Our History

The history of the Memorial Church of the Holy Cross begins with the arrival in Reading of Mr. Emmor Kimber and Mr. Samuel Pettit in 1822 to work on the Union Canal[1].   Mr. Kimber wrote: “There was no Methodist society in Reading and the opposition against people of this religious faith was so strong that regularly ordained ministers of the church were not able to hold services.  We, who adhered to Methodism, were called believers of false prophets, storblers, and the like. But being just plain mechanics, they thought we could not make any headway, so we were not driven out, although we were subject to persecution. Our first meetings were in a log house of one room. Then we rented a schoolhouse which was seated (had benches) and in which we taught school in the winter.” This schoolhouse was located at 38 South 5th Street.

Kimber and Pettit next bought a brick house at 133 South Third Street, a house about thirty feet square. They tore out the indoor partitions and seated it. As Mr. Kimber noted, the two cousins “were bishop, presiding elder and preacher in charge – for a time.”  They then invited preachers. Among these were Henry Boehm and Jacob Gruber, who were then on the Lancaster circuit, and the Reverend Boehm noted the following: “I succeeded in planting Methodism in Reading and formed the first class there, when I had been shut out a score of years before.”  Years later, Reverend Boehm related the following incident: “At Reading, there was a mechanics shop in the neighborhood of the schoolhouse where some men used to meet regularly, idly amusing themselves. (This was near Fifth and Cherry Streets.)  One of that company, a rather young man, undertook to mimic the Methodists. He went on to show how they acted during their meetings. He shouted, clapped his hands, and then would show how they fell down. He then threw himself down on the floor and lay there as if asleep.  His companions enjoyed the sport, but after he had lain there for some time, they wondered why he didn’t get up. They shook him in order to awake him. when they saw he did not breathe, they turned pale and sent for a physician who examined the man and pronounced him dead. This awful event did two things for us. It stopped ridicule and persecution. Also it gave us favor in the sight of people. They believed that God was for us. Little do the present Methodists of Reading know of our early struggles and difficulties.”[2]

The cousins Kimber and Pettit remained in Reading for several years. Mr. Kimber was licensed to preach. When they left Reading they deeded the little house on Third Street, which cost about $575, to the Methodist Church. It was called Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church, and it was the Reading Methodist’s house of worship until 1839, when a “regular house of worship” was built at 39 South Fourth Street. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted a charter to Ebenezer Church in 1840[3]. The church building was remodeled and enlarged in 1870 and again in 1884, when a large pipe organ was installed. There were 400 members of Ebenezer Church at that time.

Ebenezer Church continued to flourish.  Before a prospective member could join the church, they became a probationer for a period of six months. Before they could become a probationer, they had to attend a Sunday School class for several sessions and be recommended by a class member. These and other requirements did not discourage new memberships.

Even after the extensive remodeling completed in 1884, the large numbers of members could not find adequate space in the Ebenezer building.  By 1886, a group of members who called themselves the Missionary Sunday School began meeting in a building at Church and Oley Streets. There were ninety-one members in that class, and it was attracting families of other denominations and some with no church ties at all. The Missionary School wrote to the Quarterly Conference about the need for a permanent meeting place, and the matter was referred to Ebenezer Church for further action.

The idea of a new church edifice probably came from Aaron Wilhelm, a trustee, steward, and former Sunday School Superintendent at Ebenezer. Also advancing the idea of a new church edifice was Walter S. Davis, the brother-in-law of Aaron Wilhelm. Davis was also a trustee and Sunday School Superintendent. These two men along with the pastor, the Reverend Dr. William J. Stevenson, began meeting with a group of Ebenezer members to discuss the idea of building a new church.

Finally, at a congregational meeting on July 1, 1889, it was decided that the Trustees would be authorized to sell the Ebenezer Church building “with all appurtenances and appointments” for the sum not less than $7500 to those members of the church who desired to continue worshipping in that building. The proceeds from the sale were to be applied toward the erection of a new and more desirably located Church and Sunday School building.

Within one year, a North Fifth Street site was chosen for the new church, a Philadelphia architect, Thomas P. Lonsdale, was selected (from among forty bids submitted) to design the building, and a contract for construction was awarded to Josiah S. Koch.

The new church would have a new name, although it was still legally the Ebenezer Church. A majority of the Trustees and the congregation were in favor of the new building project, so a new charter was not needed. A resolution was adopted naming the church “The Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church.” The phrase, “Thy Memorial, 0 Lord” was included on the church front. (The present name, The Memorial Church of the Holy Cross, was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1901.)

On July 7, 1890, ground was broken and construction was underway. The cornerstone for the new building was laid on April 26, 1891 by the Reverend W. J. Stevenson, D.O., the Reverend Bishop C. D. Foss, D.O., LL.D., the Reverend J. Richards Boyle, D.O., and the Honorable R. E. Pattison, then Governor of Pennsylvania. Services were held at the site in the morning and at the Rajah Theatre in the evening. The new church was constructed of Michigan red stone and crystalline marble. Classified as Romanesque in design, it also incorporated Gothic and baroque features. Aaron Wilhelm and Dr. Stevenson had traveled to Europe sometime in the 1880s. When they returned to Reading, enthused by the beauty of the architecture they had seen in the churches, monasteries and other grand buildings of Europe, they persuaded the building committee to include some of those features in the design for the new edifice.

By the end of summer the chapel was almost completed. The present Sunday School auditorium was the chapel dedicated in 1892. The present Greer Memorial Chapel area was originally a ladies’ parlor and a Sunday School room used as the Infants’ Department.

Other concerns had to be addressed as the church opening grew near. A mortgage of $40,000 was arranged so the contractor could be paid, a committee was appointed to raise funds for the new music department, and a search for a house for the sexton was begun.

Sunday, October 1, 1893, was chosen as the date for the dedication of the completed building. As worshippers neared the church that Sunday, their attention was drawn by the sounds of music coming from above. Four trumpeters, playing from the church tower, heralded the dedication service to the congregation and the community.

The church was dedicated by the Reverend Bishop John P. Newman, assisted by Dr. Foster and Dr. Stevenson and three additional Reverend Doctors of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Ebenezer, now Memorial Church, was seventy-one years old.

The “audience room” (sanctuary) was planned to seat eight hundred people and featured an octagon formed amphitheater on a sloping disc floor. The lower ten feet of each wall was finished with mottled buff brick in lieu of wainscoting. In each angle of the octagon, exposed antique oak timber rafters were projected from a stone column. The joining of the rafters was made effective by the outstretched wings and heads of angels carved in relief. A central rotunda received the eight rafters at its base and formed an arcaded rim. Four wrought iron and silver electroliers were suspended from the rim for light distribution and a decorative effect.  A large stained glass window was centered on each wall of the sanctuary. To the immediate right of the dais was a carved stone fireplace bearing the inscription, “While I was musing, the fire burned.” Charles Wilhelm, Aaron Wilhelm’s son, is said to have suggested the inscription, taken from Psalm 39:3.

Sunday, January 26, 1936, was a bitter cold morning. The sexton opened the church a little earlier than usual so he could stoke up the heating boiler to insure that the congregation had a comfortably warm building for Sunday school classes and the worship service. At 2:45 that afternoon an unknown person called the fire department to say that the church was on fire. Eventually, twelve of the fourteen Reading fire companies were required to put out the stubborn fire at the rear (east side) of the building. One fireman, a George Long of the Hampden Fire Company, attacking the fire from inside the smoke filled building, died from asphyxiation.

The fire destroyed what was the chapel and today is the Sunday school auditorium. The remainder of the building suffered water and smoke damage. The present sanctuary (known then as the auditorium) had so much water that holes were chopped in the floor to allow the water to drain into the basement so the organ would not be damaged. Several churches offered their buildings to the congregation while repairs were underway. However, fast action by the Trustees had the sanctuary ready for use by the next Sunday. Fire damage costs were estimated at $35,000 to $50,000.

As part of the reconstruction, it was decided to have a separate chapel and Sunday school auditorium. The new chapel was located in the south portion of the Sunday school area. A generous donation by Elizabeth Greer Bausher was used to complete and furnish the interior of the chapel and resulted in the dedication of the chapel in January 1938 as the Greer Memorial Chapel. Solon D. and J. Lee Bausher donated the chapel organ to the memory of Solon D. Bausher’s first wife, Cora Elizabeth Bausher. The chapel as it exists today is unchanged from its original construction. The Sunday School auditorium, the parlor and small kitchen are also part of the reconstruction. The actual cause of the fire was never determined. Fire officials surmised that beams close to the heating boiler chimney got hot enough to ignite.[4]

The congregation of the Memorial Church of the Holy Cross United Methodist has a long history of involvement in ministries to the community. In 1969, a Supervised Parking Lot Playground was begun.  Staffed by volunteers it operated weekdays from 5-8 p.m.  The church sponsored a 4-H club that ran for 5 years.  A Thursday evening clothing outlet that offered new underwear that was provided by the Bausher Company was opened to the community. 

In 1970, the Northwest Neighborhood Ministries was started.  Holy Cross provided both leadership and financial support to this important ministry for 25 years. Holy Cross also supported the Mother’s Voice program, in which the voices of women being held in the Berk’s County Prison were recorded as they read children’s storys.  The recordings were then given to their children. The congregation was also involved in the ministries of the Greater Reading Council of Churches. Today Holy Cross hosts multiple Head Start Classrooms, Reading Theater Project, CPP trainings for parents and families, Family Promise meetings, and is open to others. Long may its ministries continue as it follows God’s direction and leading. 

[1] The Union Canal once ran nearly 80 miles from Reading on the Schuylkill to Middletown on the Susquehanna River.  It connected the Schuylkill Navigation Canal to the Susquehanna Canal as was known as “The Golden Link.” 

[2] Boehm’s Reminiscences: Historical and Biographical, p. 108.

[3] Collection of History and Reminiscences: The Church Charter by James W. Stoudt.   

[4] Collection of History and Reminiscences: The Fire by Don Ollendorf