News of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Pittsburgh area, counsel from its leaders, and reflections from its members.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Historian's Corner: A District Comes Before a Stake

This picture shows Imri Hutchings (standing at right), the second president of the West Penn District, along with his first counselor, Samuel Aston (standing at left), and several others at a district outing in South Park circa 1950.  President Hutchings’ wife, Bernice, is sitting in the back on the left, and Sister Emma Grace Hare, the first president of the district Relief Society, is sitting in front of her.  This picture appears in From These Hills and Valleys.

In October of 1943, Eastern States Mission President formed the West Penn District with Jay Wrathall as the district president.  President Wrathall had previously served as the president of the Pittsburgh Branch (which is now the Pittsburgh First Ward) from 1931 to 1933 and again from 1937 to 1943.

The district included three branches—Pittsburgh, Wilson (now the Pittsburgh Second Ward) and Washington as well as Sunday Schools in towns as far away as Johnstown and Carmichaels.  Wrathall and his counselors spent many Sundays traveling all around the district; their travel was facilitated by the clergymen’s coupons for gas that the district president had access to, this being during World War II when gas was rationed.  He was succeeded as district president by Clarence Bigler in 1947 and by Imri Hutchings in 1949.

When Hutchings was called to the position, there were 750 members in the three branches, but two of the branches were being led by missionaries, as there were very few Pittsburgh-area natives with Church leadership experience.  Hutchings chose leaders through inspiration and taught the members of the branches about “love and forgiveness,” as those who were called to lead were not always the most well-liked members.

He and his counselors also located members meeting in the more distant parts of the district and organized branches by starting with the most important auxiliary. “We found that the most successful way to start a branch was to start a Relief Society,” he explained.  Branches were organized in Butler, Punxsutawney, Johnstown and even East Liverpool, Ohio, during his tenure.  Hutchings also reached out to Saints in the region by holding leadership meetings with the Erie District and sending officers to conferences in Harrisburg and New York State, but the Erie meetings were less than successful; “there were so few (in attendance there) that most of the time we all traveled in one automobile.”

The West Penn District’s auxiliaries were also organized gradually during this period.  The district Relief Society was organized in 1949 and went through many of the same challenges of transportation and communication as its predecessor in the West Pennsylvania Conference.  These challenges were exacerbated by the geographic area of the district, which stretched from Wintersville, Ohio, to Johnstown, but they were met with unfailing resolve.

The first elders quorum in the district, which was called the Second Quorum of Elders since there was a First Quorum in Philadelphia, wasn’t organized until 1958, and it started out with just 75 elders scattered across ten branches.  However, as with the rest of the local Church membership, the Second Quorum grew fairly quickly, as a Third Quorum had been formed by 1963.

The growth of the Church organization in the Pittsburgh area continued apace in the 1960s.  On November 13, 1960, the Eastern Atlantic States Mission (which included Pittsburgh) was formed from the Eastern States Mission.  Two days later, Hutchings was succeeded as district president by Frank Young, who held the position until the Pittsburgh Stake was formed in 1969.

In 1963, the West Penn District sent out its first full-time missionary, Sister Erma Wollensack of the Pittsburgh Branch.  The foundation for her successors as missionaries from Pittsburgh began to be laid two years later, when the district’s first seminary class took place in Upper St. Clair, a distant southern suburb of the city.

And in 1967, the missionary effort within the district was enhanced with the formation of the West Penn District Mission, which was roughly equivalent to the (now-discontinued) stake missions of more recent years and the ward missions that continue to exist.  The district mission’s first president was Orrin Hatch, a native of the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin who presently serves as a US Senator representing Utah.

The dreams of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southwestern Pennsylvania to have a fully formed Church organization in their area finally came to fruition at the end of the 1960s with the formation of the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Stake.  But that is another tale for another post.  Until next time…

Respectfully submitted,

Rush David
Pittsburgh Stake Historian

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