At the beginning of a community prayer service held Sunday to commemorate the 130th anniversary of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, rumbles of thunder and the sound of rain spread throughout the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
“You know, I didn’t ask God for the sound effects, but God provided them,” said the Rev. Nancy L. Threadgill, priest in charge at St. Mark’s.
The service honored Father Alonzo Potter Diller, rector of St. Mark’s, his wife, Marion Diller and their children, all of whom perished at the church, as well as other victims of the flood.
Behind the altar, an inscription reads, “to the glory of God and in loving memory of Alonzo Potter Diller – many waters cannot quench love.” A stained glass window at the church pays tribute to Marion Diller, displaying the date of her birth and her death.
Threadgill said Diller was known to spend time out in his community and, about a month before he and his family were killed in the flood, he turned down an offer at a larger rectory in Pittsburgh.
Diller was very much loved, Threadgill said, but also loved others and encouraged those who attended the service to do the same.
“If we start here in Johnstown, loving as Christ loved us, and loving our neighbors, it will change the world,” she said.
During a service that included Scripture readings and hymns, those who attended also participated in praying for healing, peace, reconciliation, the answering of prayer and other topics affecting Johnstown and beyond, including cancer, the prevention of gun violence, the upcoming election and addiction.
Despite damage to the 1874 church building and rectory and the deaths of many members, the congregation at St. Marks continued to meet after the 1889 flood in the “Ark,” a small wooden structure.
At the time, Clara Barton, head of the American Red Cross, decided to build “Red Cross Hotels” to house the homeless in Johnstown and the surrounding areas.
The St. Mark’s site was given to the American Red Cross for use in the Johnstown recovery efforts and was the location for the first “Red Cross Hotel.”
The present-day church was eventually built and consecrated on May 31, 1891.
The rebuilt church houses two items recovered from its original building, including the wooden body of the present Lady Chapel Altar and original bell, which was at the corner of Napoleon and Haynes streets after the flood.
Church members held fundraisers and received a grant in the early 2000s to place the original bell back in the church’s bell tower.
“It’s the story of recovery,” said Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, who also helped provide tours of the church and information on its history to those who attended the prayer service.
Lisa Bell-Loncella, who has been attending St. Mark’s for more than 25 years, said she recalled learning about the 1889 Johnstown Flood when she first moved to Johnstown and supported the efforts of another parishioner in organizing a way to share the church’s specific ties with that flood with the community.
“That flood defined the history of Johnstown for me,” Bell-Loncella said.
“We can’t forget our history.”