Bits of fallen plaster litter the organ and piano inside Zion St. John’s Lutheran Church, but the faded murals of Greek revival decorations still glow on the walls of the nearly 150-year-old building.
A recent recommendation to include the little white church along state Route 10 near Beekman Corners in the state’s list of historic places may help find funds for restoration, church member Rose Swanhall hopes.
“A state historic designation would enable us to ascertain not-for-profit grants to assist us in refurbishing the deteriorating interior,” Swanhall wrote in an application for state and national historic registry programs.
The state Review Board for Historic Preservation recommended the church for historic registry status June 18. Assuming that is routinely approved by Carol Ash, commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, a recommendation for national historic status will be pursued, said OPRHP spokeswoman Sally Drake on Friday.
Although the current building opened in 1860, Swanhall said the congregation’s history goes back to the earliest days of Lutheran ministries in Schoharie County. A state sign ties the church to the Rev. Peter Nicholas Sommer, who in 1745 organized the Lutheran Congregation of Cobleskill and New Dorlack, according to Swanhall.
Sommer is buried at the Lutheran Parsonage in the village of Schoharie, said the Rev. Paul Messner, a former pastor of Zion St. John’s Seward and Sharon congregation.
Some current congregants, including Sharon Springs Board of Education member Helen Roberts, are direct descendants of Sommer, Swanhall said.
The congregation used several buildings over the past 250 years or so, sometimes with ties to other Lutheran or Dutch Reformed congregations, according to Swanhall.
The direct roots of the Sharon/Seward congregation go back to a long-gone log cabin a few miles south along Route 10. A state history sign designates the site as the “first meeting place in the settlement of Dorlach.”
Current pastor, the Rev. Lynn K. Ash, was away and could not be reached.
Messner, who led the congregation for about 17 years, recalled Friday the time in 1995 when workers made a surprising discovery.
“We were celebrating the 250th anniversary of [area] Lutheran congregations,” Messner said.
“We had this late Victorian wallpaper … and we peeled off five or six layers and discovered those fresco-like paintings” in the Beekman Corners church.
Since the paintings of Greek columns didn’t have any apparent tie to Christianity, “there was a stalemate over what to do about them. The congregation was kind of divided,” he said, so they were left as they were.
Those paintings, combined with the building style and links to early area Lutheranism, helped regional state reviewer Raymond Smith flesh out the church’s application for historic status when he visited in April, Swanhall believes.
“We need to preserve our Lutheran heritage, because we’ve thrown so much of it away,” said Messner, who now ministers at several churches as pastor of the Otsego County Lutheran Parish.
“It’s a cool building. I don’t want to see it sold off and made into a house.” said Swanhall. “The Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed are the history of Schoharie County,” she said.
This year, the church is not being used for summer services because of a weak and leaky roof.
A fundraising yard sale at the Sharon church is planned for the last Saturday of July.
Swanhall said the church council is expected to review the historic status and decide whether to ask the full congregation to pursue restoration efforts.
Sunday services for the approximately 50-member congregation continue to be held in the Seward church, which has been modernized and even has running water, unlike the Beekman Corners church, Swanhill notes.