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Sanborn church a 'Point of Light'

Along a short stretch of Walmore Road, between Lockport Road and Saunders Settlement Road, resides the tiny community of Sanborn, where many people are born, attend school, go to church and are buried.

The fraction-of-a-mile length of road is heavily traveled and well known to drivers who must quickly slow from 40 mph to 20 as they pass by. Many of these same passers-by are not aware of the life-death cycle that wholly unfolds in the Niagara County hamlet.

The center of the tightly knit community is St. Peter's Lutheran Church and School, which was settled by German immigrants more than 160 years ago. Early settlers and more recent residents are buried in St. Peter's Cemetery next to the church and across the street from the school.

Known for its history, the church was in the limelight two weeks ago when it received a national Daily Point of Light award for its service and standing in the community. The award was initiated during the first Bush presidency, when George H.W. Bush designated more than 1,000 "points of light," focusing on volunteer service.

"This award illuminates the church and makes people aware of what we have here and what we've accomplished," said Ronald R. Craft of Lewiston, a former elder who has three generations of his family buried in St. Peter's Cemetery.

The Rev. Bruce Gamache, who has been at the church for 11 years, is a relative newcomer, but he's not planning on moving away. "I'm pretty well anchored in this community," he said.

Gamache leads a congregation of about 400, one of the healthiest parishes in the area. The pastor's wife, Linda, is the remedial resource teacher at St. Peter's School and is active in church women's groups and Bible study.

The early settlers consisted of 17 original families who came from the East German villages of Walmow -- from which Walmore is derived -- and Bergholz, which now shares its name with the hamlet in Wheatfield. Family connections continue in three area Lutheran congregations -- St. Peter's in Sanborn and St. James and Holy Ghost in Bergholz.

"The people were fleeing the Prussian ban on the Lutheran religion and came to Western New York seeking religious freedom," Gamache said.

Many of the original settlers are buried in St. Peter's Cemetery. Detailed information is available on the church Web site: stpeterslcmc-sanbornny.org.

St. Peter's Lutheran Church was established in 1843, and the first school was built soon after. St. Peter's School, a parochial school that serves several school districts and local Native Americans, has grown from a one-room schoolhouse to a modern school that educates about 100 pupils from prekindergarten through grade eight.

Claudette Walck, a graduate of Niagara University who has taught at NU and in the Niagara Wheatfield school system, praised the school in an essay for the Point of Light award.

"The religion classes include some of the basic teachings and morals of Christianity, which include respect for all people and helping people who are in need or less fortunate," she wrote.

Each year, students participate in a variety of service projects, including donating canned goods to the local food pantry, assembling care packages for military men and women serving overseas, and sponsoring a child in a Third World country. Students and church members work collaboratively on other projects such as collecting gifts for needy families at Christmas.

"While many other local parochial schools have closed," Walck added, "St. Peter's Lutheran Church and School continue to be pillars of faith and education in the community."

The first church service was held Nov. 1, 1846, under the leadership of Pastor Heinrich von Rohr, one of the early settlers who is buried in St. Peter's Cemetery.

A new church was built in 1915 after the original structure burned. Designed in Gothic architecture, it has a 100-foot steeple. Two windows in the chancel depict Jesus and the Apostle Paul. The art-glass windows at the front of the nave depict St. Peter and St. John. The high altar is enriched with a painting of the Lord's Supper and a life-size statue of Jesus.

The sanctuary was redecorated in 1943 on the 100th anniversary of the church. A refurbishing and repair program in 1980 replaced the old slate roof with an asphalt roof, insulated the ceiling and repaired the steeple.

Craft's grandfather, Rudolf Walck, was involved in building the current church.

"One of the comforting things about this church is that most of us have roots here," Craft said. "As soon as you enter the church, you have a sense of family and history."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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