About this blog: Discussing religion, spirituality and values. About the writers: Amy Umble is the religion reporter for The Free Lance-Star. Janet Marshall is the religion editor for The Free Lance-Star.
Praising the past, eyeing the future
The congregation of the Culpeper Presbyterian Church will commemorate its 200th anniversary with a special birthday service on Nov. 17.
“We will be celebrating the past, acknowledging where we are in the present and looking forward into the future,” said the Rev. Wayne Bernardo, who has been pastor at Culpeper Presbyterian since 1990.
The Rev. Carson Rhyne, general presbyter of the Presbytery of the James, will be guest speaker as Culpeper Presbyterian Church welcomes back former members and friends for the homecoming service.
“We’re also putting together a historical booklet,” said Bernardo.
The service will be the culmination of several special events planned to commemorate the church’s ministry in the Culpeper community.
In September, Bernardo led an entire Sunday service portraying the Rev. Thomas Hooper, Culpeper Presbyterian’s most renowned former minister who served the church for 38 years in two different stints.
Known as “The Fighting Parson,” Hooper resigned as pastor of Mitchells Presbyterian Church and Orange Presbyterian Church to fight in World War I.
While overseas he became friends with Will Rogers and appeared on stage with the comedic sage after the war.
Hooper was also known as one of Culpeper’s best billiards players and, according to reports, took his ministry to a Davis Street pool hall almost every Friday night.
But the church’s history precedes Hooper’s 1907 début as minister by almost 100 years. There had been a Presbyterian presence in Culpeper since before the Revolutionary War, but the first formal worship services were held in private homes in 1813.
The following year a formal congregation, known as Bethesda Presbyterian Church, was organized and in 1815 the first pastor, the Rev. Samuel Hoge, was called.
Hoge, however, left for Ohio two years later because of his disdain for slavery in Virginia.
The first church, built in 1825, sat in the middle of what is now North Main Street directly in front of Baby Jim’s Snack Bar.
That church was ravaged during the Civil War, used first as a hospital and then as a livery stable. By war’s end it was unusable.
Prior to that conflict, the women of the congregation had raised $600 to buy the land where Culpeper Presbyterian is now located. That lot sat kitty-corner from one of the town’s most prominent saloons.
The present sanctuary was completed in 1869, at which time the name was changed from Bethesda to Culpeper Presbyterian.
Bernardo said that this year’s celebration occurred almost by accident.
“I was out working in the front one day last year when I happened to notice the plaque on the building that said we were organized in 1813,” he said. “That’s when we decided to start planning for this 200th anniversary celebration.”
To prepare for the Nov. 17 service, the congregation also decided to upgrade its sanctuary, which is now 144 years old. The church pews were refurbished earlier this year and the structure’s metal roof is in the process of being replaced.
“We raised $50,000 to do this and there was not any single, large benefactor,” Bernardo said. “Everybody chipped in.”
That’s not surprising because Culpeper Presbyterian, which now has about 400 members, has become one of the most active congregations in town during Bernardo’s tenure.
In 2003, the church completed and opened a $2 million education and fellowship building across Locust Street.
Two years later, it began its Manna Ministry out of the new building, a program that now (with the help of other Culpeper churches) serves as many as 130 free meals each day to people in need.
“We found that there were a lot of people falling through the cracks and we wanted to help,” Bernardo says. “[Manna Ministry] is a reflection of our congregation as a whole. We are a ministry-oriented church.”
Bernardo says that devotions are offered during the weekday meals but participation is optional.
As Culpeper Presbyterian moves into its third century, the sanctuary is filled nearly every Sunday and its ministry is felt throughout Culpeper. Thoughts of building a larger church away from the downtown have all but evaporated and members seem content to remain where they are.
“If we can stay a healthy 400–600 member church we’ll be doing well,” Bernardo says. “Right now this church is in the best shape it has ever been.”