Marion DeMilio, historian for Allentown's Dubbs Memorial UCC Church at 5th and Allen, has been a member there since childhood. "We lived at 529 N. Penn St," she says, not far from the church.
After 113 years of Dubbs serving its congregation in the neighborhood and beyond, it is getting going to close its doors in July. "Times change and things change," says interim pastor Rev. Carl Siegfried, who has served there for seven years. "Had this been my first church, it would have been my last church. Dubbs has such a wonderful spirit. But it is time to move on."
DeMilio has many happy memories related to her life at the church, including her wedding. But there is one that was frightening.
About 2:00 am on the morning of March 20, 1959, two men sitting in a car nearby saw smoke coming from the church. Quickly the fire department arrived at what had become a roaring blaze. "Back then everybody thought it was arson but now we have come to believe it was some kind of electric spark in the boiler room," DeMilio says.
DeMilio's father John Moyer was an Allentown firefighter and was there that evening. "About a month or two before when the Mountainville Inn burned, I was 17 years old at the time, my father had told me he never wanted to see me at a fire," she recalled. "But this was just around the corner." DeMilio recalled the firefighters having to break through the big, round window in the front of the church.
Inside, the floor had given way, sending the pews, the pulpit and the organ tumbling into the big Friendship room below. The only thing that remained untouched was a large wooden carving of Christ on Ascension Day with his disciples around him.
Done by Alois Lang, a German sculptor who had been trained in Germany and who lived in the Midwest, it had been added to Dubbs in 1940. Hoping to preserve it from the flames, the firefighters, John Moyer among them, poured water at it to keep the blaze away. And this was what apparently saved it and the church from total destruction.
When the fire was dying down, DeMilio noticed several firefighters being removed on stretchers.
"My friend said to me that it must be my father as one of them passed," she recalls, "but I told her, ‘no that can't be my father.' But it turned out it was." Her father was taken to Allentown Hospital with smoke inhalation. John Moyer lived until 1973, but health-related problems from the Dubbs fire, his daughter believes, plagued him ever after.
On March 20, 1960 a fully repaired and restored Dubbs Church re-opened. "While the repairs were going on we used Salem Church, at Chew Street," says DeMilio. "We had our weddings and funerals there. It was originally our mother church."
By mother church DeMilio means that Dubbs was an offshoot of Salem. In the first decade of the 20th century, Allentown was undergoing a population boom. As they had for most of the previous century, farm families, most of them Pennsylvania Germans of the Lutheran and Reformed faiths, were coming into the city seeking employment. And they took the faith of their fathers with them.
Seeing to the growing flock were members of the Dubbs family. Rev. Joseph Dubbs (1796-1877) was the patriarch of the family, founding churches in many places in the Lehigh Valley. Following in his footsteps were his sons Rev. Dr. Joseph H. Dubbs, an internationally recognized church scholar, and the Rev. Alfred Joseph Getz Dubbs, (1826-1897) for whom Dubbs Church was named.
Rev. Dubbs founded Salem Church in 1875 and gradually it grew, till by 1913 it had over 1,600 members, making it the largest congregation of the denomination in the United States. In 1913 they erected a Gothic style sanctuary costing $100,000.
Sometime in his ministry, perhaps impressed by the height of the location, Dubbs, passing the corner of 5th and Allen, made the statement to colleagues that "here a church shall rise."
As far back as 1888, the lot was purchased by Salem Church's Young People's Society. But in general the location was regarded as far from downtown. It was only later, apparently when a neighborhood had grown up around it, that creating a church seemed to make sense.
In 1902 60 people formed a congregation on which the church was founded. 36 of them had been members of Salem. In 1904 the Dubbs Sunday School was formed. "In those days" DeMilio notes, "for many people the Sunday School was more important than the church."
Over the next ten years the Dubbs Memorial Evangelical Reformed Church rose. On June 18, 1912, Dubbs Church was dedicated. According to the Anniversary History of Lehigh County, published in 1914, it "was completed at an expense exceeding $35,000." Its first pastor was the Rev. E.E. Kresge. Its best remembered pastor is the Rev. Carl O. Trexler. He served Dubbs for many years in the last century.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Dubbs was particularly known for its Passion Plays in which the members of the congregation were the participants. They were conceived by the late John "Jack" Goodman, Dubbs' choir director. In 1987 an audience of over 1,500 packed the church during the four days the pageant was shown. It later appeared in Hershey
The next big event at Dubbs will be the opening of the cornerstone but it will be before July. "A date for that has not been determined," says Rev. Siegfried. And historian DeMilio notes that both the Lehigh County Historical
Society and the UCC archives in Lancaster have expressed an interest in the collection. "Dubbs will not be forgotten," she says.
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