Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust - 6133 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19144 - (215) 843-0943 - email@example.com
The Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust Story
In 1947, the congregation of the Germantown Mennonite Church was small and aging. They were concerned that if the congregation ceased to exist, their building – the first Mennonite church in America – might fall out of Mennonite ownership. Recognizing the significance of this important symbol for all Mennonites, the General Conference authorized its Historical Committee to work out a plan “whereby the (historic) Germantown Mennonite Church would be preserved.”
As recommended by the Historical Committee, the Germantown Mennonite Church Corporation was formed to hold title to the Meetinghouse and preserve “this property as a monument to our Mennonite heritage.” Its first meeting was held on June 13, 1951, with five representatives from the General Conference, two from the Eastern District Conference, and two from the congregation. For about a decade, the congregation continued to use and maintain the building, and the new Board met only during the triennial sessions of General Conference to elect officers and hear congregational reports.
But in 1962, Stanley Fretz was elected chairman, and under his leadership, the board’s vision for the historical site expanded. After much deliberation, the board purchased a six-unit building next to the Meetinghouse at 6133-35 Germantown Avenue. An “Information Center Project Committee” was formed to oversee its restoration, and, in turn, other committees were created. In 1970, the Corporation purchased a house with a storefront on the opposite side of the Meetinghouse, at 6117 Germantown. The two new buildings effectively created a small “campus” around the Meetinghouse, as well as the opportunity for rental income to fund the organization’s mission. The same year, revised bylaws restructured the Corporation’s board for broader representation by the entire denomination – three board representatives each from the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Eastern District and Franconia Conferences, and the Germantown Mennonite Church congregation. Thus began a very active decade for the Corporation.
Noted Mennonite historian, Dr. Melvin Gingerich, and his wife, Verna, spent a 9-month voluntary service term in 1971-72 developing vision and direction for the new organization. After considerable research, a vision statement consisting of four areas of witness was put forth: History, Service, Education and Evangelism. They helped establish the Mennonite Information Center in the 6117 building which would also house a book store, a gift shop and Corporation and congregation offices for some years to come. A fire-year restoration of the 6133-35 building was begun in 1971. In the first two years the six apartments were made habitable and rented out. In 1974, supervised by Property Committee Chair Horace Kratz, work was begun in the basement to create a museum and meeting room. As would become customary, much of the work was done by volunteers.
In 1972, Roman and Marianne Stutzman were called to give leadership to the Corporation. As residents of Wyck House, a nearby historic house built and owned by Quakers, they were able to include that site on visitor tours. In 1973, Bob Ulle, a historian doing graduate work in Mennonite studies, began work on the library part-time and joined the staff the following year as Librarian Historian. He became Administrator in 1975 when Stutzman resigned to become leader of the pastoral team at the church.
The Meetinghouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Meanwhile, from Goshen, Indiana, Dr. Gingerich began work on a booklet, “Germantown: The Gateway of American Mennonitism.” In Germantown itself, the “Friends of Germantown” newsletter was begun, and the women of the community, led by Marianne Stutzman, were instrumental in closing down a problem liquor store nearby. The Museum and Visitors Center in the basement of the 6133 building was dedicated in 1976 and received a steady stream of visitors. During this period, Dr. Gingerich’s booklet was published, audio-visual programs were developed, seminars and workshops were held and publicity displays were taken to various churches and conference meetings.
Concurrent with all this activity, the local congregation also experienced a revival. It assumed the Witness and Service segments of Dr. Gingerich’s vision and began several outreach programs: a summer camp, a Girls Club, a summer Bible school, a music workshop and a hot lunch program for the elderly. Most of these programs continued well into the 1980’s. The Corporation focused on the History and Education segments of the vision, coordinating with the congregation as needed.
Bob Ulle moved to Perkasie in 1978 but remained on the staff part-time as Historian until his death in 1986. Marcus and Beth Miler spent the summer of 1979 in a work-study program in Germantown, Marcus at the Corporation and Beth at the church. Robert Peters and Rebecca Stoltzfus came as co-administrators in the fall of 1979 but left again the next summer. Marcus Miller became Administrator in 1980 and served in that position for 10 years. He was succeeded by Galen Horst-Martz who served from 1990 through March 2002. Randy Nyce served as Executive Director from 2002 through 2007.
In the early 1980s, the Corporation assumed ownership of two nearby historic properties. IN 1980 the Women’s Club of Germantown sold the Johnson House, two blocks north of the Meetinghouse, to the Corporation for $1.00. It had been the home of a prominent Quaker family and a site on the Underground Railroad. In 1981 the Corporation secured the lease for the Rittenhouse Homestead from the Fairmount Park Commission. This had been the home of William Ritetenhouse, first minister of the Germantown Mennonite Church, and site of his paper making business.
With additional historic sites in their care and the close proximity of Wyck House and the Concord School, the staff and Board successfully worked to develop and encourage tourism, hosting many bus and tour groups. The 300th Anniversary of the founding of Germantown in 1983 was a highlight year with special celebrations and the joint assembly of the General Conference Mennonite Church and The Mennonite Church in Bethlehem, PA.
Although the Corporation surely saved these historic properties from imminent demise, its expansion of the program had stretched its resources to the limit. Following the 1983 anniversary year, staff fatigue and financial crisis struck. The Corporation weathered the storm, but it highlighted the ongoing necessity for adequate funding for both program and staff.
Relief came through two new organizations. “Friends of RittenhouseTown,” formed in 1983, successfully created a larger historic “village” around the Rittenhouse Homestead and increasingly assumed responsibility for the Homestead itself. In 1991 the Fairmount Park Commission transferred the lease for the Homestead to this group0. And in 1997, a new Board was formed for the Johnson House. Its purpose was to focus, in particular, on the history of the house as a part of the Underground Railroad network and the role of the Johnson family in the abolitionist movement.
By 1986 the Germantown congregation had outgrown the historic Meetinghouse and, for the next eight years, rented additional space for worship. Together, the church and the Corporation explored various options for sharing existing spaces or building new ones, but non e proved feasible. The congregation bought a building just a few blocks away which had been built by the Germantown Women’s Club as a social hall. They remodeled it and began worshipping there in 1994. Within the year, the Corporation changed its name to Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust, to make a clear differentiation between the congregation and the Corporation.
The 1990s saw quite a few changes in the uses of the three buildings on the GMHT campus. The Visitors Center and book store had been closed because of declining visits, and the offices of both Congregation and Corporation relocated to the 6133-35 building. The 6117 building was converted into two rental apartments and a laundry room. The 1908 Sunday school addition to the Meetinghouse was converted into a museum for the displays that had been in the basement museum. In 1992 the 6133-35 building was dedicated as the Stanley R. Fretz Center in honor of the 30 years he had served as Board Chair.
In the late 1990s Historical Architect John Bowie was hired to conduct thorough historical research into the interior of the Meetinghouse, in an effort to determine, as nearly as possible, how it looked and how it was arranged and furnished when first built in 1770. Many important clues were discovered to give a clearer picture of how it might have looked. However, due to remodeling done in 1860 and later on, some details remain elusive. During the 2000s, the Meetinghouse’s most urgent preservation needs identified in this report were handled as funding became available. Electrical upgrades, replacement of the main roof, and removal of an empty oil tank were accomplished.
In 2007-08, the 6117 building served as the first home of Shalom House, a community of intentional peacemakers with Circle of Hope, a Philadelphia-based Brethren in Christ church. In the fall of 2007, Liz Einsig Wise, a tenant with nonprofit management experience, began work with GMHT in a part-time capacity when Randy Nyce moved on to a position with Everence. She has served as Executive Director since then, in partnership with Program Director Christopher Friesen, who was hired part-time in 2008.
In October of 2008, GMHT hosted a conference in honor of the 300th anniversary of the formal organization of the Germantown Mennonite Church, entitled “Germantown: Gateway to North American Mennonite History,” co-sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society, the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania, and the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Since about that same time, GMHT has taken a leadership role in the renewal and reinvigoration of Historic Germantown, a coalition of 16 historic sites that also includes Johnson House and Historic RittenhouseTown, as well as Cliveden, Stenton Wyck and others. Through various planning grants, this organization has increased its capacity to assist its member sites with joint marketing and program planning, and carried out award-winning joint programs including History Hunters, in which local middle school students experience the broad sweep of history at member sites.
In 2008-10, GMHT undertook an extensive renovation of the 6117 building, financed by contributions from individual supporters and loans from Everence and the Eastern District Conference. A recent visioning process resulted in a renewed focus on providing a high-quality experience for site visitors of all ages and physical abilities. To this end, the Board has created a Task Force to oversee the process of creating a Master Site Plan, including renovation of the Sunday school room for handicap access and creation of professional exhibits, as well as incremental stabilization and improvements to the Meetinghouse itself.
Currently, the historic Meetinghouse is open every 2nd Saturday and by appointment for tours. We see about 1,000 visitors each year, and assist many others with historic or genealogical inquiries. We host exhibits, work days and programs throughout the year, and our seven apartment units provide affordable housing to Anabaptists and others. We hope those who come after us will find us to have been faithful stewards!
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