My day crawling under First Presbyterian Church

I’m not normally claustrophobic, or at least I don’t think I am.

But as I crawled on my hands and knees under First Presbyterian Church in York two weeks ago, all I could think of was how much did this enormous church weigh? And, are those wood support beams rotting???

They weren’t, of course, but I began picturing news headlines: “Church shifts off foundation; reporter crushed.” I really wasn’t enjoying the loss of control.

When Ben Hoover, elder at First Presbyterian Church, invited me to venture into the crawl space off a church basement wall, I was eager to go. The offer seemed promising: church archivist Cindy Lobach had sniffed out the location of a pair of tombs dating from the early 1800s.

They contain the Irwin family — George, wife Martha and three of their six children. The Irwins were a prominent and wealthy York family in Revolutionary War-era York.

George was one of three men who purchased the land on which First Presbyterian Church sits at the corner of East Market and Queen streets. The land was purchased in the 1780s from the heirs of William Penn.

George was active in opposing the British and, in 1791, is said to have chatted up George Washington from his store and home at the northwest corner of Market and Beaver streets.

Back to the tombs.

They were part of the church graveyard for many years. In 1861, the new church sanctuary was built over the tombs. A plaque was placed on the side of the building indicating that the tombs were located within.

And that’s where they stayed for 150 years. And apparently nobody was interested enough to go crawling through the basement to find them.

Fast forward to 2000 when new air conditioning was installed in the church. Church officials know the crawl space was either discovered then or made accessible because workers had to go in there.

Lobach first crawled in last December through a small opening near the basement ceiling. As I squeezed through the narrow opening, I realized I should have taken Hoover’s warnings about attire a little more seriously.

Yes, I had old shoes and jeans on and Ben provided me with knee pads and a mask. But I was wearing a good sweater that was definitely not appropriate for basement trolling.

Oh, and it was pretty dark save for a single light we carried along. We crawled our way across the dirt, rocks and cardboard Lobach and Hoover laid down during previous trips.

I tried to take my mind off potentially being crushed by the church, but that only made me wonder what the heck I was breathing in through my thin mask.

Finally, we made it to the tombs. It was only a 10-foot crawl, but it seemed like a mile. Lobach resumed her work trying to get an accurate rubbing from the tomb facade. There is only about 6 inches between the top of the tombs and the church floor, so the inscriptions aren’t visible.

She has verified through the inscription that the tombs are those of the Irwins. She has a church history book in the works.

In all, we spent probably 20 minutes under the church. And we survived. All part of being a reporter/adventurer.

Check out the story in Thursday’s religion section, or read it online at

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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One Response to My day crawling under First Presbyterian Church

  1. Pingback: Buffy's World | Don’t miss: Cookbook giveaway to Mother’s Day and recipe contests to tombstones and YAIAA spring sports

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