First Mennonite Church (Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA)
First Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church) in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a member of the Franconia Mennonite Conference, was founded in 1919 as the Mennonite Gospel Mission, the first mission station in the Franconia Conference. In 1990, First Mennonite Church merged with two other Norristown congregations, Bethel Mennonite and Fuente de Salvación, to form Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church, a multicultural and bilingual (Spanish and English) congregation.
Meetings of the Mennonite Gospel Mission were held first in a residence purchased at 21 W. Marshall Street. In 1924 a one-story brick auditorium annex was erected. In 1949 a Jewish synagogue adjacent to the residence was purchased and renovated and became the meetinghouse. In the same year the congregation became self-sustaining.
At the beginning the work was in charge of resident superintendents, although the pulpit was supplied by visiting ministers until 1936. J. C. Clemens served as a visiting pastor in 1929-1931, succeeded by several others. On 10 November 1936 Markley H. Clemmer was ordained for Norristown as the first resident pastor. Harold K. Weaver was ordained deacon in 1941.
|Above: Mission chapel, house, and later church building, ca. 1924.
Below: Summer Bible School, ca. 1950.
Photos courtesy Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, Pennsylvania.
The church at Norristown pioneered in young people's Bible meetings and summer Bible school work in the Franconia Mennonite Conference. It was largely responsible for the establishment of three other missions: Bridgeport, Pennsylvania (opened in 1946), Conshohocken, Pennsylvania (opened in 1948) and Bethel, Norristown (opened in 1960). -- Paul M. Lederach, 1957
During the 1960s Markley Clemmer divided his pastoral efforts between First Mennonite and the new Bethel Mission. Deacon Harold Weaver was the main leader at First Mennonite during this time. Markley continued preaching but had less involvement otherwise in the congregation. Laypersons were quite active in music leading, Sunday School and midweek Bible studies, etc. Paul Hackman, who served as co-pastor with Markley Clemmer 1956-1963, was called to pastor elsewhere before returning to First Mennonite from 1968 until 1982. Paul's leadership over two decades was enhanced by the many occasions of home fellowship he and wife Faye provided for single persons and families. Faye's contribution of simple meals with focus on fellowship added much to Paul's ministry.
In the mid-1960s a severe challenge to First Mennonite congregation occurred. Members of a Pentecostal church in Philadelphia began attending services and midweek Bible study, expressing interest in Mennonite beliefs. Through personal contacts a few First Mennonite members became excited about the enthusiasm and testimonies of these people and their church, where leaders claimed dramatic Holy Spirit powers. The visitors challenged the doctrine of the Trinity and other traditional beliefs, boldly proclaiming revelations they claimed came from the Holy Spirit. Within a few months several First Mennonite members joined the Philadelphia church. Bishop Elmer Kolb of Pottstown was called to moderate the conflict, and after several prayerful and painful meetings, one couple and three single members were removed from membership at First Mennonite during a Sunday church service.
In the 1960s and following, the Hispanic community in Norristown grew significantly. In 1968 Ray and Celia Landis, just returned from mission work in Puerto Rico, joined the work at First Mennonite. Ray’s work with local Hispanic folks continued for the next 14 years. The church’s annex building was used for Spanish-language Sunday School. Ray functioned as a licensed lay pastor, and his leadership included music in worship and the administration of communion. He also performed at least one marriage during his service. Occasionally the Hispanic and English groups at First Mennonite joined together for worship and fellowship.
During the 1980s, a Hispanic worship group, Fuente de Salvación, began using the First Mennonite building on Sunday afternoons and was in conversation with Franconia Mennonite Conference for recognition as a church plant. Henry and Emperatriz Ortiz were the leaders of this group. Also during this time, Bethel Mennonite Church and First Mennonite were having more frequent times of fellowship together. These contacts led to a significant sharing of vision among leaders of the three congregations. Both First and Bethel had less than 100 members and Fuente de Salvación was also a small group. Congregational leaders, including Franconia Conference overseer and mission secretary Luke Beidler, met together for intentional sharing of vision and began considering the possibility of merging the three Norristown congregations. One of the hallmarks of the new congregation would be its multicultural nature—Anglo, African-American and Hispanic.
This vision was shared with the three congregations for discussion over a period of months. Receiving a favorable response, the decision was made to purchase a former Methodist church on East Marshall Street, using funds from the sale of the First Mennonite and Bethel Mennonite buildings, as well as a bank loan. The official merger and beginning of Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church took place in the summer of 1990. -- Stanley L. Freed, 2011
Gospel Mission Superintendents
|Elmer B. Moyer||1919-1920|
|Allen A. Freed||1920-1921|
|Willis K. Lederach||1921-1928|
|William G. Detweiler||1928-1931|
|Llewellyn A. Groff||1931-1934|
|William F. Hoffman||1934-1935|
|Paul E. Mininger||1935-1936|
First Mennonite Church Pastors
|Markley H. Clemmer||1936-1982|
|Paul M. Lederach||1944-1950|
|Paul M. Hackman||1956-1963
|Glenn M. Alderfer||1978-1982|
|Paul D. Leichty||1982-1990|
Gospel Mission & First Mennonite Membership
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 913. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Lederach, Paul M. and Stanley L. Freed. "First Mennonite Church (Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. February 2011. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F5666.html.
APA style: Lederach, Paul M. and Stanley L. Freed. (February 2011). First Mennonite Church (Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F5666.html.