50 – Zion Church, circa 1776, Hagerstown, MD
Zion stands solidly, commanding the corner of Potomac and Church Streets, its stone walls a testament to the faith and the will of Hagerstown’s earliest settlers. Originally called The First German Reformed Church of Elizabeth Town, this congregation is not the oldest in the area, but it still occupies its original building, the oldest church in Washington County.
Around 1766, a log schoolhouse was erected on the grounds of the present church, an area then known as Potato Hill. This building was used by the Reformed community both as a school and as a place for religious services. Before 1770, ministers sent from Philadelphia intermittently served Reformed settlements in the Conococheague area. In December 1770, the Reverend Jacob Weimer (or Weymer) arrived in the western frontier, and by early the next year had organized a Reformed, or Calvinist, congregation of 40 male members in Elizabeth Town, all refugees from the religious persecutions in Switzerland and the German Palatinate. (Women were not considered members until later although they contributed greatly to the church.) After the arrival of Reverend Weimer, the log school building was used for services until the church was built in 1774; then it continued to serve as a day school and as a lecture hall.
Captain Wilhelm Heyser, a master stone mason, carried out the construction of the church. It was nearly square, with four bays facing what is now Potomac Street and a bell tower with a spire abutting the south gable.
In November 1775, Jonathan Hager, the founder of Hagerstown, was killed when a massive beam being lifted to the ceiling slipped and fell. The interior of the building remained unfinished until after the Revolution because Captain Heyser formed a German Regiment for the Continental Army and was commissioned July 12, 1776. When finally completed, the church had a gallery on three sides and windows on both levels. The church was entered by a door in the second bay from the north and a similar door on the west. There was also a door in the bell tower. These doors accessed aisles that intersected, forming a cross. The first graves of the faithful were placed beside the church.
The church was not materially altered until an 1866 renovation removed the galleries and side doors, added 23 feet in length to the north, and created five tall, arched windows on either side. A second steeple was built in 1871 only to be destroyed by a tornado seven years later. It was rebuilt, but the interior of the church was damaged by fire in 1883; and the following year the present tower was constructed and dedicated. The two bells of the church were cast in Rotterdam by the foundry of G. Bakker in 1790 from molds designed in 1785, and thus carry that date. The bells are made of eleven percent coin silver for tonal clarity and have served the church and the community since the end of the 18th century.
When the church was remodeled, the original log school was torn down and replaced by a new brick chapel that was dedicated in 1868. For 25 years it served as Sunday School, lecture hall and meeting room. In 1892, it was decided to replace this chapel; and the cornerstone for the third chapel was dedicated December 17, 1893. The building is a rectangle with clipped corners and rises to a high, beamed ceiling that follows the form of the hip roof and the eight perimeter walls. The intersecting beams and the wood that sheaths them are dark and glow with a subtle sheen. The altarpiece of this chapel is the original wooden tablet, inscribed with scripture, that stood behind the church’s original altar. It is a magnificent structure.
In 1928, the congregation purchased an organ built by the Moller Company for the extravagant price of $10,000. In 1963, this instrument was rebuilt; and 1,544 new pipes were added. There have been other additions as the church has grown, but the complex still stands next to the graveyard where many early settlers lie. The congregation is about to celebrate the centenary of the lovely third chapel. The Moller organ will sound, the bells will ring, and the chapel will be ushered into its second century by a devoted congregation.
Epilogue: Zion celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1993.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, October 3, 1993 as part of the 50th in the series.