ourth Lutheran Church of Altoona no longer is a congregation, yet the church building continues to be a house of worship.
For members of the church at 231 Howard Ave., it was a difficult decision to end more than a century of being a place where Lutherans gathered for prayer, fellowship and to learn about God.
But, Fourth Lutheran Church did not leave behind an abandoned building. The pews are filled on Sundays with people from another church who have been meeting in a former storefront for 14 years.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
In this courtesy photo Bishop Gregory Pile (left) of the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Church of America hands the Rev. Walter Smith, pastor of Abundant Life Assembly of God, the key to the former Fourth Lutheran Church. The members of Fourth Lutheran Church gave its building to Abundant Life to continue its purpose as a place for Christians to worship.
Abundant Life Assembly of God, formerly at 3003 Walnut Ave., now praises God in the sanctuary after meeting in the former Wissinger's grocery store and using two other stores in its plaza for its Christian education program and fellowship hall.
Fourth Lutheran, once a vibrant house of worship itself, enabled the doors of its building to remain open for Sunday worship by selling it to Abundant Life for $1.
The church was built in the mid-1970s, but the Lutheran congregation was formed 127 years ago. At that time, the railroad business was bustling and so was downtown Altoona. In the past few years, however, membership had been waning, the neighborhood had changed and the financial support wasn't there. Members gathered for their last service Jan. 3.
"It's hard. There are families who have been members of the congregation for years. They've been involved in the community, but they don't feel they have the numbers to continue the ministry," said Pastor Susan Winger, assistant to Bishop Gregory R. Pile of the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
"I don't think the church rejoices when a congregation closes," she said. "But, we live in a day and time when that is reality. It isn't a happy day for anyone. The congregation was very active and vital for a long, long time."
In an effort to ease the transition and welcome Abundant Life, the two churches shared a service Christmas Eve.
"It's not the closing of the church but the closing of the congregation, so another congregation might use it," Winger said. "They didn't want to let the church die. The church is bigger than this single Lutheran congregation."
Abundant Life, a church of about 160 members, has been looking to relocate and tried to buy a parcel of land two years ago but lacked the finances.
"We were definitely humbled and excited for sure," said the Rev. Walter Smith of Abundant Life. "It was a miracle, a dream come true."
For Chuck Dreese of Altoona, a member of Abundant Life, the move to the Fourth Lutheran Church building was like coming home.
Dreese attended Fourth Lutheran as a child and teen, and his parents had been going there for more than 40 years. Dreese joined the U.S. Air Force and moved away in 1964.
When he came back to the area 15 years ago, his religious views had changed, and he decided to join Abundant Life, a charismatic congregation.
"The old Fourth Lutheran Church was what I grew up in as a child. I grew up in that neighborhood. It was quite meaningful," Dreese said. "It's like going home, and we truly believe it's God's timing."
Dreese and his fellow church members couldn't be happier with the move.
"It will give us much more flexibility," Dreese said.
The additional space the building provides for Abundant Life's needs, which is looking to expand its ministries.
Smith said the church has more than doubled its space from 9,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet.
He believes the gift of the church was a sign from God, which he and church members will use to reach out to the community, including a program for youth.
Smith said the church plans to hold an open gym a couple of nights a week to provide a place for neighborhood youth to play basketball. The building also has a fellowship hall with kitchen, numerous classrooms, a nursery wing and office wing, Smith said.
"We want to reach that area of the city. We believe Christ can do that in people's lives. We want to do neighborhood outreach, make the gym available for youth and kids. We believe we can do so much more," Smith said.
Although the building is about 2 miles from Abundant Life's former meeting place, Smith said the location is not an inconvenience for members who come from Bellwood, Duncansville, Hollidaysburg and Ashville. .
"We like to really believe it's not really about us. It's about what God wants us to do in the community and in the city here. We look at ourselves as being instruments in his hands. It's a real fortunate blessing that this all happened the way it has," Dreese said.