HISTORY OF GRACE CHURCH
The congregation of the historic Grace United Methodist Church
began in 1810 as the first Methodist society in Harrisburg. A class
of five members was served by a circuit rider preacher. By 1820,
the congregation of the Second Street Methodist Episcopal
Church was strong enough to hire its own minister and to build its
first small church on Second and South Streets (321 N. Second
Street, now a restaurant). It was here that the pulpit was blown up
after pro-slavery intruders learned the pastor, Jacob Gruber had
delivered an anti-slavery sermon in Maryland.
By 1839 the congregation outgrew that space and moved to a site at Locust and Third Streets under their new name of Locust Street Methodist Episcopal Church. It was this church that hosted the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind concert on November 17, 1851. As it added members, by 1871 the Locust Street church had organized six other Methodist congregations in Harrisburg and purchased land for Grace’s current building on swampy State Street in front of the Capitol.
When the foundation stone was laid in 1871 it sank from sight giving a somewhat ominous beginning to
the church, but bedrock was found for the Gothic Revival cathedral-like church designed by Baltimore
architect Frank Davis to rise. Its Gothic arches, buttresses, and soaring 226-foot spire were grand symbols
of what was known as the "Mother Church of Harrisburg Methodism." The new building was named
Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. The cornerstone of the sanctuary was placed in 1873, and the
congregation began to worship in the Assembly Room of the educational building behind the sanctuary.
The first services in the sanctuary were in 1878, and the spire was completed in 1888. In 1884 the Calder
organ was given to the church and placed with the choir loft in the rear balcony.
When, in 1897, the Capitol building burned, state authorities
immediately asked Grace Methodist Episcopal Church to
become the temporary home of the Pennsylvania General
Assembly. It was the only building in Harrisburg large enough
to host both bodies. In a span of six days all religious items
and furnishings were removed, and desks, chairs and spittoons
were installed. The main sanctuary housed the House of
Representatives, and the Senate met in a large Assembly Hall
on the top floor. The word at the time was that if the congregation
had not agreed, Philadelphia state leaders planned to move the
capital back to Philadelphia. Local newspapers then referred to
Grace as the Savior of The Capitol. The legislature met at Grace until
sometime in 1898.
Grace received $20,000 from the state for hosting the House and Senate. The funding was used for the first of many renovations/enhancements over the years as it responded to growing needs of Harrisburg area Methodists. The church unveiled a mural by New York artist E. Irving Couse, The Adoration of the Shepherds, that continues to hang above the altar. The building was fully wired for electric lights – the first in the city. A large exquisite stained-glass window of Jesus’ Ascension executed by Tiffany Studios was installed in 1903, dedicated by local Gilded Age entrepreneur John Irving Beggs in memory of his wife Sue Elizabeth Beggs. The Tiffany Studios also designed and created the 4-piece matching altar furnishings of serpentine marble with inlaid Tiffany glass mosaics.
In 1915, the parsonage was built on the adjoining property with funds provided by the Ladies Sewing Society and the Ladies Aid Society.
In 1920, the front of the sanctuary was renovated again with the installation of the Starkey organ and moving the choir loft to the front of the sanctuary. At this time the forward-looking congregation also installed a “stereophonic moving picture machine” in a fire proof booth in the Assembly Room. Here they showed educational features, travelogues from missionaries, dramas and cartoons. Those who attended Sunday School got a free ticket to the movies that week.
In 1940, the sanctuary had its last major renovation, when the organ console was moved from its center
location in the chancel to the side, and a split chancel was developed with an elevated choir loft.
The Adoration of the Shepherds painting was moved to a higher level. Red carpeting was added, and
the church became known as the Christmas Church with it coloring and Christmas themed altar and
sanctuary windows. At the same time, Beggs Chapel was renovated and dedicated. John Beggs had
been the chair of the building committee for Grace Church and he donated the Tiffany window in his wife’s
memory. He also was responsible for Grace being the first public building in Harrisburg to be fully wired
for electricity in 1899.
For decades, the congregation thrived. Distinguished clergy who were great orators were called by
the church to be its pastors, its impressive pipe organ accompanied large classical choirs, and the education
of hundreds of children and mission work led by the women of the church spurred the continued growth of
the congregation, which grew to a top membership of 1,491 by 1965. The glory days continued into the early
1970’s before the national decline in church participation in the post-Christian era caught up to Harrisburg.
A steady decline in membership and attendance since then made maintaining a building and ministries more
Ascension Tiffany Window
The lack of a parking lot was an issue after terrorism concerns arose in 2001, prompting the State to block off the driveways around the Capitol building where parking on Sundays had been permitted. Grace’s efforts to build a parking garage failed.
Nevertheless, the congregation reached some in their neighborhood by offering a free Sunday breakfast for unhoused persons, and more recently offered space for Harrisburg’s Christian Churches United to host a shelter for unhoused women.
In 2019, leaders from the Susquehanna Annual Conference floated a proposal that could have resulted in Grace’s closing. During Lent of 2019, the choir sang “The Last Seven Words of Christ” by Theodor Dubois, ending a 90-year plus tradition. However, led by persons who believed Grace still was called to serve God and share the love of Jesus, members of the congregation resisted the effort. They committed to begin a transformation of the congregation, which had dropped to less than 30 persons in worship each week.
Through a strategic planning process, the congregation voted to become a Reconciling Congregation, supporting full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in all aspects of church life. This contrasts with the denomination’s official position opposing same-gender marriages and forbidding ordination of LGBTQ+ persons. The congregation joined the Reconciling Ministries Network and changed its mission statement
to include welcoming LGBTQ+ persons.
A banner made for the 2019 Central PA Pride Festival, “We Are Sorry for the Harm Done By the Church” now hangs from the balcony. A
support group for family and friends of transgender persons started in 2019 and continued to meet by Zoom during the Covid crisis, even as
church worship services moved to video services and Facebook Live. Currently a large room is being refurbished to serve as coffeehouse
space for use by many, including the LGBTQ community for a non-alcoholic social gathering and meeting space. Other uses for the
unused space in the building are being found, including rental of third floor space to a group of artists.
Worship attendance is beginning to recover after the pandemic. Grace is blessed by the connection of current music director Dr. Shelly Moorman-Stahlman to students at Lebanon Valley College who augment our music program. The church has grown under the leadership of Rev. Michael Minnix who for the past three years has led traditional worship for the socially progressive congregation. It is hoped that the future will open more doors for this congregation as we reach out to our community in ways that fulfill Jesus’ words to go and make disciples.