Mary Killebrew gets a sense of peace from her Sunday visits to the United Presbyterian Church in Cincinnatus.
“When I come here and I hear songs, I hear what our pastor has to say – usually I have some sort of conflict – and it seems to iron itself out here,” said the Cincinnatus woman.
The church, located on Deerpath Lane, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding on July 31 — with an open house, chicken barbecue and live music, and see how it can serve the community in the future.
“This building was opened Christmas eve of ’74,” said Pastor George Carruth, a half-time commissioned lay pastor of the church. “The church was formed when the United Methodist Church and the Congregational Church merged in 1971.”
The special celebration will start at 4 p.m. with an open house format, with exhibits outlining the church’s past, from bell choirs, pageants, parades to wedding photos of all the weddings that took place there.
Lynn Koch and Bill Tei will provide live music. And a chicken barbecue will take place at 6 p.m. Then there will be a program, with letters from past preachers and founding members as well as thoughts by area founders who will appear.
The church will be celebrating its roots from this summer till Christmas Eve of 2024, when the current building was opened.
Richard Dodge of Cincinnatus, a member for about 12 years, is looking forward to the people who will be coming. The event is open to all.
“I hope we get to see different people that don’t come,” said Janice Sandy of Cincinnatus, a member.
At the time of the merger, there were 175 members, said Carruth. “Now there are 53.”
But its service has been broadcast on the church Facebook page and there can be as many as 100 people taking part, Carruth said.
Killebrew has been working on displays for the anniversary.
“I have learned so much about the people that started the church … I love history. And there were a lot of good, decent people in this church that worked hard,” she said.
She noted Sharon Pryor of Cincinnatus, now a retired hairdresser, who organized fashion shows and created an exercise program at the church. Killibrew has been keeping that going in the form of Bone Savers, which halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are anxious as a church to be more involved with and in the community,” said Carruth, who has been with UPC in Cincinnatus for 10 years. “To find ways to bring not so much a religion, as a faith, into the community. We know that there are people that are hurting around here.”
The church’s Vacation Bible School has been dynamic, Carruth said. They have had over 60 children in the program, though the church will bring in one child during a Sunday service. The $1 monthly dinner and women’s fellowship group has also been vital.
The church provides a space for support groups to meet and has a part-time nursery school during the week. It’s Election and St. Patty’s Day dinners are popular. And an anonymous woman provides one-on-one support by letter writing to people who are suffering.
“If your faith is shaken, that’s up to me. If there’s an activity to be involved in, that’s up to the church,” Carruth said.
“I don’t think the young people are as religious as far as group, organized religion,” said Killebrew. “I think they feel God in their heart. I don’t think they need the organization. The church is always there. If they need it, they know where to find it.”
The Rev. David Johnson of the United Presbyterian Church in Cortland said mainline churches across the country are struggling with declining membership.
He said civic groups like Rotary and the Lion’s Club have experienced the same phenomenon.
“You have had a shift in the culture, in society,” he said.
“Historically there’s always been a role for churches of all sizes,” he said.
His 25 Church St., Cortland church, where he’s been a pastor for nine years and a reverend in general since 1973, was founded with six people in 1825.
“Size really doesn’t matter in terms of the ability to be vital, to be faithful, to be committed to Jesus Christ, but you need a core group to maintain the building and the ministry,” he said.
Small churches provide a role in their community, in their outreach, whether food pantries, after school programs, a space for meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or other community groups, Johnson said.
“I think the United Presbyterian Church of Cincinnatus has been faithful in their 50 plus years. I know their pastor well. He’s an old friend from years ago,” Johnson said.
He’s seen Carruth strive to keep the Cincinnatus church growing and provide a role in the community.
Killebrew said she will go back to the Cincinnatus service on the church’s Facebook page, listen again, and starts looking up references.
“That’s scary,” said Carruth, laughing.
Carruth worked for 40 years as a physical therapist. But he’s been an elder in the United Presbyterian Church since 1982. He grew up in Boston, has lived in Ithaca, Lowell, Massachusetts., and Syracuse, where he lives now. He served two church in a variety of committees.
“Back in 2002, my home church, Onondaga Hill Presbyterian Church, celebrated its 200th birthday,” said Carruth. There was a speaker there who hit a mark.
“I asked him how we members of the congregation or laity could be more helpful to our pastor. ‘What we really need are lay pastors to assist smaller churches in pastoral care,’” was the answer. He went through three years of training and did preaching assignments.
“My last field experience was here, in February of 2012. And I haven’t left.”
“It was the people for me, to practice my faith, to use gifts God has given me in new ways to help others.”
“A lot of what I did in physical therapy prepared me for what I do now. I spent a lot of years in sports medicine and then outpatient orthopedics. And in the last years, long-term care. A lot of what you are doing is being able to relate to people, motivate people, instill confidence in people,” Carruth said.
One lesson he’s learned in Cincinnatus:
“You need to be very careful about what you say, to whom,” he laughed. “It will be related. It will come back to bite you.”
“That is a strength,” he said. “It is a family — not of blood but of shared experiences — that makes a community. That’s what I have enjoyed learning about and helping to foster.”
“We have had about eight-full time pastors,” said Dodge. “George has been here longer than any of the other pastors.”
Carruth said he’s in a different stage of his life than other pastors. Some have been young and some have lost lives to cancer.
“Some have been women,” said Janice Sandy of Cincinnatus.
Alyssa Menshouse, one of these women, loved the church so much she’d write sermons while sick and had someone else read them.
“I have only been here three years,” said Sandy. “I moved here. We never went to church in California. We played soccer … I grew up here. I went to the Congregational Church. I played the organ. I always went there until I moved away. I am back. There’s nothing else to do. You have to go to church on Sunday.”
Sandy finds the strength she needs to carry on. “I look forward to (Carruth’s) prayers, seeing everybody and the sermon — I usually learn something.”
Dodge, who’s father helped build the current building, also grew up in the Congregational Church, moved away and came back 12 years ago. “My folks were active in this church when they were alive.”
“I get peace, friendship and hope,” said Killebrew.
“All of those,” said Dodge. “Our pastor is probably one of the best pastors for delivering prayers that I ever heard.”