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‘We feel it is a duty to Medina to keep it up’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 July 2014 at 12:00 am

Our Sandstone Heritage: St. John’s Episcopal Church

Episcopalians built Orleans County’s oldest church in 1832 from Medina sandstone

Photos by Tom Rivers – St. John’s Episcopal Church was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as “The church in the middle of the street.” Church Street splits by the church near the intersection with East Center Street (Route 31). Built in 1832 this is the oldest remaining church in Orleans County.

MEDINA – The congregation may be getting smaller and older but the group at St. John’s Episcopal Church remains committed to ministry and maintaining the oldest church in Orleans County.

Episcopalians in 1832 built the church at 200 East Center Street. They used Medina sandstone from Oak Orchard Creek near Center Street. The first commercial sandstone quarry wouldn’t open until 1837.

The church is prominent on the Medina landscape. It’s the first church on East Center Street leading to the downtown.

“We feel this is an iconic building that we have to take care of,” said Cynthia Kiebala, the church’s senor warden and acting treasurer. “We feel it is a duty to Medina to keep it up.”

The stones aren’t cut in crisp and precise blocks like the churches that came later in Medina. But St. John’s leaders say the stone church remains structurally sound and has held up well. The church once had a spire but it had to be removed after a cyclone tore through Medina in 1856. The bell tower remains and it holds a 2,100-pound bell.

Cynthia Kiebala, left, is the church’s senior warden. She is pictured with the Rev. Nancy Guenther, the church vicar.

The church regularly only has about a dozen attendees. There were eight there on Sunday when I joined the group for their service at 10:30 a.m.

I had never been inside St. John’s and wanted to see it. The church is repairing the plaster on the interior. It already fixed the plaster in the front entrance.

The plaster is getting repaired in the church sanctuary.

Another view of the sanctuary repairs.

It has many striking stained-glass windows, as well as a pipe organ. St. John’s has been working to replace rotting wood that holds the windows. It can be expensive.

“We’re bit by bit repairing the windows,” Kiebala said.

Kiebala attended St. John’s as a little girl and came back about two decades ago. She likes how women are welcomed in church leadership.

The Waters family donated this satined-glass window as a memorial for Alonzo Waters, a former newspaper publisher and state assemblyman. The window depicts a pen, scroll and the scales of justice.

The Rev. Nancy Guenther serves as the church pastor or the vicar.

“Here it is open and accepting,” Kiebala said. “It lets you reason.”

She would like to see more people help with the church ministries. That includes a linen closet, where St. John’s provides bedding and clean linens for families served by the Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern. The church also collects used shoes and donates then to be repurposed.

The church plays hymns on a pipe organ.

Kiebala is on a discernment committee that includes church representatives from Episcopal congregations in Orleans and Genesee counties. The rural parishes have seen falling membership.

“We want to keep our traditions going, but we have to face reality,” she said.

That may mean merged churches or more shared programming and ministries in the future.

“Right now we have about a dozen regulars,” Kiebala said. “We’re a band of the faithful.”

The fellowship hall is in the basement of the church. St. John’s would like to see more use for the hall and Sunday School classrooms.