CHESTER-After a seven-year drought, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Chester is once again opening its doors.
The church at the corner of Fourth Street and Indiana Avenue will hold its re-opening liturgy at 9 a.m. Sunday.
"I don't know for sure how many people we'll have there, but you have to start somewhere," said the Rev. Dale Eugene "Gene" Sheppard, parish missioner. "People who have seen the sign have called and said that they'll be there. I'm very excited."
A large sign in front of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Chester announces the church's re-opening on Sunday. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
A second-career clergyman, Sheppard, 65, of Follansbee, began his ministry to the Episcopal churches of Brooke and Hancock counties in June 2006. Four months later, St. Matthew's closed, the victim of declining membership.
At that time, the Rev. Jim Reed, who also was serving the Chester parish, decided to retire, and Sheppard continued his ministry to the three other Episcopal churches-St. Thomas in Weirton, Olde St. John's in Colliers and Christ Church in Wellsburg.
Sheppard has continued to commute to Chester, he said, to take care of the grounds, to visit people in the hospital and to do funerals. He's been thinking about the possibility of re-opening the church.
Then, in September, while attending a small-church conference in Lexington, Ky., he realized that some churches hold services without even having a building. He decided to take his idea to the Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.
"When I got back, I asked the bishop if I could re-open it, and he said to give it a try," he said.
Sheppard said the bishop's support was crucial, but there were other factors. He believes the area can sustain, and has a need for, its own Episcopal parish. With the growth of the oil and gas industry in the region, "maybe something has happened in these last seven years in Chester to make a difference," he said.
Sheppard also was inspired by the number of years the parish has been closed. "Seven is a symbolic number in the Scriptures, so maybe that means something," he said.
An adult convert to the Episcopal Church, Sheppard grew up near Parkersburg in a family that didn't attend church. His first exposure to church was the Methodist church where his future wife, Kay, attended. The high school sweethearts would go there together.
Sheppard had a career as a chemical operator with G.E. Plastics but started feeling a call to the ministry at age 45, by which time he already was an active lay leader at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Parkersburg.
Sheppard said he felt an attraction to the Episcopal Church that started him on a spiritual journey-one that resulted in his baptism at age 40. "I love the liturgy," he said, "and the fact that when you ask a question, they help you find the answers."
Sheppard retired and went back to school to pursue ordination, earning his Master of Divinity degree from Bexley Hall, an Episcopal seminary in Columbus, Ohio, at age 55.
Sheppard said he enjoys small-town ministry and is looking forward to including Chester once again. On the first and third Sunday of the month, he will be at Weirton St. Thomas at 9 a.m. and Christ Church at 11 a.m. On the second and fourth Sunday, he will be at St. Matthew's at 9 a.m. and Olde St. John's at 11 a.m.
On the "off" weeks, a qualified lay person will lead an Episcopal prayer service at the church, but communion will not be served, he said.
As for the church building, it's in fairly good shape despite needing some tender loving care, he said. There will be heat on Sunday. There's a bathroom leak that needs to be fixed, and the roof over the kitchen, although not leaking, needs to be replaced, he said.
"People from the other churches are volunteering to fix those leaks," Sheppard said. "The other churches want to support this church. They'd like to see it become part of our church family again."
Christmas Eve will find Sheppard in all four parishes-for services at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m. His last service will be in Chester.