Welsh 99-year-old hopes to keep US church alive

Welsh 99-year-old hopes to keep US church alive

Betty Pierce

Betty Pierce is the oldest parishioner in the church’s history

A 99-year-old who moved to America in 1947 is hoping the oldest Welsh church on the Pacific coast can be saved.

Betty Pierce, from Abertillery, Blaenau Gwent, met an American soldier named Bill. With her mother’s blessing, she chose to join him after World War Two.

Now she is the oldest parishioner at Bryn Seion in Oregon, but her church finds itself under threat as Christianity dwindles in the US.

Fellow parishioner Gerri Parry said: “We need to carry on for Betty.”

During the 1840s, an increasing population, rising rents, and less available land in Wales pushed people to seek new opportunities.

Welsh settler David W. Thomas published a letter in Y Drych encouraging people to join him in Beavercreek.

The rolling hills reminded many settlers of their homeland, but the Welsh families longed for a church.

Their prayers were answered in 1884 when 22 Welsh people fundraised and built Bryn Seion.

Betty Pierce and her husband Bill on their wedding day in 1958

Betty Pierce and her husband Bill on their wedding day in 1958

Betty’s American dream began on the east coast where she and her husband lived for 10 years before her husband retired from the navy and they moved to Oregon.

“I became a member of Bryn Seion in 1969 and we had a little Welsh minister, his name was David Davis.”

Faith has always been an important part of her life and she has fond memories attending church in Blaenau Gwent.

“I wasn’t very good singer at, but my grandfather used to say, ‘we’ll put you in the back love, so that the people in front can sound really good’.”

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“I’m going to be 100 years old. So I’ve been going to that chapel for a long time, and they still put up with me.”

Bryn Seion

Bryn Seion – pictured here in 1944 – is the oldest and last active Welsh church on the Pacific coast

Betty has no children but has a maternal bond with several of her fellow churchgoers.

“Gerri is one of my kids because she’s been so good to me. I have quite a few kids, believe me,” she said.

Gerri Parry has been Bryn Seion’s Treasurer since Betty left the role in the mid 1990s.

She said: “I was fascinated with the Welsh language and discovered that nearby there was a Welsh church.

“I found it fascinating that through all of those generations my dad still said I had a Welsh grandmother. Even though her connection was not close they still hung on to that.”

Tad Davies and Gerri Parry

Tad Davies (left) and Gerri Parry were introduced to the church by Betty – they both have Welsh heritage

The church’s older generation are struggling though as the younger generation are not biting when it comes to getting involved.

Gerri does not know if they are “getting any closer to an answer” but is determined to keep going until they do.

“I would be thrilled for the local people to come in and take over. We just feel like we’re we’re holding things together until we can find an answer to whatever whatever comes next,” she added.

Churches are closing at rapid numbers in the US, researchers say, as the younger generation of Americans abandon Christianity, meaning Bryn Seion – like many others – faces an uncertain future.

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Idris Evans, originally from Powys, has lived in Oregon for the past decade.

With his 90th birthday approaching, he worries for the future of the Welsh church.

“The Welshness, I’m afraid, is going to disappear. I haven’t seen anything new to take care of the future, and this bothers me quite a lot.”

Technology provides hope for him and Bryn Seion as members can participate from around the globe.

“We have a Welsh choir and our choir director lives in Australia and she is doing everything she can to lead the choir,” he said.

He hopes more Welsh speakers will result in more interest in the church with people learning the language thanks to apps.

For Betty, however, it is time to celebrate, as she turns 100 on 25 July and will be celebrated by family and friends as a vital part of the Bryn Seion community.

“She holds us together. Betty has played a huge role in making sure that this church did not just go away and and get torn down. So yeah, we need to carry on for Betty,” said Gerri.

With her landmark celebration coming up, what will her fellow parishioners sing on the big day?

“Everybody loves Calon Lân. I sung it this morning and they said ‘that’s not your national anthem. I said no, but if you go to a rugby match it is’,” said Betty.

“I am a Welsh woman, through and through, always will be.”

Bryn Seion Church

Bryn Seion sing Welsh hymns to this day

  • June 3, 2023