York, PA - The tantalizing clues were there for 150 years.
An inscription carved into the lower outside wall of the First Presbyterian Church of York sanctuary reads: "Within are the tombs of George Irwin and Martha, his wife."
A wealthy storekeeper, George Irwin helped start the church on land purchased from the heirs of William Penn.
The presence of buried bodies hardly raised curiosity for those who have walked the halls of First Presbyterian Church since 1861. After all, the church chapel was built over a graveyard.
There are stones inside and outside the church to identify where past members are buried. But the tombs were another story. They were above ground, and church officials knew they were located somewhere within the walls of the massive sanctuary.
"I heard there were tombs, but we didn't know there were any" that were visible, said Cindy Lobach, the church archivist.
Lobach is in the process of compiling an extensive church history that just happened to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the church. She started by matching up the stones in and around the church with the rolls of past members.
"When I got to the Irwin family, I got stuck," she said. "And I don't like getting stuck."
That put her on the trail to the tombs, and they weren't easy to find. A simple descent into the dark, musty church basement provided few clues.
It was only when she ventured into a crawl space that she found her way to the tombs -- one for George and Martha Irwin and one for their three children -- Robert, William and Mary. Lobach had heard about the crawlspace and the church rumors that the tombs could be viewed from inside it.
Last December, she worked up the courage and crawled inside.
"The first time I came in was a little scary," she said, "because I was alone and didn't know what I would find."
The crawl space, beneath the first floor of the church, is a claustrophobic's nightmare. It's only 3 feet high. The tombstones are 21/2 feet high, leaving only a few inches between the top of the markers and the church floor. This makes it impossible to see the inscriptions.
Lobach went to work. She has made six trips into the narrow space, crawling on her hands and knees across the dirt and rocks to the tombs in the corner.
She started digging out the century-and-a-half worth of crud that had accumulated on top of the tombstones and eventually uncovered the inscriptions.
Still, the tight space made it impossible to read the inscriptions. So Lobach turned to an old genealogy trick: tombstone rubbing. She laid sheets of paper over the inscription and, using charcoal, lightly rubbed over the inscription.
The rubbings confirmed her suspicions: The tombs belonged to the Irwins.
Besides her own intense curiosity, Lobach was inspired to begin the tombstone search after reading a 1962 book about the cemetery, said Ben Hoover, an elder at First Presbyterian.
"There were errors in that and that just got her more interested in it," he said.
For example, many dates did not match newspaper obituary reports from the time.
"She's really going to have a book out of it," Hoover said. "Not just on the stones in the graveyard, but the people that are interred there."
About two years after she started, Lobach is nearly finished documenting the church history. It's a project she is passionate about.
Lobach said the main goal is to make the cemetery records available for others, a goal her pastor appreciates.
"Cindy's work will honor the saints who have gone before us and inspire the saints who are to come," the Rev. John Morgan said via email. "We are always aware that our faith stands on the foundation of those who gave sacrificially in the past. Cindy will help to tell their story."
More about the church
The official history by First Presbyterian Church recounts how the sanctuary came to be built:
"In 1860, the roof of the original sanctuary caved in, leading to the demolition of the original building. The cornerstone of a new Victorian building, described as 'Italian-inspired with rounded Gothic arches,' was laid that same year.
"The building was completed Sept. 6, 1861 by local builder, Nathaniel Weigle, at a cost of $20,000. This Civil War-era sanctuary remains, with subsequent remodeling in 1930-31 and again in the mid 1950s, as our present 'house of worship.'"
About the Irwin family
Legend has it that George Irwin sat beneath the tall sycamore trees in front of his home in 1791 and chatted up President George Washington.
A successful York storekeeper at the northwest corner of Market and Beaver streets, Irwin was joined that day by Maj. John Clark and Col. Thomas Hartley. The rumored meeting is discussed in the 1983 book "Reflections in a City Churchyard."
Cassandra P. Stallsmith put the book together at the behest of the Rev. John Galloway, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church from 1972 to 1980. It is a history of those buried at the church.
According to Stallsmith's research, Irwin was one of three men to whom John Penn conveyed the land on which First Presbyterian Church is built. Irwin served as one of the Committee of Safety (along with Declaration of Independence signer James Smith) and was a delegate to the Provincial Convention of 1775.
By the late-1700s, George and wife Martha Irwin were one of the wealthiest couples in York due to the purchase, sale and lease of land. Martha died in October 1806 and George remarried. He died at 81 years old on March 30, 1812.
George and Martha had six children, three of whom are buried in another tomb under the church: Robert, William and Mary. Their daughter is identified on a church marker as "the wife of Dr. Henry Hall."
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