Next Sunday, the New Hope United Methodist Church will depart from its usual service.
As people arrive, they’ll hear a man playing a calliope on the back of a truck. Inside, joined by U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson and other visiting dignitaries, they’ll listen to a local Southern-style gospel singer and the church’s chimes choir perform.
Afterward, they’ll nibble on finger food and other refreshments.
It sounds like a party, and in a sense, it will be. Congregation members plan to celebrate a different kind of faith — the conviction that, somehow, they would find a new home.
The grand opening service will commemorate New Hope’s fresh start along state Route 64 between Pleasant Gap and Zion, eight years after the congregation lost a church to eminent domain.
“It has been a long journey,” said the Rev. Bob Dornan, New Hope’s pastor.
The story begins in 2005, four years before Dornan arrived.
Two congregations, the Weaver United Methodist Church and the Axemann United Methodist Church, belonged to the same charge.
But Weaver lost its historic sanctuary on Jacksonville Road to a planned high-speed interchange for Interstates 80 and 99.
Funding woes shelved the plan, but not before the state seized the church in anticipation and demolished it.
Displaced members began attending their sister church, a tiny white structure along Axemann Road in Spring Township. The place became even cozier as newcomers squeezed into pews.
“They were all hoping a new church would have been built much quicker so they would only have to put up with the crowded situation for a short time,” Dornan said.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
The joint congregation, now calling itself New Hope, and the state couldn’t settle on compensation. Talks broke down.
“I just think there was a misunderstanding on both sides about what was expected,” Dornan said.
But after he took over, Dornan said, New Hope hired an attorney and finally wrangled a hearing in 2012. It yielded little, and the church filed an appeal.
Then, out of the blue, the state offered $130,000. The church accepted.
It was hardly a jackpot.
Even before legal fees ate up about $36,000, the sum fell far short of the lowest bid the church could obtain for a new building.
And the church needed one.
Besides being cramped, the Axemann sanctuary had other disadvantages. It wasn’t handicapped-accessible, and parking was limited. Traffic on Axemann Road road near the front door posed a danger for children and older parishioners.
“A lot of people found new congregations or stopped coming to church,” Dornan said.
Those who stayed were rewarded when a tip led to a breakthrough.
A parishioner heard from a friend that the New Beginnings Christian Outreach, a “plant” of the State College Assembly of God church, was leaving and selling its building and 6 acres for $500,000.
The kicker: It came loaded, complete with furniture, audio and visual equipment, computers, a lighted parking lot, even a grand piano.
Now all New Hope needed was cash.
Selling off donated land intended for a building some day, the church applied for a loan through the Susquehanna Conference of the UMC. During the loan application, the district superintendent, the Rev. Lori Steffensen, went to bat for New Hope, helping cut through red tape.
“She was a convincing salesperson for our church,” Dornan said.
So was the Rev. Tom Osif, of the nearby Pleasant Gap United Methodist Church. He sat on the conference’s building and location committee, whose approval was critical.
Osif gave a supportive presentation for a potential rival congregation — a key, Dornan said, to New Hope’s obtaining its loan and building.
“Here’s somebody who shouldn’t have helped but did,” Dornan said. “Those are the kinds of things I point to when I say this isn’t the result of one person. It’s God working through a number of people to make this happen.”
In August, New Hope received the deed. Last month, it began holding services in its new sanctuary.
For some longtime Axemann parishioners, it was a bittersweet move.
“When you leave an old building, for a lot of people that was very hard because it was where their parents went, where they were married, where their children were baptized,” Dornan said.
But in exchange for its past, New Hope gained a promising future. With about 60 people in attendance weekly and 200 on its rolls, the church now has room to grow inside and out, to build on the legacy of two congregations.
At first, Dornan recalled, some parishioners exchanged looks in their modern sanctuary. It seemed odd without pews and stained glass windows, strange not to walk up the steps from Axemann Road.
It also felt unreal. All that time dreaming, wishing, hoping, and they had done it.
After everything they had gone through, their faith had been rewarded.
“It feels like we should be here,” Dornan said. “It feels like it’s right.”