Written Winter of 2013
In the late 1940s there was a revival in this Souderton-Franconia community. “Kenneth Good spoke at Salford and was invited to speak at Towamencin,” recalls Mary Gross. Many lives were dedicated and re-dedicated to Christ, but more importantly they caught the fervor of wanting to spread the gospel. Mary, along with her husband Hiram, began to feel a “burden for mission work.” Mary had attended Towamencin Mennonite Church all her life, but remembers receiving a cold shoulder from other church members after her brother went into the military. “For Christmas, the church gave gifts to the conscientious objectors, but nothing for those that went into service.” Her brother didn’t know the Lord when he went into the military and Mary feared that this kind of treatment would never show him God’s love and mercy.
Mary Clemens Gross was one of 14 children born to John and Susie (Stauffer) Clemens, with only ten of the fourteen children surviving. Her mother was originally from the Reformed Church in Skippack, but her dad had grown up at Towamencin Mennonite Church. Mary was 4 years old when her home was tragically destroyed by fire. She recalls, “We went to church in the morning, then to Henry Benner’s house for lunch. Then we went to Lederach Chapel for Sunday school in the afternoon and while there, Dad was told that our house was on fire. When we got home, people were in our house throwing things out of windows. All our birth records were destroyed.”
Mary went to a one room school house in Mainland. The township line went through their house, but they went to Mainland School. Mary was only 16 when her mother died tragically from a blood clot that formed after stomach surgery. “My mother’s funeral and viewing were one of the largest at Towamencin. I remember how hard it was to sing ‘It is well with my Soul.’“ But even more difficult was a few weeks later when she had to walk down the aisle at the Kulpsville School (10th grade) graduation ceremonies without her mother. She even delivered the salutatorian speech. After graduation, she went on to Lansdale School of Business in order to join the family business, Pleasant Valley Packing Company, to take her mother’s place as company bookkeeper. Her brothers went on to establish more family businesses in the community, including Clemens Markets and Hatfield Packing Company.
In 1936, at the age of 19, Mary married Hiram Gross. “I was the first one at Towamencin Mennonite Church to wear a long white wedding gown. We were married on a Sunday morning at 9 am at my home and then went to Trainer’s for brunch. We had the reception a week later and then went on a honeymoon to the Poconos.”
Hiram and Mary’s first child, Bud, was born in 1937, followed by Pat in 1939, Betty Lou in 1942, David in 1943, and Mary Lynne in 1956. Hiram and Mary enjoyed their growing family immensely, but felt an even deeper calling in 1949 when Kenneth Good came to the Franconia area and they caught the excitement of missions. They were close to Bill Anders and his wife, Miriam, from their ties at Towamencin, so when Bill vocalized his calling to form a group of believers with the same passion for reaching out to people in the community, devoid of clothing requirements, Mary and her husband, Hiram joined the group. They met on Sunday nights at various homes, including the home of Robert and Alice Nase and on Tuesday evenings for Bible study at Dr. Nase’s upstairs garage apartment. “We went on a step of faith. We had small children at the time. But this became a very important decision in our lives.”
Calvary’s first service in March of 1950 was at Telford Town Hall with 102 persons in attendance from all over the Indian Valley community. “It stunned a lot of people” and was widely discussed, often with labels like “firehouse Mennonites” , “dissatisfied Mennonites,” or “TV Mennonites” but the group persisted to meet and the congregation grew. It reached many community people through their message of Christian assurance and less emphasis on tradition and avoiding “worldly” items, such as televisions, wedding bands, and musical instruments.
People were looking for a church that accepted them as they were and many began attending at Calvary over the past 63 years. Today, the two services on a typical Sunday morning include approximately 2400 persons. On the first Sunday of every month there is an offering for missions and evangelism is an important component of their congregational life, whether it’s through their own Mr. B’s coffeehouse or other ministries.
Mary has always been involved at Calvary. “I taught Sunday School, attended a woman’s prayer group, stuffed bulletins, sang in the choir and worked in the church library. There’s always something to do. I can’t always attend now, but I still remember them in prayer. ” Mary believes the reason Calvary was so successful is because the pastors kept preaching the Word, and the congregation continued to be actively involved in the community.
Hiram passed away in 1978, but Mary remains in her home in Souderton with the generous help of her 5 children and spouses who love and serve the Lord. Mary concludes, “I still want to be available to the Lord for whatever he has for me.”
Also read author’s response to this conflict in the Mennonite church at http://wp.me/p2kRFb-kC.