Family maintains cemetery

LIBERTY TWP. – Although the Waxler Church closed nearly half a century ago, people are still laid to rest in its cemetery and the building is maintained by a local family whose ties to the church go back four generations.

“My family just always had something to do with this,” said Judy Mercer, 50, of Dalzell, explaining why she continues to care for the church that closed when she was just 4 years old.

The church is located on one of the highest points (1,145 feet above sea level) in Washington County, atop a hill near the intersection of Dalzell and Stanleyville roads. The white, one-story building with a bell tower is surrounded by the cemetery, in which 150 to 160 people are interred, including Mercer’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Among the most recent was her mother Kathryn Booth, who passed away in 2009.

“That’s just where she knew she wanted to be,” Mercer said. “This is where she grew up.”

Mercer and her husband have purchased plots in the cemetery, as have Richard and Joyce Gill, who live down the hill from the cemetery. The Gills live in the house that once belonged to Richard’s mother, who is buried in the Waxler Cemetery along with other members of his family.

The family wasn’t connected to the church itself, but has long lived in the area.

“We liked the church, we like the area, and we just decided we wanted to be buried there,” said Joyce Gill, 67.

The cemetery itself is maintained by Liberty Township. Mercer said she, her husband, sister and brother-in-law take care of the church not only to honor their family but also to share some of its history with others who might visit loved ones’ graves there.

Inside the church are a dozen pews, the platform from which the minister preached and a piano purchased by church members in 1906 for $65. Mercer and others have also hung photos of students from the nearby Waxler School and other documents pertaining to the church inside, including some original records in German.

Among the items on display is a history written of the church in 1948, when it had about 40 members.

The land was deeded to the church in 1853 under the name “Paw Paw Presbyterian Church,” apparently derived from the nearby Duck Creek tributary of Paw Paw Creek and the denomination to which the justice of the peace recording the deed thought the church’s founders belonged.

“How this happened, we can only guess,” the history says. “But one thing is certain, these people were never Presbyterians, but were Lutheran and Evangelical.”

The writer of the history theorizes that the church founders, who arrived in the area from Germany, spoke no English and the justice of the peace spoke no German.

In 1868, the church was officially named St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church, according to church records passed down through Mercer’s family. In 1923, the name was changed to St. John’s Evangelical Reformed Church, with Mercer’s great-grandfather, W.H. Payne, among the trustees listed on that incorporation document.

Other documented names for the church over the years were Schramm Ridge Evangelical Lutheran Church, Waxler German Lutheran Church and St. John’s United Church of Christ, according to Millie Covey Fry’s publication detailing German communities and churches in the area.

Eventually, the name was changed to Waxler, for Sam Waxler who owned the property after one of the church’s founders, Peter Gruber. That’s the name Mercer has always associated with the cemetery and church, although when it closed in 1966 due to declining membership, it was known as St. John United Church of Christ.

The families of members continued to care for the church over the years. In 1994, donations from people whose relatives are buried in the cemetery allowed Mercer and company to have the inside and outside of the church repainted and new Amish-made windows installed.

Around that time, something broke in the belfry and the bell came loose. It lay on its side in the tower for years, and Mercer said her mother always wanted to do something with it. In 2009, the 500-pound bell was removed and placed in a display built by Mercer and her husband, which was then dedicated to her mother’s memory.

Removal of the bell helped relieve pressure on the tower, but repairs are still needed to the building’s roof and gutters. That would have to be accomplished by donation again, and anyone wanting to contribute can contact Mercer at 585-2675.