Dianne and I paid a visit to the Camp Curtin Memorial Mitchell Methodist Church in Harrisburg, PA on a sunny Friday afternoon, May 31, 2019. The reason for the visit, and the inspiration for the name of the church, was because this was the site of Camp Curtin. Camp Curtin was established in 1861 as a mustering and training camp for the Civil War. Over 300,000 troops were trained at Camp Curtain over the course of the war. Dianne’s great grandfather, Davis Enyeart, and his brother, James Enyeart, were mustered into Company C of the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Camp Curtin.
The nursery school that met at the church was just concluding its “graduation” ceremony and many little boys and girls, dressed in their finest, were getting their pictures taken in the park adjacent to the church. The central feature of the park, which is the smallest state park in Pennsylvania, is a statue of Governor Andrew Curtin, the Pennsylvania governor who established the camp and for whom it is named.
The church was established in 1889 near the site of the Camp Curtin chapel and casualty hospital. The congregation’s membership grew into the hundreds, resulting in two building programs. The current structure was dedicated in 1916 as a place of worship and “a suitable memorial keeping alive the memory of the most important camp of the Civil War.” The large granite church includes a mural of Christ ministering to a wounded civil war soldier and a rose-patterned stained-glass window, both made by the famed artist C. Day Rudy, a Civil War orphan. It also contains one of the largest pipe organs in Harrisburg, designed by architect John Bell of Pittsburgh. The church was listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on August 5, 2010.
Coincidentally, we were there on a sad day for this congregation. Following the conclusion of this day’s nursery school events, the doors of the church would be locked one final time. Uptown Harrisburg, once a bustling commercial district, is now a neighborhood in desperate need of urban renewal. The church structure is showing signs of decline, along with the neighborhood. The pipe organ pipes are tarnished, plaster is coming off the walls under the area of the steeple and the carpets are showing wear. Appeals for funds to assist in repairs have apparently not resulted in the required resources.
The church meeting within its walls has declined as well. According to Miss Jen, the nursery school director, the Sunday attendance has declined to 40 or 50; it is no longer possible to maintain the congregation and the members are being encouraged to join another Methodist congregation in the area. Unfortunately, a successful soup kitchen that serves approximately 150 every week must be suspended. The nursery school, literacy programs, addiction recovery support, concerts in the park, miscellaneous community programs and the weekly worship in this aging neighborhood will also be suspended.
I have read recently that between 100 and 200 churches close every week. I’m sure the reasons vary and, perhaps in some cases, it is for the best. I don’t know the whole story behind the demise of the Camp Curtin Memorial Mitchell Methodist Church or what should have, shouldn’t have, could have or couldn’t have been done to save it. I do know that it makes me sad to see the loss of this place of worship and this reminder of a nearly forgotten era.