Bethany Presbyterian Church in Trenton, N.J., suffered the fate of so many urban churches — changing demographics saw the church, which was founded in 1885 and once boasted 1,500 members, dwindle to just a couple dozen members when it closed in 2011.
But part of Bethany lives on.
First Presbyterian Church of Titusville, just north of Trenton, is the new home of an 1883 Steinway grand piano that had been at Bethany since at least 1938. On March 9, the church will officially rededicate the piano at a free concert featuring pianist Alexander Cap. The event is part of an ongoing 175th anniversary celebration at First Presbyterian.
“We were very surprised and very grateful to have this Steinway here at the Titusville church. It was a surprise that we were offered the opportunity to be the next stewards of it,” said the Rev. Will Shurley, pastor of the Titusville church.
Finding a new home for the piano was actually a challenge for the Presbytery of New Brunswick. When a church is closed, one of the tasks for the committee overseeing the closure is figuring out what to do with all of the property from the church, an especially daunting task for a large church like Bethany. The committee always hopes to find another church home for the property, but at seven feet long, the piano couldn’t go just anywhere.
“Because this piano is so beautiful and a historic relic we decided that we would try to find a home for it,” said the Rev. Nina Reeder, co-moderator of the presbytery’s Urban Mission Cabinet, which helped with the redistribution of Bethany’s property. “Will is not only the pastor of the Titusville church but he’s a musician as well so it seemed like a good fit.”
Shurley and Kristine Schmidt, church accompanist at Titusville, had already seen the piano on a visit to help with a community Christmas dinner at Bethany in 2010, so when Reeder approached him about the piano, Shurley knew that it had potential and was sure the session at Titusville would feel the same.
“The piano is basically a diamond in the rough,” Schmidt said. “It’s very rough around the edges. The original legs are missing. It has your standard basic block legs on it and it used to have more ornate legs. There are a lot of dents and dings to it but then you play it and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ It sounds wonderful. It sounds like a Steinway. It’s a beautiful sound.”
She estimates a full restoration would take about $20,000-$25,000 and a year to complete. But for now, it will serve just fine as it is.
As for the size of the piano, it’s not an issue for Titusville. Shurley and Schmidt said it’s exactly the right size for their sanctuary and the sound is magnificent. It replaces a small upright piano that was too small to accompany the congregation on hymns or to accommodate any sort of concerts. The Bethany piano can do both.
Titusville’s enthusiasm about receiving the piano was exactly what Reeder and the presbytery were hoping for.
“We just decided that it would be wonderful to continue to have this piano, which was so treasured and part of worship at Bethany, used in worship in a Presbyterian church,” Reeder said.
The timing of the gift could not be better, Shurley said.
“It worked out beautifully because the piano sort of dropped in our laps and we’re celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Titusville church this year, and so we knew when the piano came here that we would need to do something to mark the reception of it,” he said. “This concert is not only rededicating the Steinway and giving thanks to God for the ministry of the Bethany church but it’s also a way for us to celebrate the history of this church and the future we hope is in front of us.”
It’s all about viewing the piano as a parting gift from Bethany to the larger community of the presbytery. The Titusville church wouldn’t have been able to buy an instrument like this on its own. And while Shurley certainly wishes the piano could sit in a healthy Bethany church in Trenton, he’s just happy to see it live on in Titusville.
“We’re thrilled that there is at least some little happy ending to the story of Bethany’s closing,” he said. “This is a story of new beginnings and God doing something new.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.