By Stephen Coonts, White Sulphur Springs
Once upon a time there was a church in a small mountain town, nestled in a valley. Once upon a time the church had almost 250 members. Once upon a time the congregation built a wonderful building with stained glass windows, purchased an organ, had a choir that sounded like angels singing. There were baptisms, weddings, celebratory dinners, Sunday school classes, candlelight services and funerals. The congregation aged… members moved or passed away…COVID happened…
Still, a core of believers who had lived their spiritual life in the church remained, and they supported the church with their faith and their donations. When their last pastor retired, the congregation was without a minister, and 27 members were too few for the presbytery to assign one. So God sent a man to their pulpit, a volunteer, a retired minister, the Reverend Frank Naglic.
The church is First Presbyterian of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The church was first organized in 1915, and its present building was first used April 1957. The pews in the sanctuary could easily seat two hundred, but when my wife, Deborah, and I walked in this past July, there were only fifteen people in the sanctuary, a total that included the pastor Frank Naglic and church secretary Peggy Clements. Dr. Frank Collins and two colleagues greeted us warmly as we entered, and several parishioners shook hands and welcomed us. Organist Eric Crane filled the church with music.
Promptly at 11 AM the organ fell silent and Mrs. Clements rose from her seat on the left side of the altar to welcome the congregation and make a few announcements. Then she said, “Let’s worship God.”
Reverend Naglic rose from his chair behind the podium and began the service. He is large man, a few inches over six feet, with a full head of iron-gray hair. He was wearing a black shirt with a clerical collar, which I learned was his usual Sunday attire. His sermon was on a passage from First Corinthians. We followed along in the pew Bibles as he read the passage he wanted to preach upon, then he discussed what the passage meant, and what we today, two millennia after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinth Church, should find in it to carry with us through life.
After the service Deborah gave me her evaluation of the Reverend Frank Naglic. Her take was that he has a gift, a wonderful ability to use plain language to illuminate the spirit of God and make it live for his listeners. I had to agree. We had just witnessed something that we had seldom seen in churches in Colorado and Arizona. Naglic’s sincerity, his absolute faith and belief in his message bid his listeners to experience God.
On subsequent Sundays I tried to analyze how he did it. I am still evaluating. Naglic doesn’t preach politics, doesn’t quote the learned theologians he studied so carefully at seminary. He shares the spiritual message that God wants us to hear. His faith is certainly no more fervid or deeply held than that of so many ministers who dedicate their life to leading congregations. Yet, in my opinion, Frank has an intangible gift for making the spirit of God visible to folks like me. Perhaps it is just my perception. Whatever, that talent, to the extent he has it, is a gift from God, as Frank would be the first to tell you.
When Communion Sunday arrived, Reverend Naglic wore his clerical robe. After the service, which was the most powerful communion I have witnessed in my memory, I watched him remove the robe and carefully place it in its protective cover. He told me that this was the robe he wore after he had graduated from seminary and was later ordained… in the United Methodist Church.
Obviously the theological distinctions between Methodists and Presbyterians are not subjects that Frank Naglic is going to expound upon from the pulpit.
Naglic grew up in a blue-collar family near Akron, Ohio, the son of a Catholic father and a divorced mother. After high school he worked common labor jobs until finally he was hired to help prepare food at a banquet operation that could feed up to 1,800 people in one sitting. He went from peeling onions, carrots and potatoes to making sauces, demonstrating a real aptitude for cooking. Finally he enrolled in the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, where he graduated first in his class. He went from restaurant to restaurant gaining experience with different cuisines until he was hired by The Greenbrier Resort when he was about 30 years old. He was a chef at The Greenbrier for the next fifteen years.
Frank was married at First Presbyterian Church in White Sulphur Springs on April 12, 1989, a hint, perhaps, of things to come. Years later he and his children attended a tent revival at a small Methodist church in Mapledale, West Virginia. After the service, on the way out of the tent, he looked back and saw his seven-year-old son kneeling at the altar, dedicating his life to Christ. That moment changed Frank’s life.
Soon he arranged to be baptized at that church, which would do full immersions in a nearby creek if you wanted it. Frank did. Afterward, on the way home he told his wife he was filled with joy. He was the happiest he had ever been in his life.
He began taking courses for a lay person to become a minister at the same time as he began course work at Fairmont State to get a bachelor’s degree, a necessity if one wanted to attend seminary and become an ordained minister, which was now Frank’s goal. Finally, the Methodist Conference assigned Frank to pastor rural churches that could not support a full-time ordained minister. He pastored churches in Pocahontas County for seven years, Hardy County for four years, and Monroe County for four years.
Meanwhile he graduated from Fairmont State with a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree in 2009, and from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC in 2013.
Frank is the only minister in my experience who occasionally sings an apropos verse or two of a hymn during his sermon, a capella. He has a fine baritone. His singing is unexpected and powerful. Asked when he learned to sing, his face lit up as he confided, “I was the only kid in my third-grade class who wasn’t allowed to join the school choir.” He has learned a lot since then.
Faith and God brought him to First Presbyterian. “Cathy and I feel comfortable here,” he said with a smile. “At home.”
So do Deborah and I. This little church in the valley is perfect for us.
What will happen to the First Presbyterian congregation, which is being held together by a small group of believers who have lived their spiritual lives here? For example, Church Secretary Peggy Clements has been a member of the church since 1950. Like everyone, the members are aging a day at a time. This religious family won’t last forever, not without new, younger members. Yet God is in charge: He has given us today and these folks to worship with, a minister whose deep faith and spiritual insights he freely shares with those of us who so desperately need them, and that is enough.
We’ll see you in church.
(Novelist Stephen Coonts has written 41 books so far, 17 of them New York Times bestsellers. He and his wife divide their time between White Sulphur Springs and Arizona.)