by Eileen Kinch
In January 2023, Roaring Spring Mennonite Church closed its doors after over 120 years of ministry. Pastor Elsie Gonsman, who served the congregation since 2002, also retired.
Roaring Spring Mennonite Church began in the small town of Roaring Spring in western Pennsylvania. Abraham Snyder was the first minister. In 1898, the congregation purchased a church building from the Methodists and began to hold services as a mission church. Abraham Snyder’s sons also started four other congregations in western Pennsylvania: Smith’s Corner, Napier, Zion at Mann’s Choice, and the Altoona mission.
Roaring Spring was initially affiliated with the (Old) Mennonite Church conference; it joined the Eastern District Conference in 1912, with the other small Mennonite congregations started by the Snyder family following suit. Roaring Spring became part of Mosaic in 2020, when Eastern District and Franconia Conferences reconciled. Roaring Spring is the last of those five former Eastern District congregations in western Pennsylvania. The other congregations have either closed or are no longer affiliated with a Mennonite conference.
Pastor Elsie heard about Roaring Spring’s pastoral vacancy when a worker at her house asked how she got saved. The worker went to Roaring Spring and told her that his church was looking for a pastor. Pastor Elsie, who was licensed by the United Church of Christ, expressed interest, and Roaring Spring invited her to preach for one Sunday. Then the congregation invited her to stay six months. She ended up staying for twenty years.
Located in a town of less than 3000, Roaring Spring Mennonite Church was a small, but active, congregation. It supported missionaries and sent donations to the Christian Appalachian Project. When people in Cuba experienced a shortage of medicine bottles, Roaring Spring collected empty pill bottles to send their way. The congregation had a youth group and held Vacation Bible School, and the Ladies Aid Society planned mother-daughter banquets and Christmas programs. Roaring Spring also gathered hats and gloves for the needy, collected food for the hungry, and hosted a hymn sing once a month.
Roaring Spring had a special way of singing together. After the death of the organist and pianist, the congregation found a creative way to continue singing old favorites. Pastor Elsie’s nephew programmed many songs into their digital piano, allowing the congregation to sing with digital accompaniment. A reader would introduce each song with a short history of its origin. Some favorites were “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “Count Your Blessings.” At one point, the congregation compiled its own hymnal.
Pastor Elsie was 65 years old when she became pastor of Roaring Spring Mennonite Church, and she served until her retirement at 85. In addition to her congregational duties, Pastor Elsie belonged to the local ministerium, participated in joint community church services, and conducted baccalaureate services at the high school. Sometimes she filled in when no other pastor was available to officiate at a funeral or wedding. “I kept busy,” she said. “I enjoyed it.”
Mosaic Conference is grateful for the ministry and faithfulness of Pastor Elsie and the Roaring Spring congregation. May the blessings of their faithfulness continue.
Eileen Kinch is a writer and editor for the Mosaic communication team. She holds a Master of Divinity degree, with an emphasis in the Ministry of Writing, from Earlham School of Religion. She and her husband, Joel Nofziger, who serves as director of the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, live near Tylersport, PA. They attend Methacton Mennonite Church. Eileen is also a member of Keystone Fellowship Friends Meeting in Lancaster County.