W.Va. church plant nestles in among Wheeling’s Catholics

Baptist Press
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Posted: Oct 17, 2013 5:52 PM
WHEELING, W.Va. (BP) -- Twenty-one years ago, Tom Rentfrow left a church in Heron, Va. -- the fastest-growing church in its association -- to begin a church in West Virginia.

He had heard God speak to him during a sermon on home missions and being willing to serve wherever God calls. Rentfrow was flabbergasted but was sure it was God leading, so he obeyed. He and his wife Helen and two other believers founded Abundant Life Baptist Church in the Wheeling-area community of Elm Grove.

The Rentfrows had been warned by family, friends and other pastors that most Elm Grove residents were Catholics and wouldn't be responsive to a Baptist church.

"They told us it was a lost cause," Helen Rentfrow said.

Indeed, the couple soon realized how difficult the situation was. In addition to the community's overwhelmingly Catholic majority, other professing Christians already were involved in their own churches.

The Rentfrows had doors slammed in their faces. But they persevered, building bridges to active and nominal Catholics -- and lasting friendships.

The most effective bridge has been Tom Rentfrow's involvement in the pro-life movement. Shortly after arriving in Wheeling, Rentfrow, now president of West Virginia for Life's local chapter, stood with the Catholic bishop in opposing abortion.

"He was genuinely a man of God who loved life and loved people. I was in his office praying with him. I heard his heart," Rentfrow said.

At the urging of a nun, Rentfrow led Abundant Life Baptist Church to become a Gabriel Project church supporting women in crisis pregnancy situations and those who choose life.

God blessed Abundant Life. They moved to nearby Triadelphia and now have a membership of more than 200 and a thriving school. The church supports four missionaries and gives more than 10 percent of its receipts through the Cooperative Program.

God then began to lead the Rentfrows and Abundant Life to plant a new church in an old Catholic parish in Wheeling in the heart of an aging Polish community.

In 2002, the Rentfrows were prayerwalking in South Wheeling when they discovered the former St. Ladislaus Catholic Church on the corner of 45th and Eoff, founded in 1902. They stepped out on faith to make an offer of $35,000 and were amazed when the diocese accepted it.

They had no funds for mortgage payments but trusted God. Supervisors of a local Head Start program asked Helen if she had any ideas where they could rent a facility. She suggested the St. Ladislaus parish, which suited Head Start's needs, and the rent provided the funds for the mortgage of the new plant, South Wheeling Chapel.

"It was like a miracle," Helen said.

God showed His hand repeatedly in the new outreach. The owner of property across the street, formerly the site of a convent, donated the land to the church. He was so impressed with his dealings with the Rentfrows that he went on to help the church get natural gas rights there for additional revenue.

But while God was opening doors, the community wasn't falling over itself to run through them.

St. Ladislaus, affectionately known as "St. Lad's," was the oldest Polish church in West Virginia, where immigrants and their descendants attended Polish mass and where generations were baptized, married and given last rites.

Outside, just a few feet from the building, is a Polish American World War Memorial. Built in 1949 by St. Lad's parishioners as Our Lady of Grace Grotto, it became a memorial to those in the community who served in the world wars. For many years, parishioners gathered at "the grotto" for devotional services and outdoor masses, which continue today.

"St. Lad's didn't have a lock on the door, so everyone could come into God's house when they needed to," Annapolis resident Scott Romanoski said. "Four generations of my family worshipped there. My grandparents as well as two sets of great-grandparents were married in that church."

Romanoski's grandfather, Frank Romanoski Sr., purchased and dedicated one of the stained glass windows in memory of his wife Helen.

Locals were shocked when St. Lad's closed, and they blamed the Baptists. The Rentfrows had to focus on relationships once again. Abundant Life members helped residents recover from a flood in South Wheeling, and they hosted Vacation Bible School and a block party at the new plant.

Sunday evening services there now are drawing as many as 40 people. And fellowship, like years earlier at St. Lad's, is a big part of the evening services.

"They love to have dinners, so every Sunday night one lady has something planned. They're always cooking up something down there. And people don't want to leave. They're more or less glad we're there now," Helen Rentfrow said.

The Rentfrows acknowledge there is much work to be done in Wheeling, and it's hard work. But they believe God has a plan for old St. Lad's and are praying that He will send someone to minister with them.

"We feel like that church was planted to serve that community and we want to continue for that to be the case there," Tom Rentfrow said.

The community is in transition. One woman told Rentfrow when he arrived in Wheeling, "Why didn't they wait 10 years, then close this place? By then we'd all be dead."

As an older generation dies, doors will open for new possibilities in the neighborhood, Rentfrow said. He's not sure what God wants to do with South Wheeling Chapel, whether send someone to grow the church or maybe use it as a pro-life center. Whatever it is, the Rentfrows intend to stay.

"I've always been the type of person, I guess because my father was in the military, and I was in the military for eight years, to do the last thing I was told to do," Rentfrow said, "until I'm told to do something different."

Sharon Mager writes for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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