the 250th anniversary. “It reminds us there is still a lot in store in the years to come.”

Visit unitycemeterychapel.org for more about Unity Cemetery and Chapel and anniversary events.