The Great Buildings: Kulp Memorial Church

The following article is the second in a series featuring the landmark structures of the Greater Shamokin Area. For more, see The Great Buildings category.

On a bright, clear winter’s day in 1912, a building contractor left his card in the cornerstone of a new unfinished church. Just ten days before, the cornerstone had been laid with pomp and circumstance, a speech from the bishop, and a ceremony held in the schoolhouse across the street to shelter attendees from the cold weather. A box was prepared containing three coins, a small bible and prayer book, and a collection of newspapers. Finally on December 10, all were sealed in the cornerstone together with the builder’s business card, where they would remain for the next century.

This same church can still be found today along Chestnut Street in Kulpmont — a small, modest structure of gray stone and stucco to match. It’s easy to miss on the fast-paced Route 61 that follows the town’s main street, but if one does stop for a glance, it appears there is not much to see. It is not a particularly imposing edifice. It has been called a chapel, though it did once serve a large and active congregation. Even when it was first built, its otherwise plain facade was adorned only by a large stained glass window and a simple cross at the gable’s peak. But what it lacks in ornamentation, it has more than made up for in history.

The Kulp Memorial Church of today, and as it appeared around forty or fifty years ago. Historical image from the Thomas Photography collection, courtesy of Larry Deklinski.

Completed in 1913, this Protestant Episcopal church was the first of its kind in the town, and would continue to serve an active parish for several decades. It was a church to many, but it was more than that — even today, with the structure long since deconsecrated, it still stands as a monument to the memory of one man. It is a widow’s tribute to her husband, for whom the church was named the Monroe H. Kulp Memorial Episcopal Church of the Ascension.

The Kulp church, then and now. Thomas Photography image courtesy of Larry Deklinski.

Monroe H. Kulp: the name is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of local history, and in fact we are still talking of him every day, more than a hundred years after his death, whenever we mention the town he established midway between Shamokin and Mount Carmel.

“…I am sure the memory of Monroe Kulp will never be forgotten so long as Shamokin lasts,” Reverend J. J. Koch said in his eulogy of Kulp, and clearly he was right. “There is no man in Shamokin that will be remembered as Monroe Kulp will be remembered by the people. His name will be repeated many times.”

And Sarah W. Kulp ensured this when she dedicated the Church of the Ascension in her husband’s memory. Not so long ago, when the Kulp church was still fully intact, there could be found on almost every item of significance inside it — from the stained glass windows and the cross on the altar, to the altar and reredos themselves and the brass altar rails and podium — a dedication in memory of Kulp by a friend or relative.

The Church

From the day the Kulp Memorial Church first formally opened on March 23, 1913, until its deconsecration and sale, finalized in the 1990s, the church structure went virtually unchanged. Since then, the contents were dispersed and two stained glass windows were removed, leaving the structure to stand empty for several years.

Enter Kulpmont100 — a local community-minded nonprofit. After the property recently changed hands once again, Kulpmont100 stepped forward and partnered with the new owners on a project to restore the historic church’s exterior.

The value of a restoration project such as this in Shamokin, Kulpmont, or any other city, can hardly be overstated. All of us recognize that buildings like the Kulp church are a community’s inheritance, and that these large-scale historical artifacts can never be replicated. Sometimes they are our only link to the past. Restoration is no easy task, but the results are worth the effort, and in restoring a community’s historical inheritance, we support that community’s sense of identity, of pride in its heritage.

At the Kulp church, the newly restored exterior is beautiful to behold. The stuccoed upper story, originally a faded tan, has been completely repainted in a dove gray which compliments the stone lower level. The old white paint on the doors has been brightened with a fresh coat, along with all the trim, and a new metal roof has been installed.

Although the stained glass windows could not be replaced, a vinyl panel simulating the appearance of stained glass was placed over the location of the original front window.

Before and after: 2008 and 2019.

Of all the improvements to the church, I was personally impressed to note the addition of a plaque identifying the church and naming Sarah and Monroe Kulp. This plaque was installed on the facade in the approximate location of the church’s original sign.

The church interior was not part of the restoration project, but it is nonetheless an impressive space, even in the simplicity of its construction, and much original detail has survived.

Windows of stained glass — described in historical accounts as antique English glass — still shed light into the chapel space from either side. The floor is original, as is the woodwork of the vaulted ceiling.

Of no less historical interest is the church hall located in the basement. This space seems to have been the most neglected over the years, but neglect, ironically, often results in preservation. While the hall would certainly benefit the most from any potential restoration project in the future, it’s easy to stand in this space and imagine the first Sunday school service held here on March 23, 1913, reportedly led by Sarah Kulp herself.

The Artifacts

When it was first built, the church was a hub of activity for the faithful of all ages, with 84 children reportedly enrolled in its Sunday school services. Over the decades, however, attendance declined, and by 1976, the parishioners of the Kulp Memorial Church numbered exactly two, according to a News-Item article. At that time the church, still in near pristine historical condition, was designated a bicentennial historic site in conjunction with the nation’s celebrations that year.

While the old chapel space may seem empty and deserted now, it is reassuring to note that many of the original items have not been lost, only relocated.

For one, it is my understanding that the front window was sold to another church in Pennsylvania, and the smaller window above the altar is still in existence today at the Center for Ministry in Mount Carmel. After its removal from the Kulp church, it was reassembled, with some alterations, into a rectangular frame and was displayed for a time at the parish hall in Shamokin’s Trinity Episcopal until that church’s deconsecration last year.

Many of the religious objects, including the brass altar cross and a few chairs and pews, also made their way to Trinity Episcopal. Most notable among these are the Kulp church’s original altar and reredos, graciously donated to the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum by Trinity’s new owner, Kathy Vetovich. In the coming months, the altar and reredos will become part of a Kulp history exhibit presented by the museum.

Left: Kulp Church interior from the Thomas Photography collection, courtesy of Larry Deklinski. Note the stained glass window. Right: The same window as it appeared on display at Trinity Episcopal in 2018.

The Man

But who exactly was Monroe H. Kulp — and why is he remembered today?

Monroe H. and Sarah W. Kulp, circa 1880s and 1897, respectively.

In Northumberland County at the dawn of the 20th Century, there was hardly a more ubiquitous figure in the fields of both business and politics than Monroe H. “Farmer” Kulp. A businessman of varied interests and seemingly limitless energy, he managed to compress what could be considered a lifetime’s career into a space of less than twenty years. During that time, the last two decades of his life, he was elected to two terms in Congress, redeveloped a lakeside resort and a real estate project, established and built a lumber railroad linking his timber tracts to Lewisburg, rehabilitated the failing local transit company and invested in several extensions of the line, and of course founded a new town, all while managing the extensive interests of the Kulp Lumber Company.

After retiring from Congress, Kulp was considered the “county boss” in political circles. Certainly he was among Shamokin’s wealthiest few. For almost seventy years his grand Edgewood mansion stood as the architectural gem of the west end, and one of the town’s iconic residences. In addition to controlling the borough’s transportation, he owned the Dispatch, one of Shamokin’s major publications, and served on the boards of numerous businesses, institutions, and utilities. His company’s prop timber supplied the anthracite coal mines, thus playing a key role in Shamokin’s lifeblood industry.

All this paints a clear picture of a man influential in his time — a man of connections, headlines, wealth, and power. But there have been many such men through time, even locally. It doesn’t explain the obvious fact that his memory has somehow endured where others have not, nor does it answer the question I have been asked by many a layperson to local history: Why are the Kulps relevant today?

This isn’t easy to answer, especially if the inquirer is not exactly a history buff. There are several good reasons to remember the Kulps, not least of which is the basic honor due our history and our predecessors. But if there is just one reason, I believe it can be found in the words of Kulp’s lifelong friend — and mentor, so it would appear — Father Koch of St. Edward’s Catholic Church.

You all know his actions in the world. … Monroe was a business man, was a hard working [man]…and in my conversations with [him] I could see that outside of that [talent] for business and successful dealings there was in that mind the love of his adopted home of Shamokin…[He] wished to do all that he could for its advancement. He believed in the future of Shamokin and we all know how hard he worked and we all know that he did all that he could for its uplift and development.

One day Monroe came to me and said: “Father, I am going to make a park.” I said: “Now, Monroe I don’t like that” and I spoke to him of the bad influences of parks. He said: “Father, I will see that we have a number one park and one that will be a credit to Shamokin and make a beautiful place both morally and socially, for the poor [and for] the women and children in summer [and] for the men who toil…” I saw it done.

The Shamokin Dispatch, October 24, 1911

A helpful perspective was recently posed by a colleague with general respect to locales like Shamokin. All too often, a place rich in resources attracts investors, businessmen and others for a period of time, only to be eventually deserted years or decades later once the resource is exploited.

The Kulps certainly are among those drawn to the area for its resources — mainly timber, in this case. And if their contributions to Shamokin had ended there, it is entirely possible the name Kulp would not now be spoken on a daily basis, but relegated to a footnote in the dustier texts.

“Farmer” at Edgewood Park.

But Farmer Kulp had a vision to make his town a better place, and that is not just a platitude in his eulogy. We remember Kulp today, not for his politics or even his industry, but for the real and tangible civic contributions that both shaped the community of his time and continued to impact its development for decades after his death.

Families gather near the entrance to Edgewood Park circa 1900s.

Edgewood Park drew visitors from all over the state and delighted children and families for fifty years. The neighborhoods of Edgewood and Fairview offered attractive suburban housing to the middle class, and remain desirable sections of town today. Kulpmont emerged as a viable community, grew and thrived due to Kulp’s investment and development. It is a thriving town to this day. The local trolley line, the essential method of transportation for Shamokinites of all classes at the time, was gradually rescued out of a financial slump under the management of Kulp and his associates, and later developed into a bus line under Sarah’s control, serving the needs of the community for several decades until it was finally bought out by Catawese Coach Lines.

It is telling that a News-Item writer in the 1980s described Kulp as “Shamokin’s most outstanding citizen.” We don’t think of him first as a legislator, a baron, a magnate, a local celebrity, a politician — though he was all of those things at different times. If we really understand him, we call him a citizen. And we remember the Farmer for the same reasons we might remember any historical figure with admiration — because they serve as our model, our reference, the embodiment of our ideals, the source of our inspiration. In Shamokin, the ideal of the “model citizen” has come to be represented, and not undeservedly, by Monroe H. Kulp.

We would be remiss if we did not consider Sarah Kulp in this light as well, a keeper of the flame not only in preserving her husband’s memory, but also in actively carrying on his legacy and his work. Herself a capable businesswoman, Sarah continued many of her husband’s civic endeavors including Edgewood, Kulpmont and the trolley line. Thus the man — and the woman — are not just names from the past, but are inseparably intertwined with the town’s own sense of community, of identity and meaning.

In a sense, Kulp is Shamokin.

The Cornerstone

In writing this brief story of the Kulp church, I have the opportunity to reveal a chapter of its history which has not been seen in almost 107 years.

The new owners, upon acquiring the property two years ago, decided to open the cornerstone originally laid in 1912. Since then, the cornerstone’s contents have been under the care of Kulpmont100, and now have been made available to the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum. Thanks to Kulpmont100 and to the church’s owners, I was able to inspect and document the contents in detail while preparing them for future exhibition at the museum.

The late Farmer Kulp’s portrait, appearing on the front page of the Dispatch, October 19, 1911.

The items sealed in the cornerstone on that clear day in 1912 preserve a part of local history that has otherwise been lost to time. Since the loss of virtually all Shamokin newspapers covering the thirty-year period from 1893-1923 due to a natural disaster, it has been a challenge for local historians to research events in that era. The cornerstone’s contents help fill in this gap with six issues from the major Shamokin journals — the Dispatch, Herald, and Daily News. These include articles on the laying of the cornerstone, a story on the consecration of Trinity Church in June 1912, and the Dispatch’s obituary of Monroe H. Kulp and coverage of the funeral. Excerpts from Koch’s emotional eulogy appearing in the foregoing paragraphs were taken from that October 24, 1911 issue of the Shamokin Dispatch.

Over the years, time and weather deteriorated the paper items and newsprint inside the cornerstone, which was not completely sealed against the elements. By the time it was opened, the prayer book and bible had nearly disintegrated and water damage had faded the contractor’s business card, but the folded newspapers, while fragile, remained mostly intact and legible.

After more than a hundred years of safekeeping, these pieces of the past are no longer hidden, but have come to the final phase of the journey for which they were always intended — telling their story to a future generation. Some of that story has been expressed in the writing of this article, and some of it is yet to be told. It has certainly contributed to my own understanding of the Kulps and their unique church, and it is my hope that it will likewise inform and inspire not just the people of Kulpmont, but of the entire Greater Shamokin Area.

It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the Monroe H. Kulp Memorial Episcopal Church of the Ascension be counted among the region’s Great Buildings. As local historian James Clauser said in 1976:

“This is not just a church; it is a monument left to us by the Kulp family. It is a memorial worth seeing.”

“H. S. Evert [put] this box in on Dec. [10], 1912 at 10 o’ clock on a nice bright clear day.”

Do you have a personal memory or story about the Kulp Memorial Church, or another historic place in the Shamokin area you’d like to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below.

One thought on “The Great Buildings: Kulp Memorial Church

  1. Pingback: New exhibit coming to the Heritage Museum | One Point in Time

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