CRANBERRY TWP — The day Dutilh United Methodist Church was destroyed by a fire in 1986 is the Rev. Douglas Patterson's most vivid memory during his time as Dutilh's pastor.
“I stood there and watched the church going, maybe seven or eight minutes,” said Patterson, who served from 1982-1996. “I felt totally helpless.”
The arsonist was never found, he said.
Despite the loss, the decision by church leaders to build for the future set the church up for what it is today.
The event was one on the church's timeline that was remembered at its 175th anniversary at the church, 1270 Dutilh Road, in its Living History Museum, an interactive display that featured 23 youths as live narrators and actors to help tell the story of the church's founding in 1844 through the present.
“We're excited about what the next generation of ministry looks like here,” said the Rev. Tom Parkinson, who has been pastor with the church since June 2016. “Even as we're celebrating 175 years, we very much have a forward-looking congregation.”
The museum is a creative way for people to interact with the church's 175 years of history, he said.
“Anytime you're recreating your history, you want to find different ways to tell your story,” he said. “The idea of the living history museum is to bring the history to life and the kids involved in it and help the church really feel connected to the story.”
That story begins in 1844 when Cranberry Township was only rolling farm land, Parkinson said. Four local farming families got together and started meeting at a barn.
Over time, the congregation began to grow and had revival services and opportunities for more people to join.
After 50 new members joined, Charles Dutilh of Philadelphia donated one and one-fourth acres, which became the site of the current church.
A tiny church was built in the 1870s that experienced expansion and renovations over time.
In 1986, the church was destroyed by arson.
Patterson, who has been the senior minister of Smithfield United Church of Christ of Pittsburgh for 22 years, is one of the returning former pastors who will attend Sunday's worship service.
After the fire, the congregation was taken in by Sherwood Oaks, a retirement community in Cranberry Township, for several years while the new church was built.
While at a conference in New York, Patterson met Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church for 52 years and one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th century, and asked him what he would say to a congregation whose church just burned down.
Peale's advice: “Build bigger,” Patterson said, explaining it meant to provide for the future growth of the church.
Attendance grew from 70 members to 500 members because of the church's effective leadership and positive outlook, he said.
“No matter what happens, it depends on your outlook and attitude — what faith is comprised of,” he said.
The new and current building was constructed about three times the size of the old church to accommodate it to grow alongside the expanding Cranberry Township community, he said.
“We look at our history as a source of inspiration to propel us forward into the future, we're not looking at our history as something we long to return to,” he said.
The church is at an exciting moment in its history, Parkinson said, adding it is the midst of the Make Room Capital Campaign, which has raised over $2 million. Plans include renovating and expanding the church buildings to create additional space for the student and children ministry programs and for community groups who meet at the church.
“As our community around us is growing, the church has to be prepared for that,” he said, adding he hopes to break ground in the spring.
In the upcoming years, the church's ministry is called to re-engage in the community in fresh and vibrant ways, Parkinson said, adding he is interested in being part of the long term development and future of the community.
“We believe our faith in Christ calls us to really love our neighbors and be a positive presence in the community,” he said. “Our denominational identity is part of who we are, but it's not all of who we are. There's a certain characteristic or identity of this local church that transcends that even as the denominational identity has changed over time.”
By and large, the church in America has declined in influence and presence in recent years, he said.
To buck that trend, each person needs to feel valued, he said.
“We have a vision of a community where everybody knows each other by name, is loved for who they are and are powered to follow Christ,” he said. “Every name has a story.
The next 10 years is exciting for Dutilh,” Parkinson said.