NOTE: This story was originally published on March 27, 2011, and was located on the archived Preserving York website. It has been republished here for your enjoyment, and may have been edited for content and clarity from its original form.
The government of York County, Pennsylvania purchased the Zion Lutheran Church property on South Duke Street in late 1995 and owned it for just over 10 years. During that time, it was used for storing obsolete or non-essential items belonging to the county – chairs, desks, computers, and countless other items. It was common for homeless individuals to make entry into the church for shelter, and some even used a stairway leading to the basement for the same use. Time and neglect were against this aging treasure, but hope wasn’t too far away.
The county originally purchased the property during discussions about courthouse expansion. One idea on the table was to demolish the Zion building and use the space to add on to the existing courthouse. When York County made the decision to construct a judicial center at a different location instead of expanding the current courthouse facility, they were left with a dilemma – what to do with the Zion property, now non-essential to the needs of the county government.
According to the Wednesday, June 21, 2006 edition of the York Daily Record:
“The county announced plans last month to sell the old church and placed an advertisement in the newspaper Monday. That same day, Christ Lutheran Church delivered a check to the county for $125,000 – the price established in the ad.”
The article further stated this was the only offer received for the church property, and an agreement of sale was being worked out. According to the York County Assessment Office website, the date of sale for this purchase was August 16, 2006.
With this purchase the Zion Luther Church property, noted as “one of the most endangered historic properties in the City of York”, was back in the hands of Christ Lutheran Church, where it originated over 150 years earlier.
Shortly after the sale of Zion, I corresponded with The Rev. Patrick J. Rooney, Senior Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church. I expressed my appreciation for saving the old church and was relieved it was back into caring hands. We discussed the graves, and what the future held for the property. We spoke a few times over the years, but knowing the church was safe, I placed it in the back of my mind.
I recently decided to visit the old church property again to take some updated photographs. I thought this would be a great time to meet Pastor Rooney in person, and we also decided to visit the old church so I could give him details about the hidden graves I had visited years before.
Pastor Rooney was very busy that day but was gracious enough to sit with me in his office for a few minutes as we discussed the old church. As I have never visited Christ Lutheran, he also gave me a brief tour of the facility, and shortly after, we met with Robin Reed, Property Manager for Christ Lutheran who would be joining us.
As we entered the gymnasium of Zion, I immediately noticed damage to the floor and ceiling from a leak some time before. The flat roof of the aging gym was prone to this sort of thing, and repairs to it eliminated the problem for the time being. The facility was eerily cool, and caused goosebumps to appear on my arms. We made our way to the same narrow stairway leading to the basement that I walked down years before and cautiously made our decent.
Over 10 years had passed since I was in the basement of the church, so it took a few minutes for my memory to return. I was soon able to relay the exact locations of most of the graves still standing under the church. We were able to see one from an opening in the wall, but the others were out of site. We hadn’t planned on entering the crawlspace that day, but the potential for a return visit is very high.
As Pastor Rooney and Robin returned to their other responsibilities, I wandered around the outside of the church, admiring the building and graveyard standing before me. I gazed at the church’s brick tower, and slowly walked past each tombstone resting along the north wall. I tried to imagine what went through the minds of those who moved the tombstones during the construction, but was unable to do so with any certainty.
There are no longer problems with homeless individuals entering the building, but a bundled up blanket tucked away behind a nearby bush makes me think the stairway may still be used as a quiet place for someone to lay their head at night.
The early plans Christ Lutheran had for the Zion property were unable to materialize for varying reasons, so the property is once again sitting idle. Pastor Rooney told me of new plans they have, but I will not disclose them here, as I was unable to get his permission to do so. I choose not to disclose such information without authorization, so our relationship is not tarnished for future endeavorers I may have at the Zion property.
For now, the Zion Lutheran Church property, rich with history but largely ignored, is silently waiting for its next mission. This former house of worship served the York community for 145 years before it was tossed aside. Following that, it was used as a mere storage facility by York County and a shelter for the homeless who were able to make entry into the abandoned rooms. Now, there is a bright light in its future, where one day, I envision it serving the York Community once again.