The City of Aberdeen was incorporated on March 20, 1888. Just two months later, the First Presbyterian Church of Aberdeen was dedicated. What was to become the church’s first structure had already sat in the land of timber for 23 years, built in 1865 at the northeast corner of Wishkah and H Streets on property donated by the city’s founder Samuel Benn.
The congregation has gone through many changes since the first service was held in 1885 due to the missionary pioneering of Rev. Hiram F. White, who was assigned to the Grays Harbor area after entering the Washington territory two years earlier.
Once the center of the city, both physically and spiritually — and still a strong fixture of the community with about 100 members — the church is celebrating its 125th anniversary this Saturday and Sunday with all of Grays Harbor as the invitees.
“Everyone belonged here, if they weren’t in this church they were in the Baptist (church),” said life-long member Barbara Caskey, of the way she remembers Aberdeen growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s. She was baptized into the First Presbyterian Church of Aberdeen in 1958 and has remained a dedicated member of the church ever since. Her grandmother played the organ and her father was an elder, or members which the congregation elects as their representatives, just as she has been in years since then. For a long time, only men were allowed to be elders, though women were just as big a part of the church.
“Women were busy in the church and didn’t work,” said longtime-church member Marilyn Sturm, who taught Sunday school for many years in the basement of the current church structure during the ’60s. She said the fact that many, if not most, women now have careers, might be to blame for dwindling numbers in some of the church’s clubs, like a stitching group, or its women’s association.
“There are probably only two that come to that one now,” she said.
“Everyone wore three-piece suits … When I joined it was hats and gloves,” said Sturm, of what was deemed appropriate for Sunday mass in the ’60s. The church drew enormous crowds, she said, and packed the sanctuary of the new building at Fourth and Broadway, where it moved after church membership grew and the former building — located at First and Broadway — had deteriorated.
At one time the church drew in more than 900 members, said current Pastor Doug Basler, 35, who has led the congregation for the past five years.
“Since 1888 a lot has changed, ” he said. “But while buildings and terms of numbers, and generations have changed. God has stayed the same, so we just want to celebrate that,” he said of this weekend’s celebration.
It was around the ’80s, when the logging industry began to suffer dramatically, that many members relocated and the numbers began to decline, said Caskey. Both she and Sturm recall moments of realization that things had changed drastically within the church, like one where a member walked out of mass after realizing someone had come dressed in blue jeans.
Now, they say, church attire is all-over casual, with no real complaints. And things are evolving all-around. The two say the church’s current best asset — aside from the large building that also houses three floors of classroom space and an extensive basement — is their young pastor, Basler.
“(Basler) does not use one bit of notes unless quoting,” said Caskey of his sermons. She added that he does not wear the traditional robe of a pastor, and stands in the middle of the sanctuary in front of the congregation instead of at the pulpit. “He is very down to earth, so unpretentious and an amazing speaker.”
Basler, whose father was also a pastor, is originally from an Mundelein, Ill., and is married with two young children. He said he had never heard of Aberdeen prior to looking at the job, but choose the location from a few other offers. He was not yet 30 when he started, and his youthfulness is helpful in connecting with the largely young congregation. At one summer occasion, the church had a Slip’N Slide out on the lawn and Caskey said Basler did not hesitate to join in the fun.
“He got on his bathing suit and went out there and went down it,” she said, adding Basler is always bringing a new enthusiasm to old practices, like “story-time” at the church’s Bible camp, which they collaborate on with a few other churches, in which he used a “Fear Factor” theme.
‘The kids loved it,” she said. “Usually kids wouldn’t want to stick around for that kind of thing.”
And for the adults, he uses a similar technique in his sermons, said Caskey.
“He’ll go through a story and make it come alive with modern day analogies, and will sometimes even bring films in,” she said.
Basler said he doesn’t have a “systematic approach” to drawing in more individuals, especially the young to the church.
Both Caskey and Sturm said they couldn’t think of any attendees in their 20s.
“But I do believe the really good news is to share with the community acts of service, compassion and love,” he said. Both he and Caskey and Sturm say the church has tried in certain, small ways, like different approaches to their music. They try to incorporate some newer types of music with the traditional hymns.
“Some don’t want one or the other, we try to balance the needs of the different ages,” said Caskey. The church also has an extensive youth mission program for teenagers, and makes trips to places like Mexico and California. They also work locally “cleaning up” areas throughout Grays Harbor by painting houses and doing miscellaneous projects, like one where they were assigned to interview strangers about what they love about the Harbor.
Basler said it was a great experience, which was assigned to combat what are often negative thoughts within the community.
“So we kind of wanted to shift that,” he said “It was a powerful week, I kind of wish we could get everyone to do it.”
The 125th celebration will begin Saturday at 7 p.m. with an ice cream social, there will also be church history, memorabilia, tours, and fellowship.
The celebration will continue on Sunday, with a special anniversary service at 10 a.m., and an outside community celebration at noon, with barbeque and refreshments, children’s activities and live music. All are welcome.