Way up in the most northeastern corner of our diocese, sitting on the Ohio River in Belmont County are two small towns, Bellaire and Martins Ferry. Although many people in our diocese have likely never been to either town, they were both my first introduction to the Diocese of Southern Ohio.
Holy Trinity, Bellaire
Just six miles apart, Bellaire and Martins Ferry are situated right across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia, where I became rector of St. Matthew’s in 1984. At that time there were five churches in Wheeling, all within a few miles of Trinity in Bellaire and St. Paul’s in Martins Ferry. Each church had its own priest and St. Matthew’s had two full time, one retired priest and a deacon. In addition, churches in four small towns north and south in WV and St. John’s in Cambridge, Ohio, all had their own priests, so the sixteen of us could have had our own clergy conference without ever leaving the area.
During my ten years in Wheeling and now almost 28 as a bishop in Ohio, I have witnessed the steel mills and glass factories in that area closing and the population in every town decline. As the years went by it became impossible for all the churches to have their own priest. For a while, two of the Wheeling churches and the two in Ohio formed a loose confederation called JEM (Joint Episcopal Ministry) and shared ministry and priests. After a good run, JEM folded, and different models were tried.
When I became a bishop, the priest in Martins Ferry had moved on and the priest in Bellaire was then serving both of the Ohio churches. When he retired, I ordained a husband and wife who each served the Ohio river churches, but soon they took calls out of state and those churches and St. John’s, Cambridge, formed a cluster, sharing a priest and an intern. Since they left, St. John’s has never again had a resident priest.
In 2007, a native son of the area who was serving as a deacon in Cincinnati, the Rev. John Brandenburg, came to serve both river churches and I ordained him priest. Not long after that, the people of the area recognized that they could no longer maintain two independent churches and so they merged, keeping the location in Martins Ferry as an outreach and social service center, and the church in Bellaire for worship under the name of Holy Trinity. (Editor’s note: the building in Martins Ferry was later sold.)
A large group of Bellaire-area children attend Holy Trinity’s popular VBS each year.
Some years ago, Holy Trinity began hosting a city-wide Vacation Bible School, with a youth group from Epiphany Lutheran church in Pickerington coming for a week to help teach. It was and remains quite popular and had a huge attendance.
When John Brandenburg died in 2018, everyone began to see the handwriting on the wall. That first Easter Day after his death I held services in Bellaire and assured the congregation that the diocese would not forget them, but frankly there were few clergy itching to come to that part of the state or diocese nor were there ample funds. Deacon Robert Howell serves St. John’s in Cambridge faithfully and he borrows clergy from Zanesville and elsewhere to provide Eucharist from time to time. I have tried to go to these churches whenever I could and, the Revs. Lee Anne Reat and David Getreu in their diocesan positions go as often as their other duties allow. The Rev. Seth Wymer has also helped them do a property assessment. So, they are not forgotten, but the situation – secularly, economically and religiously – in the Upper Ohio Valley is a far cry from the days when I was resident there. Two major hospitals and countless business have closed in addition to the churches.
Wardens Nancy and Colleen at the secularization rite.
Given this reality, in 2021 the people of Holy Trinity made the hard decision to sell their building. Surprisingly, they quickly had an offer from people who had the means to repair and repurpose the building. On October 3, Mariann and I went to Bellaire to secularize their building. Deacon Robert Howell joined us for the service. The congregation consisted of less than twenty from both Trinity and the former St. Paul’s. As I stood at the pulpit and looked out, the faces of many whom I have known for over 37 years clouded my mind. I was also aware of the spiritual presence of those now in God’s nearer presence, leaving the vast majority of the pews empty.
Secularizings often are quiet affairs with only a bishop or priest and a few witnesses. Not so in Bellaire. The wardens told me the congregation that day consisted of every remaining member, and although they could no longer support the building, they were hopeful that they would not have to disband the congregation. In fact, the new owner told them that since he did not need the church proper immediately, they could continue to worship there temporarily for a meager rent which he would then donate back to them. This was not a permanent fix, but they felt this would give them breathing room to find a new site to worship.
After the service, we adjourned to the parish hall (which would no longer be available to them) for a last shared meal there, (each food item individually wrapped, of course) and I found myself among some sad and yet still faithful people. The remnant gathered that morning talked about hoping to find a new site to continue worship and their hopes that the VBS could still go on. But they knew Eucharist would not be able to be held regularly for there was no resident priest. Senior Warden Nancy Spindler and Kathy Whitaker, who had both been through this same thing earlier when the Martins Ferry Church closed, agreed to continue holding Morning Prayer, and the Rev. Lee Ann Reat promised to come whenever she could, but everyone knew life would be very different.
Bishop Price with the entire remaining congregation
of Holy Trinity, Bellaire
On February 4, 2022, Bishop Wayne Smith received a letter from Senior Warden Spindler that stated, “After much prayerful consideration and painful discussion and agreement, the congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Bellaire has decided to close our congregation.” Missioner Reat will be with them on March 6 for their last service. In reflecting on this Lee Anne remarked that she hopes the highly successful VBS will find a way to continue. It has been a huge positive event in this area.
I am sharing this story because I am from the Ohio Valley and know the history well. However, if we change the name of the towns and churches, this story could be re-told with different people and situations all throughout the rural areas of our diocese.
Most parishioners in our diocese know little about this part of our state. Although some of the churches across the Ohio River in Wheeling still exist, in Ohio, St. James, Zanesville, 67 miles to the west, is the only church somewhat nearby with a full-time priest. St. John’s in Cambridge, between these cities, is led by a deacon. St. Luke’s, Marietta, 138 miles to the south, is led by a part-time priest from West Virginia. The distance between the churches in that part of the diocese is large, and the lack of priests is keenly felt (although the recent assignment of the Rev. Joshua Nelson to Gallipolis and Pomeroy is a bright spot). The area is comprised of 17 churches but has only seven full-time priests. Like their colleagues in Central Ohio, these clerics have begun meeting regularly, either on Zoom or, when possible, in person for mutual support.
This article has focused on this part of our diocese because the recent deconsecration of the second of two churches there is still raw and because I identify with this Appalachian part of our diocese. But life during the pandemic has led us all to face the reality that we need to “reinvent how we do church” if we are to survive and flourish. Although our churches in the three urban areas of our diocese are not separated by miles, as is the case in the southeast and northwest, everyone is feeling the pinch. Now, while we are in a time of transition, we need to take a hard look at ourselves so that we can articulate clearly to our next new bishop our hopes and dreams. Let us use the example of what has happened in the Upper Ohio Valley as a stimulus to do the hard work of reinvention. Southern Ohio has a reputation as a healthy and resource-rich diocese. But if we do not act now, more congregations may find themselves facing the hard decisions that the people of Holy Trinity have had to make.
We thank these good people for the witness they have made for decades. Lives have been changed because of their witness. May we not let their example go unheeded. In spite of the obstacles we face today, I believe we can keep the episcopal light shining as it has in the past. Our people are hearty souls. Now we just need to work together and be creative. May God bless us and sustain us, even as we plunge into an uncertain future.