The Rev. Adelia Kelso, left, Les Lamon and Alma McClelland talk about the 19th-century books they found in a strongbox at First Presbyterian Church in South Bend. The restored books will be displayed at church Oct. 30. (South Bend Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES / October 11, 2011)
SOUTH BEND -- "What a shame," Alma McClelland thought to herself when she saw the condition of the handwritten books from the 19th century.
As excited as she was about the discovery in a Wells Fargo strongbox of this precious history of both the First Presbyterian Church and the community, its deteriorating condition was equally distressing.
McClelland, a 50-year member of the First Presbyterian Church of South Bend, looked at the yellowed and mildewed books, written by our pioneers, and was overcome by sadness.
But she and fellow volunteer Les Lamon started doing what needed to be done to restore the valuable history uncovered during the church's 175th anniversary in 2009.
Two years later, 10 volumes of church historical books have been professionally restored and will be on display for the public at the church's Reformation Sunday activities Oct. 30.
The history reveals the stories of important pioneers in their own handwriting.
"There is some interesting history in those books for our church, but there is community information, too," McClelland said. "We would be happy to share it with the community. All they have to do is stop by and see it."
But before the strongbox was uncovered, some digging was required by Lamon and McClelland.
Lamon, a retired history professor at Indiana University South Bend, had a hunch there was a treasure to be found in the church.
Here's how Lamon describes the process:
"I had heard stories that Schuyler Colfax (a local newspaper owner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president of the United States from 1869-1873) was a member and knew that there were other folks important to the development of South Bend who had been members.
"I wanted to see if I could substantiate these stories. But, as we searched through the material a box at a time, we could not find any of the original minute books from those 19th-century years.
"Several members and church staff looked throughout the church offices and Alma and I inquired of other longtime members as to the whereabouts of the missing records.“We got nowhere for a long time. Then I decided to move a lot of loosely stacked boxes and stacks of paper in the very back floor of the vault against a filing cabinet containing the records of a long-running series of turkey dinners.
“I found a 19th-century Wells Fargo strongbox, not unlike that seen in movies aboard a stagecoach fleeing from Wild West bad guys. I showed Alma what I found and we both made jokes about what kind of treasure it might hold.
“However, the galvanized steel box attracted moisture, which brought the twin threats of mold and mildew. These handwritten books were crumbling and could soon become illegible.”
Lamon knew several local foundations that might be interested in preserving the material. He applied and received a $5,000 grant from Wells Fargo Foundation.
The restoration was done by Etherington Conservation Services of North Manchester, Ind.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Adelia Kelso, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, was awestruck by the discovery.
“When I first opened up a book containing the written words, and the actual handwriting, of First Presbyterian’s history, I suddenly knew that it was my history — for the history of Presbyterian Christians, no matter where they come from, is my history, too,” Kelso said.
“It took my breath away. It felt as though I were standing on the shoulders of those elders of long past, smelling the horses and seeing the tiny, wee town, and I was awed by their perseverance in the faith, commitment to Reformed/Presbyterian theology, love and devotion that fostered a disciplined life and an understanding that obeying God meant simply receiving his love and offering that same love to their neighbor.”
The congregation and guests can see the restored books firsthand at the special Reformation Sunday Service and Reception.
In honor of the Presbyterian Church’s Scottish heritage, a reception will be held in the Social Hall of First Presbyterian Church, 333 W. Colfax Ave., South Bend, following the 10:45 a.m. worship Oct. 30, Reformation Sunday.
Staff writer May Lee Johnson:
Among the 19th-century items of local interest discovered in a strongbox at First Presbyterian Church was a document, dated Dec. 13, 1848, and billed as a resolution on slavery to the (Presbyterian) General Assembly from the Presbyterian Church of South Bend.
In a point-by-point statement drawn up during a session at the “house of Mr. Chapin,” the local group writes that “slavery as it exists in the Southern Presbyterian Church is a crying sin.” The resolution also takes to task the “highest judiciary of the church” for failing to take a stand against slavery.