The Old Church Still Stands

Fidelia Hall, which was once St. Paul’s German Reform Church, will be sold in an auction today, alongside an accompanying home on the property. The hall was most recently the home of Justin Hoenke, who was the executive director of Benson Memorial Library until his resignation last month, and his family.

It was once the gathering place of a congregation hoping to worship in their native tongue of German. It has a bell crafted from a cannon. It served as the home of the Benson Memorial Library’s executive director from 2015 to 2019.

It, also, is for sale.

Fidelia Hall, formerly known as St. Paul’s German Reform Church, will be going up for auction today. The hall’s owners, Justin and Haley Hoenke, moved to New Zealand earlier this month after the former got a position in the country’s capital city. A house that is located on the property will also be sold in conjunction with the former church.

According to Justin Hoenke, St. Paul’s Church dates back to the late 19th century.

“From what I know, it started in 1870,” he said. “They started building it, and they finished building it in 1873.”

The church was constructed by a group of German immigrants to the Titusville area, who were hoping to be able to worship in their original language. While the congregation would eventually convert to speaking English, the church maintained a strong sense of Germanic heritage throughout the years.

In fact, the bell that still sits in the tower above the church was a gift from Emperor Wilhelm I after the congregation wrote to him personally, though the gift came in a roundabout way.

“They said ‘Yo, we want a bell. Can you give us a bell?’” Justin Hoenke told The Herald. “And instead of giving them a bell, he sent a cannon.”

The cannon was originally constructed for the Franco-Prussian War, but ended up not seeing any use in the battle. The metal would later be melted down to make the bell, though the churchgoers had some fun with it first. According to Justin Hoenke, St. Paul’s Church members would fire the cannon several times in some of the parks in Titusville before its eventual conversion. He said they even charged money for the spectacle.

In addition to the bell, the church also features a historic organ, first installed in 1895 by the Salem Organ Company of Ohio. While the organ is currently inoperable, due to a motor failure, its original pipes, keys and other inner-working parts are still there.

One part of the original building that’s no longer present, however is its steeple. According to Justin Hoenke, the original tower was removed in the 1920s, reportedly due to having been struck by lightning too many times.

The church would change its name later in its history, becoming St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. In the early 2000s, it came to house a new congregation and was once more renamed, this time to Faith Temple Church.

“It’s a simple story,” Justin Hoenke said. “We knew we really wanted to move to Titusville after I interviewed for that job and my wife saw that property, the old St. Paul’s, and she said ‘That’s the one.’”

The couple moved into the home on the property, while aiming to convert the church into a community center. They renamed the former place of worship Fidelia Hall after one of the original owners of St. Paul’s Church, Fidelia Barnsdall.

However, the Hoenkes would find it difficult to maintain both buildings, as each entailed their own scope of work. Eventually, the family would move into the basement of the church, renovated it into a living space.

“I think that sense of history and with all those things that came through for us, I wanted to pay respect to that history by refurbishing this space, honoring what it was and seeing what it can be in the future,” Justin Hoenke said.

The leader of the library would come to admire many things about the church. Justin Hoenke said it adored the tin ceiling and hardwood floors, both of which were unveiled during renovation work. Throughout the years, the family would use the building as a dance hall, a party space, a recording studio, an art gallery, a theater and more. They would also frequently receive stories from people in the community about fond memories of the church.

However, Justin Hoenke admitted both structures were left in mid-renovation, and any future buyers may have to do some fixes of their own.

The auction will take place today at the property, which is located at 102 Brook St., and will begin at 10 a.m. Various pieces of furniture will also be up for purchase in the sale.

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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