‘Old Unity’ a sign of congregation’s growth

Article courtesy of the Latrobe Bulletin. See original article here.

Built around 1780, the original Unity Presbyterian Church in Unity Cemetery served the congregation for roughly half a century before the log structure met a fiery end in 1829 when it burned to the ground.

According to information from the Unity Cemetery and Chapel history book, and Mary Lou Townsend, executive director of the Latrobe Area Historical Society, “a young boy stuffing straw into the church’s pot-bellied stove to warm the building” on a freezing cold morning let the fire get out of hand, thus destroying the building.

“Then when it burned and they built the new brick church, it would seat between 300 and 400 people, so it was a large church,” Townsend said. “Even the log church had additions built onto it, so when they built the first brick church, it was fairly large.”

The second church, built in 1830, is now nicknamed “Old Unity.”

The location of this church can be determined by the “contour of the ground,” according to information from the historical society. “The ‘graveyard’ was in the rear of the church. In front and at each side, the ground sloped away slightly and was covered by a growth of tall hickories and some very tall oak trees.”

The new church was very different compared to its log counterpart.

The bricks were a cherry red, and the church had two wide front doors.

Those doors, windows, shutters and all woodwork, inside and out, were always painted white.

The building’s interior was plain, as was customary with early churches built during this time period.

The pews had high backs, with a long, wide, straight aisle on each side from the front door to the rear wall, according to information from the Unity Cemetery and Chapel history book.

Two stoves stood in each aisle, and near each stove there was a tall, massive, octagonal, white pillar to support the ceiling.

One unique feature was the pulpit, “high and narrow and white and formal,” and standing between the front doors and the pews.

The preacher stood with his back to the front doors, and the congregation sat facing those doors.

While the log church represented humble beginnings, the larger church showed how the congregation had grown.

“In the early- to mid-1800s, Unity had one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the county,” Townsend said. “Most of them were farmers and professionals, and for the time it was considered a fairly wealthy congregation.

“One of the signs of wealth was buggies that they could drive to church, and there were stables nearby where they could keep the horses during the services.”

While records exist identifying those responsible for building the current Unity Chapel, who erected “Old Unity” remains a mystery.

“I don’t know whether it was just members of the congregation who built it because there were no construction companies around,” Townsend said.

“Old Unity” served the congregation for over 40 years.

“By 1873, the congregation had gotten smaller,” Townsend said. “The second church was built when they had 300 to 400 people, but that was before there was a Latrobe. When Latrobe was incorporated as a borough, a lot of the people moved from Unity Township and into town.

“They were some of our first businessmen and industrial leaders and so on, and they started leaving the family farm and looking for something in town. That took us to the Rev. (Noah Halleck) Gillette, who started a mission church that grew into the Latrobe Presbyterian Church.”

The mission church was built in town at 343 Main St. in 1857. A separate church – the Latrobe Presbyterian Church – was formed on March 1, 1869. It had 110 members, according to information from the historical society, chiefly from Unity.

“The church also needed repairs,” Townsend said, “and rather than putting money into repairing a church that was bigger than what they needed, they built Unity Chapel.”

During a June 6, 1873, congregational meeting, among the motions made and carried indicated that the membership identified the “Old Unity” church “building as unsafe,” and decided “that we do not attempt to repair it, and that we take measures to build a new church.”

A new red brick church – referred to today at Unity Chapel – was built in 1874 and still stands.