New school buys grand old church that closed

Pennsylvania group purchases historic house of worship

Arrows Christian Academy purchased the former St. Mark’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in December with plans to start classes this fall. — Arrows Christian Academy Arrows Christian Academy purchased the former St. Mark’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in December with plans to start classes this fall. — Arrows Christian Academy

A new conservative Mennonite school is breathing life into a grand old church in Reading, Pa.

Arrows Christian Academy, whose name was inspired by Philippians 3:14, hopes to begin classes this fall after purchasing the roughly 130-year-old St. Mark’s Evangelical and Reformed Church property.

Built of dark stone with stained-glass windows and other ornate fixtures, the structure and all its contents sold for $250,000.

Arrows administrator Kevin Martin, a former teacher at a local public high school, said the congregation had listed the property for $350,000. The families starting the school had talked about where it could be located when the chair of the Arrows board noticed a woman taking photos of the church across the street from his house. It was God at work.

“At that point the church was maybe 20 people in attendance,” Martin said. “To see the vision for the building to have new life, they accepted the offer, and the rest is history.”

There are classrooms full of chairs and furniture. Pots, pans, plates and silverware fill the commercial kitchen. The basement includes a closet filled with trophies from a church darts league.

“They’re both priceless and worthless at the same time, these old church buildings,” Martin said. “The sanctuary isn’t all that useful for us as a school other than for programs and such, but the building has a significant amount of classrooms.

“If you want any kind of building, an old church is really your best option.”

The property includes an adjacent empty lot situated perfectly for a playground, but God’s providence doesn’t end there.

“It actually came with a large parking lot about half a block away,” Martin said. “It can fit 73 cars. If you were trying to start a school, it would be impossible without parking here in the city.

“The fact that it came with a large parking lot is just amazing.”

Dave Hollenbach, a lifelong member of St. Mark’s who served among the church’s leadership, said the congregation’s 1,600 members in the 1950s and ’60s made it once the city’s largest church. But declines in attendance, an aging congregation and a pattern of migration to the suburbs shrank the membership to 80 in recent years, with 20-25 attenders at Sunday morning worship services.

The congregation voted to close in November 2020.

“We all knew it was the best — if saddest — decision we could make. And an inevitable one, too,” Hollenbach said.

The church building and parking lot were listed with a real estate agent in February 2021, and Arrows made an offer in July.

“All of the church’s Consistory [leadership], and I’m sure all of our remaining 80 or so members, were delighted and very pleased that our facility would continue to be used to spread the word of God,” Hollenbach said. “The folks we worked with on the Mennonite side of the transaction were wonderful and dedicated to their mission.

“We’re hopeful that once Arrows Christian Academy is up and running, a use can be made of the sanctuary portion of the building.”

The school has no direct affiliation with a conference; its board is composed of families from four congregations. One each is associated with Biblical Mennonite Alliance, Keystone Mennonite Fellowship, LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) and Mid-Atlantic Mennonite Fellowship.

As the permitting process is navigated with building inspections and the state department of education, Arrows hopes to begin with kindergarten through grade 5 in the fall, depending on who enrolls. At 10-12 students per classroom, the school has the capacity for at least 120 students.

Until then, the 20,000-square-foot building offers a lot to explore.

As of mid-May, Martin was unsure if the bell tower contains working bells. He hadn’t heard the pipe organ. There was still a closet around every corner with contents to catalog.

“I think it’s a blessing to have the stained-glass windows and see the stories of Jesus depicted in glass,” Martin said. “It’s great we can use what might not be a traditional Mennonite building, but it still has great religious and historical value.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. Read More

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