Pastor Paul Andell left St. James Lutheran Church, Castor Avenue and Pratt Street, in 2011 after 39 years.
Though living in Minnesota, he’d hear from church members about the state of St. James.
Most of what he heard was not good. Complaints of the shutdown of the once-thriving preschool, the sale of the parsonage, changing of the locks, general mismanagement, a failed name change to the nondenominational Relevance Community Church and then the closing of the church last July.
Many members wanted Pastor Paul to return.
Just before Christmas, he received a phone call.
“Pastor Paul, are you still interested in coming back to St. James?” the caller asked.
“I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Andell finished a stint as the lead interim pastor at a Minnesota church in February, and was back at St. James on March 1.
“When I left St. James, I did not retire,” he said. “But I never expected to be back at St. James.”
Interestingly, he lives in the rectory at St. Martin of Tours, a Catholic parish just across the Boulevard from St. James. He returns to his Minnesota country home once a month, where his wife, Pam, runs an art center.
St. James has two other ministers, Clarence Miller and Dan Metzger.
As for Andell, 74, a fourth-generation Lutheran pastor, leaving the upper Midwest wasn’t an easy decision. He met Pam there, graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a history degree in 1968, served an internship at two rural churches in the state and often vacationed at the lakeside home in which his wife grew up.
He also had a great experience for 6½ years as associate pastor at Morningside Lutheran in Sioux City, Iowa, after leaving St. James.
But then he thought of the thriving, multicultural church he left in 2011, with five weekend services.
“It was as great a community you can get on this side of heaven,” he said.
Members agree with him.
Flo Boerner grew up in Northwood and took part in many St. James activities in her youth. Her six children were baptized there, along with four of her 10 grandchildren. Though a Fairless Hills resident, she still comes back to St. James.
“When you become part of St. James, it feels like home. It’s a great church, and we’re coming back,” she said.
Dr. Deborah Ritter grew up on Wakeling Street and was baptized and confirmed at St. James. She describes the church as a “little miracle on the corner of Castor and Pratt” where all members are welcomed and feel the presence of God.
“It’s a true Christian church. It’s a very friendly, all-inclusive church. It reaches out to people in the community. It’s a good place to practice your faith. It’s like a large family,” she said. “I think St. James is on its way back again to becoming the wonderful, loving church it was.”
Christie Link, too, grew up on Wakeling Street. She has fond memories of the way St. James used to be and is confident a rebirth can occur with current church leadership and the dedication of members.
“It’s always been a great place to be, a fantastic and vibrant church. It’s a beautiful church, a joy to be in it,” she said. “It’s going in a real positive direction.”
Andell held three Sunday services before the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown.
The 10 a.m. service returned on June 7, with social distancing in place. Attendance is relatively low, but hundreds of people watch on Zoom and Facebook Live.
“That’s encouraging,” he said.
Andell believes St. James has to start over to succeed as a community church. The reboot, he hopes, leads to a resurrection and a miracle.
As the interim lead pastor, he has hired a business administrator and music director, reached out to former members and led a successful fundraiser to replace the heater. He would like to add a youth ministry, music programs and, perhaps, childcare. He has six baptisms scheduled.
In late August, he’d like to hold a Summer Blast that would include art, music and crafts. On Sept. 11, he plans a morning remembrance of the terrorist attacks on that date in 2001. Beginning in September, an NA support group will meet on Thursday nights.
During his first stint, Andell was active in the community, including serving as president of the Historical Society of Frankford. He plans to network with area stakeholders.
“Hospitality is a value for us here at St. James,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
Andell welcomes people to come to a Sunday morning service to see if St. James is a fit for them. He hopes to double membership, which is at about 150, about one-tenth of what it was when he left.
“My goal is for St. James to be a destination, not just for worship, but to grow in body, mind and spirit,” he said.
Andell expects to spend at least a year at St. James, and will be involved in the process to select a permanent pastor. He won’t leave until he’s certain there has been a sufficient transition.
Andell is thankful to God for giving St. James a second chance. Few parishes get to start again.
“There’s only one St. James,” he said. ••