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Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church Celebrates 125 Years

Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church on the corner of W.Va. 88 and National Road in Wheeling is celebrating its 125th anniversary. (Photo by Derek Redd)

WHEELING — For 125 years, Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church has been an integral part of Wheeling, both as a place of worship and as a community neighbor. Vance’s parishioners are now celebrating that milestone birthday both by honoring the church’s long, storied history and by casting an eye toward the future.

The church in the past few years has opened its doors not just on Sundays to those wanting to worship. Those doors have opened to many people and organizations throughout the week, building what the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Erica Harley, feels is a healthy, positive energy. She and the congregation hope that energy continues to grow.

According to a history of the church put together by church elder Jeanne Finstein, during the late 19th century, families started moving to what is now Wheeling’s Woodsdale area and began establishing places of worship that were easier to get to. One of those locations, which became Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church, was farmland that had been the childhood home of Wheeling industrialist James Nelson Vance.

The Frank Walters Road House tavern stood on those grounds and in 1893, Vance bought the property and moved the tavern across the street. He hired Wheeling architect Edward Bates Franzheim to design an octagon-shaped Richardsonian Romanesque style building, and Lawrence Gibbs Hallock to build it as a chapel in memory of his parents, James and Mary Waddle Vance.

James Nelson Vance foot the entire bill on the chapel, a cost of $50,000 to $60,000, which would be between $1.3 and $1.6 million in today’s dollars. The church was dedicated on June 27, 1897, and the first congregational meeting was held on Aug. 4, 1897.

Vance has seen many changes through the years, including this expansion which occurred between 1957 and 1959. (Photo courtesy of Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church)

From that point, the church would grow by leaps and bounds. Church membership reached 420 by 1915 and grew to more than 1,300 members and 600 children by the late 1950s. 

“I was amazed at the size of the membership back in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Finstein, a member of the church since she moved to Wheeling in the late 1960s. “It grew enormously as Woodsdale grew, basically. When we looked through the numbers and saw the Sunday school numbers, it was amazing.”

And bigger congregations necessitate bigger meeting places. The church added a new Sunday school building in 1913, expanded the main sanctuary and added a 30,000-square-foot education building between 1957 and 1959 and remodeled the main sanctuary in 1955-56 and again in 2002.

Harley has been senior pastor of the church since 2018, but she had known about Vance long before her arrival. She grew up in St. Clairsville, and when she became senior pastor, she admitted the church’s reputation was somewhat intimidating.

That intimidation has softened, but the church’s commitment to the community has not. When she arrived, the group that hired her said that Vance should welcome even more groups and organizations inside its walls. 

“The vision is to be a church for the community, and one of our greatest assets is our building,” she said. “So the way we can be for the community is to let the community use it.”

Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church had welcomed Young Life, the Junior League and the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery before Harley had arrived. Since took the lead of the church, it has also welcomed in Harmony House, Al-Anon and the oldest Alcoholics Anonymous group in the Ohio Valley. The church also is home to one of the state’s oldest Scout troops and opened a preschool and a daycare center that is adding two more rooms. 

Harley said she really enjoys watching the buzz of activity throughout the church grounds as so many groups call them home.

“It’s very cool and very exciting,” she said. “It’s lots of good energy. I’ve been in churches that only do Sunday mornings, and there’s almost a sense of dread. We don’t have any of that. We have great energy in our building and people are happy to come in. That’s what they want.”

And that mission shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Harley said, Vance and its  congregation wants to continue growing in its desire to help the community around them. They want the next 125 years to be even better.

“I’m very proud of Vance,” Harley said, “not just its history, but its present and its future. We’re just poised to be in a really good place.”

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