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Poke Run Presbyterian Church Divided Over Historic Building

Friday, September 10, 2010
Last updated: 7:11 am

From left, Emma and Jim Dunmire, of Washington Township; Jack and Eleanor Zerbini, of Salem Township; Maynard Miller, of Kiski Township; and Kathy Moneymaker, of Washington Township, all gather together in front of the Academy Building located beside the Poke Run Church located in Washington Township on Thursday. Erica Hilliard/Valley News Dispatch

Nine members of Poke Run Presbyterian Church are asking Westmoreland County Court to side with history and preserve the church’s academy building and its contents.

The four couples and one individual filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop their congregation from demolishing the academy building and prevent the sale of antiques or other items inside.

Trustees insist that the congregation followed all congregational and Redstone Presbytery rules when it voted, 61-49, in June to demolish the wooden academy building, said trustee Vice President Walt Lange yesterday.

Trustee President Vince Goodiski said the congregation, organized in 1785, attracts 150 people to its two Sunday services. The church is located along Poke Run Church Road in Washington Township, across Route 66 from the intersection with Route 366.

Poke Run Presbyterian Church in Washington Township

Goodiski, a member since the 1980s, said the members voted to use the space to add an elevator and ground-floor access to the fellowship hall in the basement of the church.

The academy building has “no amenities, a crumbling foundation, musty smell,” and its metal roof recently sustained wind damage, he said.

Goodiski also said an older $10,000 ramp leading to the front of the church is inadequate and, at the back of the church, a $7,000 chair lift needs to be replaced to accommodate wheelchairs.

“It’s not feasible to fix the lift, and people who use the ramp and come into the church late are immediately seen by everyone else,” he said.

The nine members believe the handicap access is sufficient, and they want to have the building that opened in 1889 classified as a historic structure, member Maynard Miller said.

Both sides in the dispute retain deep emotional attachment to the church, even if they disagree about the fate of the academy building. Many have attended the church for decades.

Miller, whose name appears first on the lawsuit, said the academy served as the township’s first high school, starting in about 1919 and lasting about 10 years.

Miller said his wife, Martha, was baptized in the church, and she married him there in 1946.

James W. Dunmire is among those who are asking for an injunction.

“This is historic. We don’t want the building destroyed,” Dunmire said.

Goodski said the congregation has dealt with the issue for “at least five or six years” and this is “not something that came up as a last minute thing as they are trying to say.”

Goodski said they have offered the building to the nine “and anyone else to move it.”

One solution may be to “put the building on a slab” and move it elsewhere on the church property, he said, although that could be tricky because of the condition of the academy and its maintenance budget.

Goodiski could not say how much the church has spent on the building.

The church land includes the academy and church as well as an education building.

Goodiski and Lange believe the education building can be enlarged to handle community meetings, including those for the Kiski Valley Habitat for Humanity and Beaver Run Community 4-H Club.

He said the congregation wants to remove the building “so that we can better reach out into the community.”

The complaint includes a request for an injunction but a hearing on that hasn’t been scheduled.

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