A sesquicentennial celebration

Legacy: A Delta, Pa., church pays tribute to the region's Welsh heritage through words, song, food and festivities.

October 10, 2004|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DELTA, Pa. - The Rehoboth Welsh Church in Delta is marking its 150th anniversary this weekend. The celebration will include an appearance by the Pendyrus Male Choir from Wales at 2:30 p.m. today.

Yesterday's events featured the eighth annual Delta and Cardiff Heritage Festival on Main Street.

"Our local church membership is small," said the Rev. Richard Baskwill, "but we are widely regarded throughout North America as having probably the best local Gymanfa Ganu [singing festival] to be found anywhere. Hundreds of people throughout the eastern U.S. keep in touch with us and come twice a year to experience the spirit here.

"We also have attained a reputation in Wales as being a prime example of how the Welsh language can be restored even after having fallen into disuse.

"British tourist agencies regularly list Delta and our church as prime places to visit, and we regularly entertain tour groups."

The Gymanfa Ganu (pronounced ga-MAN-va gan-ee), or Festival for Sacred Song, highlights singing in parts, not in unison.

The Pendyrus Male Choir is a product of the South Wales coal field, where it was founded in 1924. It has appeared at Welsh celebrations worldwide.

During the boom years from 1880 to 1907 in Delta and Cardiff, Welsh quarrymen came to work in the slate and green marble quarries.

Now the quarries stand closed, but a renovated Rehoboth Welsh Church and the Old Line Museum, which opened in 1975, have helped to reconnect people with the Welsh heritage.

Part of that heritage is Welsh cakes, a big seller at fund-raisers in the area.

"You have to use plenty of real butter," said Betty Griffith Williams, 94, about the currant-filled Welsh cakes that are a recipe for anyone homesick for Wales.

Williams said that she once made 200 Welsh cakes for fund-raising at Rehoboth Welsh Church (Capel Cymraeg Rehoboth) on Main Street, near where the Susquehanna River crosses the Mason-Dixon Line. She has attended the 75th and now the 150th anniversary of the church, which has never ceased to have services in Welsh.

Williams' Welsh roots are as deep as those of the 80-year-old maple trees that shade the renovated red brick and slate-trimmed building constructed in 1891 by the quarrymen.

Her story is similar to that of many early founding families of Delta-Cardiff-Cambria (now called Whiteford), in that she worships every Sunday night with eight to 12 others, some of whose roots also go back to Wales. Others just love to hear the melodious sounds of Calvinistic liturgy from Baskwill's resonant pulpit. He has ministered there for the past 21 years, having grown up in Bangor, Pa., where the Lehigh Valley meets the Pocono Mountains.

"As was common among the quarrymen, my grandfather moved in response to varying economic conditions to different areas where there were Welsh communities of slate workers," Baskwill said.

"Eventually I discovered in 1982 that living in Baltimore brought me into reasonable commuting distance of Delta. When I found that there was a Welsh church still functioning there, I was immediately drawn to it. I found Delta to be remarkably similar to the Bangor of my youth, both in the similarity of the slate industry heritage and the warmth of the friendliness of the people."

Baskwill set about learning Welsh, which is a branch of Celtic.

This year features the sesquicentennial year of the founding of Rehoboth Welsh Church as well as the 20th anniversary of the founding of Cor Cymraeg Rehoboth (Rehoboth Welsh Choir) and the 80th anniversary of Cor Meibion Pendyrus, the Pendyrus Male Choir of Rhondda, Wales.

The Welsh population in the area has dwindled. "Hardly anybody is left," Williams said. "John Williams, he's only 84. He and I are the only two full Welsh left in Delta."

"If it weren't for all the younger members that are interested in Welsh, we would be closed up," Williams said.

There are regulars who attend services each Sunday at 6 p.m. or take the language class starting at 5 p.m.

"Through the years, the church has been able to keep the Welsh culture alive through its music, poetry and services to the community," said Ruth Ann Robinson, director of the Old Line Museum.

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