Peach fest marks 50th year

WEIRTON – Since the St. Thomas Episcopal Church Peach Festival was begun in 1963, the event has changed in various ways, but two things remain the same.

And those are the large, tasty shortcakes served by parishioners with a heap of peaches and whipped cream on top and ice cream on the side and the opportunity for area residents to gather and socialize.

This year’s event, to be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 10, will be no different, as organizers have invited many former members and clergy to visit, both during the festival and as part of a special worship service to be held at 10 a.m. Aug. 11.

Members of the church are inviting everyone to join them in celebrating the golden anniversary of the event, which will again include an assortment of hot food and baked goods for sale, chances on a variety of theme baskets, a white elephant and used book sale and games for children.

The guest list includes the Rev. Michie Klusmeyer, bishop of the West Virginia Episcopal Diocese; the Rev. William Swing, who led the church when the Peach Festival began and later became bishop of the California Diocese; the Rev. Paul Daggett, the Rev. David Sailer and the Rev. Larry Jackson, all priests who led the church in years past.

The Rev. Gene Sheppard is currently the church’s pastor and serves as missioner for it and its sister Episcopal churches in Brooke County.

Rick Mergen, who is co-chairing this year’s festival with Dorothy Hawkes, said former members who had moved to Florida, New York and other states also have expressed plans to return to St. Thomas for the occasion.

He said commemorative programs produced by Roger and Ryan Speer, the adult sons of member Wendy Speer, will be distributed to visitors, and Peach Festival mugs and peach-shaped stress balls will serve as door prizes in addition to a variety of items and gift certificates donated by area businesses.

Several parishioners reflected on past festivals while gathering recently to peel hundreds of peaches for the shortcakes, pies and other desserts to be sold that day.

Wendy Speer said she has been involved with all of them, starting as a young girl, when she carried plates of pasta from the kitchen to patrons sitting outside the church at its former location at Elm Street and Mildren Avenue.

“As good as I am at waitressing, it’s a wonder I didn’t dump spaghetti on somebody,” she said.

“We were doing spaghetti dinners at that time,” explained Carol Village, who added, “It was done on a smaller scale because we had that smaller lot to work in.”

Mergen said the former church actually was a garage that had been converted for services in 1948 by a group that had been meeting at the MonPower building on Main Street in 1947.

The church initially was known as Trinity Episcopal Church, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with Trinity Lutheran Church, also in Weirton, he noted.

Mergen said a kitchen in an old house above the church was used to prepare the spaghetti dinners for the first festival. He was too young then to work behind the scenes, but he remembers pony rides being part of the festivities.

Hawkes remembers a section of the street being closed to accommodate entertainment, including square dancers.

She has worked at the festival all but one year, when she was in the hospital, she said.

“It’s always been very successful,” Hawkes added.

The current church on Three Springs Drive opened in 1969, with its first Communion held on Christmas Eve. It was dedicated on April 8, 1970.

Since then church members, family and friends have gathered in the social hall for a few days in August to peel hundreds of bushels of peaches purchased locally before heading home to bake the shortcakes, many pies and other food for the event.

“I knew I was a grownup when I was asked to peel peaches,” said Speer.

Ella May Knierim, a member of the church since 1969, said, “I’ve always enjoyed peeling peaches with the women and having a gab session.”

But in recent years the peeling sessions haven’t been limited to women. Father and son Wayne and Raymond Porter are among the many men who have helped out.

Wayne said his wife Patty will be helping out in the kitchen during the festival but not with the peeling because she is allergic to peaches.

“I think there are more men involved in the kitchen now,” Knierim said, adding, “The men were involved before but it was setting up outside.”

Proceeds from the event go to the church’s operation and outreach efforts.

Mergen said of the festival, “It’s a lot of work and we have a small church, but we all pull together to make it happen.”

He said the event also depends on the support of many donors. That includes one Speer and others like to call the ‘ice cream angel,” because the individual anonymously has donated all of the ice cream each year.

“It has grown, and it’s one of the major functions for our church and the city, too,” he said.

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