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D-Day, 75 years ago: When York County’s worried people fell to their knees

The public converges on Union Lutheran Church for D-Day services on June 6, 1944. (YDR file photo).

By Jim McClure/York Daily Record

As thousands of Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy in the D-Day assault 75 years ago on June 6, York County residents joined countless others worldwide in falling to their knees.

Locally, people prayed in houses of worship, at special services in defense plants and in schools. For a moment in the afternoon, factories were silent. Stores and local offices closed.

World War II’s D-Day invasion surprised the Germans in France, but not the people in York County. For one thing, they knew the demand for things that their humming machines were producing: parts for cannons and gun carriages and cooling condensers and many other things .

And for weeks they had been planning how to best observe the day Allied forces would cross the English Channel to invade northern France.

According to plan in York, bells pealed at 2:45 p.m. to mark the start of services set by a wartime trinity of a different sort: the Manufacturers’ Association, Chamber of Commerce and local ministers.

The front porch of Union Lutheran in York’s west end, for one, awaited the hundreds of factory and office workers and bosses from York Corporation  and the other nearby factories, scores with loved ones fighting  on the beaches of France that day or scheduled for future waves.

As the time for the call to worship approached, hundreds climbed the steps and crossed the welcoming front porch to enter the double front doors and the pews for the brief service – the demands of those big war contracts awaited them back in the shop.

‘They had decided upon the name Union’

That front porch was 15 years old when men and women in work boots, Oxfords and heels mounted its seven steps to pray for their loved ones and their country in this two-front war.

But it wasn’t the first at Union.

The congregation in this then-remote area of York – Bottstown as it was to become known – had laid a cornerstone 70 years before World War II – in 1859 – and then rolled out its welcome mat the next year on the eve of the Civil War.

“Even before the cornerstone was laid, they had decided upon the name Union,” historian Charles H. Glatfelter wrote in “York County Lutherans.” The congregation was signaling that it was a place to come together.

It was York’s fourth Lutheran Church, Glatfelter wrote, and the first to be formed in response to the city’s growth and expanding population rather than a dispute over whether services should be in German or English.

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution sparked the growth of red-brick factories in York’s west end. Those row homes for workers that mark the WeCo District today grew up with the factories.

And Union Lutheran grew with its community.

By the 1920s, the congregation had contracted with the Dempwolfs, York County’s noted architectural firm to design a new building to replace that Civil War-era structure. It would be the last house of worship that generation of this venerable firm would design, and they created a masterpiece.

These designers of York’s skyline combined an inverted rounded arch – an upside down “U” above that porch suggesting union on earth – with features on the façade and steeple that point to the heavens.

The new building with its steps, porch and double front doors welcomed members and visitors in September 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.

It was there on D-Day as well.

Union Lutheran Church’s front porch today. The congregation first crossed this threshold to enter their new building in 1929, 90 years ago. (YDR photo)

At Union, a time to regroup

In the past half-century , York’s factories began closing and some city churches followed their members to the suburbs. Other churches, new to York County, planted roots in the fields around York.

The community was changing, Union’s congregation was aging and fewer people were crossing that front porch every Sunday.

In a recent interview, Vicar Carla Christopher, who heads Union’s children, youth and family ministries, said the congregation pondered the question five or six years ago about whether those front doors should remain open.

The members regrouped, realizing that the church must develop a stronger connection to the community. Their new thinking is embedded in the bold statement atop Union’s website: “Sharing the Good News of Jesus with our neighbors as we grow together in Christ.”

A glance at Union’s Facebook page and website, indeed, shows a litany of  community connections, some church-run and others using church space: food and clothes pantries, arts groups, single parents group and a meals provider for veterans, among many others.

The diversity of the church’s programing is wide, as well.

In April, the church sponsored a Baroque music group, performing with period instruments.

On June 19, Union and several partners will celebrate Juneteenth, a festival commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.

In short, the West Market Street congregation’s idea is that if, say, 800 people formerly worshipped on Sunday mornings and that is no longer possible, then thoughtful outreach can shift things so that 800 people can cross that front porch and all the church’s thresholds through community activities over the course of a week.

A Sunday morning at Union Lutheran in 2016. (YDR file photo)

From the Great Depression to today

Christopher points to a continuity among members, some who remember Union’s early years in the Depression era.

Her office, for example, is part of a large room with a sink. That room, she was told, served as a reception area for weddings 80 years ago.

So after a Saturday morning wedding, the bride and groom would greet guests in that room and the sink area served as a place for preparation of food and punch. By noon, the newly married couples would be spending their honeymoon back in their neighborhoods. There simply wasn’t money for anything else.

The front porch provides such a continuity as well.

For years, it been a place for events like National Night Out observances, serving refreshments for parades and playing a key role the night before Easter.

As part of the Easter Vigil, a candle is ignited outside on that porch and carried through the doors into the sanctuary, symbolizing the movement from darkness after the crucifixion to light and hope represented by the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.


Union Lutheran Church posted on its Facebook site about carrying the flame from the front porch to the chancel or area around the altar : “A few pictures from the Easter Vigil last night as we moved from darkness to the celebration that Christ is risen!” (Union Lutheran Church)

D-Day: ‘Never more fervent prayers

D-Day was a dark and difficult moment in that war engulfing the world 75 years ago.

“Afterward,” a York County community newsletter stated, “many said they had never heard more fervent prayers than on this day.”

Some crossed that front porch at Union and other houses of worship with fear on June 6, 1944, and left with hope.

At Union today, that’s still true.


About this series

“From My Front Porch” is a series that highlights powerful, memorable stories that were experienced only steps away from a person’s front door. The porch — an easily overlooked bridge between home life and community — has a place in most everyone’s day-to-day life. Every so often, the porch is a place where remarkable stories unfold. This series stitches together unique patches of stories to form a communal quilt that represents aspects of York County and the region. If there’s a front porch story you think we should cover, contact Jasmine at JVaughnHal@ydr.com.

Jim McClure served as editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday from 2004 to 2019.