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Wilkes-Barre congregations will hold joint service to remember shared religious history in city

Tony Brooks leads the chorus into St Stephen's Church Sunday morning.
Aimee Dilger
Tony Brooks, who serves as a verger, leads the choir down the aisle at St. Stephen's Church in Wilkes-Barre.

A humble 19th century table bears silent witness to the history of the Wyoming Valley's early Christian congregations.

"Old Ship Zion" was the name of a church on Wilkes-Barre's Public Square that served as home to several denominations for decades, until it was demolished in the 1850s.

This Sunday, the Old Ship Zion communion table will be on display as part of a yearly tradition celebrating that history, and its enduring legacy.

The congregations from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church will gather for their annual joint service celebrating their Old Ship Zion links.

The service is set for 10 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 97 South Franklin St.

"It is an important thing to remember our past and also to strive to work together. Right to remember our unity," said the Rev. Timothy Alleman, rector of St. Stephens.

Sunday's service will be led by Dr. Robert M. Zanicky, minister of First Presbyterian Church, and Alleman will preach.

Alleman said his theme will be from Acts, Chapter 10, in which Peter is instructed by God to share the message of salvation with the Gentiles, which proves successful, challenging Peter's own worldview.

"God might just have something in mind for us that we can't envision until all of a sudden it unfolds before us," Alleman said.

The Rev. Timothy Alleman, Rector of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre, is seen during a recent Sunday service.
Aimee Dilger
The Rev. Timothy Alleman, rector of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre, is seen during a recent Sunday service.

Remembering Old Ship Zion

That seems to be an entirely appropriate message given the history of Old Ship Zion.

Completed in the early 1800s, The Wilkes-Barre Meeting House (its formal name) was over the course of four decades home to Congregationalists (later they became Presbyterians), Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians. It was torn down in the 1850s when plans arose to build a new Luzerne County Courthouse on Public Square — itself now long gone.

According to Tony Brooks, a member of St. Stephen's and director of the Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society, the denominations gradually moved away into their own church buildings, ultimately leaving the Methodists as the last group using Old Ship Zion.

The process of splitting apart wasn't always friendly, however, as Brooks explained.

It might shock some modern readers to know that Christmas celebrations were not universally beloved among Puritans in early America — in fact, it was banned in New England at one point.

The Congregationalists who worshipped at Old Ship Zion in the early 1800s did not celebrate Christmas, in keeping with the traditions they brought from New England. The Episcopalians did, however. When the Congregationalists tore down their Christmas decorations one year, the Episcopalians left to build their own church.

The irony of Sunday's service is that it is the modern descendants of those two congregations who will be worshipping together.

"The first and most important thing is we're Christians, period," Alleman said, noting how in John 17, Jesus prays for the unity of all of his followers. "And we forget that when we focus too much on our tribalism."

Members of the choir sing during Sunday service at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre.
Aimee Dilger
Members of the choir sing during Sunday service at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre.

Traditions and history

That said, the traditions and history of the denominations also give cause for celebration, which is something Brooks discussed during a recent interview at St. Stephen's, where he has served as a verger for two decades.

If the word is unfamiliar to some readers, that may be because it is not common in most Christian denominations.

The term comes from England, where the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, originated. It refers to a lay minister who assists the clergy in a variety of duties, as Brooks has learned.

While marshalling the Sunday procession is the basic duty, there's so much more to be done.

"When you go to church on Sunday, there are three to four readings from the, from the Bible from scriptures, and they're usually assigned to lay people in the church. And sometimes for whatever reason, somebody might just not show up on a Sunday. And there might be that awkward moment where who nobody came to read. So I pinch hit," Brooks said.

"And don't you know, every time this does happen to me, generally, it will be one of those Old Testament readings where Hezekiah begat Obadiah, and about 20 other names that you just cannot pronounce," he joked.

But he also may be called upon to help the rector get dressed, check out the sound system, hand out bulletins.

"It's all kinds of various duties, and I've been happily doing it for 21 years," Brooks said.

When the Wilkes-Barre native moved home from Miami Beach, he was actively considering joining the Episcopal priesthood. He fell back in love with his hometown. He ultimately did decide that joining the priesthood wasn't his path, but staying active in the church was.

"It is something that I have been deeply committed to. And I am practically here for 52 Sundays a year."

'High and low church' practices

The Episcopal Church is known for its mix of "high church" and "low church" practices — high being more characteristic of Anglo-Catholic ritual, low referring to the more Protestant style of worship.

"There's this lovely phrase in Anglicanism that we are the 'via media,' the middle way," Alleman said.

"We have elements of the Catholic traditions and elements of the Protestant traditions," he added. "We're like both of you in some ways, and we're not like both of you in some ways."

St. Stephens increasingly embodies that ethos.

Tony Brooks leads the choir up to the altar.
Aimee Dilger
Tony Brooks leads the chorus into St Stephen's Church Sunday morning.

As Brooks pointed out, the church recently acquired liturgical accoutrements from Holy Cross Episcopal Church, a more "high" parish in Wilkes-Barre's North End that had closed.

Among those items were sanctus bells, which are rung during sacred moments during the Mass.

"St. Stephen's never had sanctus bells. But we have adopted them and that's one of my duties," Brooks said.

Regardless of the practices, the church remains a spiritual home for many.

"It's just a welcoming warm place," Brooks said.

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org