The German Reformed Church was originally formed in 1861 by fifteen hopeful parishioners that called themselves the German Reformed Church Society. The group then bought the Universalist Church at Central and Martin Streets for $1,500. The first pastor of the church was Rev. Paul Zischka. His enormous 1768 bible was used when the current structure was built and passed down through the generations. It is now housed at Benson Memorial Library. Other early pastors (pre-Brook Street structure) included Revs. Leaberman, Ebbenhaus, Koehler, Poerner, and Meselty.
On March 7, 1871, the group purchased the land on which William Barnsdall ran his paper mill (the former Presbyterian Church site). The church had 100 members at the time. They bought the land for $4,500 (including the parsonage), tore down Barnsdall’s structures, and bought church building materials for $12,000. Ground was broken on April 25, 1872. In August of that year, while men were working on erecting parts of the structure, there was an accident and many were injured. One of the first parishioners, Jacob Zeittle, died in September from his injuries.
Soon after opening, many of the patrons left the church for an unknown reason, placing the brunt of the cost of church construction on very few people. On November 18, 1872, the first service was conducted at the new church in its basement. All services were conducted in German until an afternoon English service was added in 1897. In 1928, the German services ceased and from then on were only conducted in English. The church conducted many fairs to raise money for different services and items through the years.
One of the main features of the church is a magnificent bell. When the Hoenke family, Justin, Haley, Finn, and Aero, purchased the church and parsonage in 2015, the bell was one of the first things that caught their interest. When they first toured the building they rung the enormous bell but didn’t venture up to see it until July that year. The love was immediate. This bell had a story.
Over 140 years before the Hoenkes arrived in Titusville, Reverend Fuendling wanted a bell that would toll out across town, signaling German immigrants to come to the church. He wrote to Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, the first monarch to preside over a united German state, requesting one of the Napoleonic cannons captured at the Battle of Sedan in 1869. Therefore, technically the cannon was French and captured by the Germans, but for the purposes of this history, we refer to it as German.
The Emperor agreed to Fuendling’s requests and had a cannon sent to Titusville. It arrived on April 28, 1873, along with three original paintings of Germany royalty, to much fanfare. The cannon was named LeMaurais, in English “The Evil One” or “Fiend.” Since the church planned to recast the cannon into a bell, it was renamed Convertia, or “Harmony.” An implement of war was becoming one of peace.
Before the cannon was sent to be recast, it was shown in public for twenty-five cents per person, in order to raise money for the effort. Finally, it was fired for the first and last time in the hills outside Titusville by Theodore and William Hartz before being taken to Meneely & Kimberly of Troy, New York. The finished bell was brought back to Titusville in July 1873 in preparation for the formal dedication of the church on August 10, 1873. The bell’s inscription read: “Vivos, voco, mortuos plango, fulgara, frango, Concordia,” meaning “I summon the living, I toll for the dead, I break into your lives with a radiant peace.”
The church served its patrons well over the years, even stepping in to become a schoolhouse when the Elm Street School burned down in 1893. In 1928, the center spire (130 feet tall) and two side spires were removed. In January 1975 the leftover part of the spire was also removed.
The name of St. Paul’s changed often over time. It was first the German Reformed Church. In 1897 it became The Reformed Church of Titusville. In 1934 it became St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church. Then in 1961 it became St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Overall, it was most well-known as the German Reformed Church or simply St. Paul’s.
Pastors were in and out of the parsonage and church quickly, finding new jobs in other churches. In 2013, Faith Temple Church took up residency in the space. Since June 2015, the Hoenke family has made the church their home, converting the upstairs into a community center called Fidelia Hall, named after Fidelia Barnsdall, and helping preserve the legacy of the bell that was once a cannon.
Sources: Titusville City Directories, Titusville Herald 3/20/2008, 8/24/1959, 8/12/1940, 9/2/1955, 2/20/1974, 11/21/1981, 10/1/1986, 3/19/1997