THIS WEEK IN BETHLEHEM HISTORY: The Cathedral Church of the Nativity
The Cathedral Church of the Nativity is celebrating its sesquicentennial this fall with a series of events including a 5K Run on Sept. 30 to benefit the New Bethany Ministries, and a "Celebration Dinner" Nov. 2 at Iacocca Hall, Lehigh University Mountaintop Campus. The last event of the series is a celebration breakfast Nov. 4 at the church. The "William Sayre Prayer Book Reading with Wine and Cheese Reception" at the Sayre Mansion Inn Nov. 30 is very appropriate. Read on for the early history of the church to see the Sayre connection.
In June 1863, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Pennsylvania recognized the efforts of a small group of Episcopalians to form a parish in South Bethlehem. As far back as 1854, visiting Episcopalian ministers came to preach to an eager handful of believers in local hotel parlors of Bethlehem. Bishop Alonzo Potter, bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, visited Bethlehem in 1854, but did not find enough interest to start a church. William H. Sayre Jr. provided the funds to rent the second floor of the Temperance Hall near Broad and New streets for Episcopal services during the summer of 1855.
The small group continued to meet in the homes of Tinsley Jeter and Robert Sayre. Rev. Tschudi, assistant minister of Mauch Chunk, conducted Episcopal services June 16, 1861, in Robert Sayre's parlor. Finally, on May 6, 1862, in a meeting at Sayre's home, eight people decided it was the right time to start a parish and build a church. They selected an administrative committee to organize the church and the Church of the Nativity was born.
After this meeting, a Sunday school was immediately opened in the station of the North Pennsylvania Railroad Company, in South Bethlehem, with 10 teachers and 52 pupils. The school moved to the church building once it was erected. Rev. Eliphalet N. Potter, son of Rev. Alonzo Potter, was chosen as the first rector. He served for seven years, then left to teach with the first faculty of Lehigh University as a professor of ethics. Eliphalet went on to become the president of both Hobart and Union colleges.
Members of this new church represented local industry, Lehigh University and St. Luke's Hospital. Asa Packer, Robert Sayre, Elisha Wilbur and Garrett Linderman all were large contributors and members. The site chosen for the church was South Bethlehem. Land situated at Third and Wyandotte streets was purchased from Rudolphus Kent, Charles Hacker and Samuel R. Shipley, land developers from Philadelphia.
An ecclesiastical specialist, Edward Tuckerton Potter of New York, designed the Church of the Nativity. Potter also designed Packer Hall (1869) at Lehigh University and Mark Twain's home (1874) in Hartford, Conn. Potter was one of the first American architects to design decent housing for lower income tenants. He served Lehigh University from 1865 to 1871, constructing a general plan for the campus.
The cornerstone for the church was laid Aug. 6, 1863. The church was erected 1864-65, but in use by the congregation by December 1864. It was consecrated on the day of President Lincoln's funeral, April 19, 1865. In May of 1876, the Church of the Nativity was elaborately painted in colors to emphasize its architectural details. The church was enlarged in 1888 and the parish house added in 1897. The bell tower, which stands approximately 85 feet tall, was added in 1899. Fire destroyed the parish house in 1938, and it was immediately rebuilt. All the buildings were constructed of quartzite stone. Indiana limestone and Pennsylvania blue sandstone were added for decorative elements.
The Parish founded the Bishopthorpe School for Girls in 1868, later to become St. Luke's nurses' residence. Rev. Robert J. Nevin, Rev. John I. Forbes and Rev. Cortlandt Whitehead served the early years of the church. The church was designated "Cathedral Church" in 1900 when it became the official seat of the Bishop of the Bethlehem Diocese, the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot.
Beautiful weddings are a part of the church's history. On Oct. 15, 1884, Ruth May Sayre, daughter of Robert H. Sayre Sr., married Robert P. Linderman. For the wedding ceremony, her father laid a carpet across Wyandotte Street, between the church and his home. Wyandotte was a dirt street at the time. The bridal party was able to walk with confidence in their clean footwear, between the family mansion and the church.
The church is included in the Fountain Hill Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. South Bethlehem Historical Society facilitated the lighting design by Olaf Starorypinski of Light & Illumination Inc., in 2000. At night, the illuminated church makes a beautiful impression as one crosses the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to Bethlehem.
Sunday Sept. 30
5K Run to Benefit New Bethany Ministries and the Nativity Emergency Shelter Program*
Lehigh University Goodman Campus - Cross Country Course
William Sayre Prayer Book Reading with Wine and Cheese Reception**
Sayre Mansion Inn
Evensong - Cathedral Church of the Nativity
Friday Nov. 2
Evensong with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem - Cathedral Church of the Nativity
Lehigh University Mountaintop Campus - Iacocca Hall Wood Dining Room
Saturday Nov. 3
Cathedral Choir Performs Mozart's Requiem - Cathedral Church of the Nativity
Sunday Nov. 4
All Cathedral Service - Cathedral Church of the Nativity
Pre- and post-service celebration breakfasts will be offered**
* These events will be available with purchased tickets.
**These events will be available at no charge, but tickets are necessary.
Order tickets now.
Call the Church Office at 610-865-0727
or email email@example.com