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Chester County Press

Rooted in faith

04/20/2017 08:34AM ● By J. Chambless

The 170-year-old Landenberg United Methodist Church was founded when the area was known as Chandlerville. (Photo by Natalie Smith)

Staff Writer

The roots of the United Methodist Church run deep under the village of Landenberg.

“It’s home to me. It’s my home church,” said lifelong church member and Landenberg resident Alma Rigler.

When the church was first planned 170 years ago, this peaceful and scenic area along the White Clay Creek was known as Chandlerville, named after the mill owned by local manufacturer Joseph Ripka. Peter Hart, a mill manager, was the driving force behind the establishment of the church. Inspired by a Methodist evangelist, the Rev. Henry S. King, in 1847, Hart and other founding members collected $112.75 in anticipation of the $800 they reckoned building the structure would cost.

On donated land behind the woolen mill, the church forefathers spent many nights hauling quarried stones to the lot, and in 1848, they had constructed a plain and modest building in agreement with the Methodist Church tenets, according to a 1987 history of the church compiled and revised by member Ann Hagerty for its 140th anniversary.

The church members at the time were likely the mill workers, local farmers and area artisans. Membership would ebb and flow, probably tied to the success of the mills, but there were apparently stalwarts who attended and kept the church going.

Some 10 years after being built, with Ripka’s mills thriving, so did the church. Around 1864, Martin Landenberger purchased Ripka’s Chandlerville and Fisher’s mills in neighboring Laurel, and the booming economy made for an even more vigorous church membership. But again, as the fates of the mills varied, so did church attendance, a pattern that seemed to continue until the mills’ closures in 1913 and 1914.

As the years passed, many changes came to the “Church by the Side of the Stream.” Sunday School – a tradition that continues to this day – was offered as early as 1871, if not before. An influx of members in 1879 necessitated an enlargement, and later a bell was added to the steeple. A parsonage was built in 1902.

The church and parsonage received many repairs over the years, much of it paid for through the faith, determination and resourcefulness of the many pastors and church members.

In 1953, after large efforts had been made to raise money for and erect an addition in which to hold Sunday School classes, a Dec. 16 fire caused by suspected faulty wiring destroyed the church, leaving behind just four walls. Fortunately, the new annex was spared, and services were temporarily held there. But again, generosity and resolution led to the building of a new church a year later in the same spot. In 1965, another addition was finished, to house a pastor’s study, records room and church school room.

The lives of some of today’s worshippers have been intrinsically linked to the community that’s always been their home. Attending Sunday School and services played a big part in the life of Alma Hendrickson Rigler for almost as long as she can remember.

Alma, who joked she and her family have lived in Landenberg “forever,” said she has long and fond memories of belonging to Landenberg UMC. “I started coming to the church when I was 3, with my grandmother,” Alma said, “and I’m going to be 90 in June.”

Her grandmother, Emily Hendrickson, “was really dedicated to the church,” she said. Alma herself started with Sunday nursery, primary and senior classes, leading up to going to church services as a young woman. She recalled her Sunday primary teacher, May Bryan, a woman who was very active in the church for many years. “She was quite a lady,” Alma said of her teacher.

She also said that George Holton, who had been superintendent of the Sunday School and who held many positions in the church, was a positive influence on her life and lives of many others.

Alma married her now-late husband Earl Rigler, Sr., in 1949. The Riglers had two children, Earl Jr. and Michael, who died in 2013.

Earl and Alma were married “in the old church before it burned down,” she said. The destruction of the old church, “was just devastating to the congregation,” she said.

Alma grew up with Earl, who was also a native Landenberger. “We used to ride bicycles together,” she said with a laugh. They shared “67 wonderful years together.”

Her job with the American Mushroom Institute satisfied any wanderlust she may have had. Until retiring after 37 years, her position as assistant director of that organization had her traveling nationally and even internationally for conferences. But she was always happy to return to her home and church.

Lydia Richardson Akerman is another lifelong Landenberger. All three of her sisters still live there. “My kid sister lives across from me,” she said.

Of course, the connections continue. Both Alma’s and Lydia’s families eventually became neighbors, with Alma becoming good friends with Lydia’s sister, Mary. (Lydia admits to being the somewhat pesky little sister, 14 years younger.) Her father owned Richardson’s Garage, which was where her grandfather’s blacksmith shop used to be.

She worked for NVF in Yorklyn, Del., retiring after 48 years when it closed in 2007.

Lydia also marrieda local boy. She’s been married to William “Bill” Akerman for 56 years. Their son, William Maurice, who also goes by Bill, lives very close to them. “We gave him property to do with what he wanted. He stayed,” she said.

Although she said her husband’s family always attended the Landenberg UMC and Lydia attended Sunday School, her embracing the Lord and baptism came later, when she was 30.

Lydia expressed what belonging to the church meant to her.

“Landenberg Church is, and has been, much more than just the building. The church is, and has always been, the people, who faithfully gather to praise and thank our beloved Creator God for His good news.

“The church has been, and always will be, a place where one comes to be restored and renewed in spirit, soul and body. A place of acceptance, a place of love, and place where hands are raised in praise to God and where hands are stretched out to all people in need.

“Throughout these 170 years, God’s people have formed loving relationships with one another, through prayer, encouragement, standing together in death and in joy, helping in times of devastation and rebuilding.”

Since coming to the church, Lydia has held every position possible for a layperson. She ticked off some of them: Sunday School teacher, superintendent and chairman of the trustees. But she said her “greatest title” among the congregation is “The Gum Lady.”

“I give out gum to all the kids. I check with their parents first, of course,” she said with a smile. Lydia even received a wedding invitation addressed to, “Mr. William Akerman and Gum Lady,” from one of the students she’d taught in Sunday School.

“I’ve got such love of community and love for the people of this church,” she said.

Hun Ju Lee is the latest in a long line of pastors who have led the Landenberg United Methodist Church. When he was assigned to the church in 2011, he said he was greeted literally with open arms, receiving a big hug upon meeting Lydia Akerman. The warmth and openhearted spirit with which Lee and his wife Jessica, along with children Brian and Grace, were welcomed left an impression on the pastor.

“I felt so blessed,” he said. “No more and no less than that.”

The South Korean native’s original plan was to study in the U.S and then “go back home to teach or have a ministry and teach. But God guided me to [something] totally different,” he said.

He received his master of divinity degree from Drew University in New Jersey in 2005, then graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a degree in Christian education. Lee served as pastor at two churches in Delaware County before arriving in Landenberg.

In his seven years in Landenberg, the Rev. Lee said he is continually impressed by the connections between members and their long affiliations with the church. And although the church now probably has non-natives and native members in equal number, Alma Rigler summed up why those connections remain so strong.

“People never want to leave,” she said.

Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected]