GETTYSBURG, Pa. — When Gettysburg's Episcopalian community set out to honor fallen soldiers in 1888, they didn't think of a graveyard.
They built a church.
The Memorial Church of the Prince of Peace is the only Gettysburg church designed specifically as a Civil War memorial, parish publicist Art House said. The building houses more than 150 stones and plaques for fallen Union and Confederate soldiers, including 140 that form the foundation of the church's bell tower.
Nearly 100 congregants gathered Sunday for a service meant to honor soldiers, re-dedicate the church and continue its mission as a welcoming, vibrant religious community.
Prince of Peace was “not partisan at a time when we recognized the need for healing,” said the Right Rev. Nathan Baxter, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.
The Civil War "was the first time the country realized that wars are fought by young people,” Baxter said. “When we realize they are just children, young men and women, it forces us to ask the question, 'What can we do for peace?'”
Prince of Peace laid its cornerstone on July 2, 1888, the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The church's founding coincided with the reunion of thousands of Civil War veterans in the city, House said, adding that Union Gen. Samuel Crawford spoke at the ceremony.
The parish's legacy places a high value on community and service work, said John Rost, who serves as the church's sexton, or facilities manager. Its members work to effect change in the world, from volunteering at soup kitchens to helping Asian political refugees gain asylum in the U.S.
Parishioners said remembering the Civil War is an act of respect and learning.
“So much history today is not disseminated to young people,” said Gordon Fuller, of Gettysburg. "In Gettysburg, it's shown to everyone.”
The church has a difficult history of its own. Its first services were held in July 1900, after more than a decade of insufficient funds delayed its construction.
Prince of Peace became a self-sufficient parish for the first time in January 1970, only to be destroyed by a fire later that month. A metal cross on the altar and one stained glass window depicting Christ with children survived the fire, according to the church's historical archive.
But flames did not touch the bell tower, and the congregation continued educating people about the area's past when reconstruction finished in spring 1971.
“Memorializing (soldiers) means you remember that these men died for a reason, and that maybe you and I are free because of it,” Rost said.
Jeffry Burden, commander in chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, was a special guest at the re-dedication service.
The Legion began as an organization of Union soldiers renewing their loyalty to the north and President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1885. Its leaders were instrumental in building the church and donated some of its most important memorials, including four plaques for generals killed in battle.
It is an honor to see the group's history set in stone at the church, Burden said.
Baxter called on the congregation to be a “witness of peace in the country” for the church's next 125 years.
“The work we do as Christians is always about the future,” Baxter said. “Our nation continues to heal ... we are people who God has given a special calling.”
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.