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July 19, 2013

Retiring pastor bids farewell to her congregation

In the spotlight

JOHNSTOWN — The Rev. Eleanor Abarno retired as pastor of First Lutheran Church in downtown Johnstown on June 30, after serving the congregation for more than six years.

After her husband, Bob, who also is a Lutheran minister, announced his retirement from Christ Lutheran Church in Westmont on Dec. 31, she knew her own retirement would not be far behind.

“I thought it would be in 2013, but I didn’t know I would retire as soon as I did,” Abarno said. “I thought I would decide by summer, then I decided to take the summer.”

The congregation at First Lutheran had a farewell dinner for Abarno June 23 in the church’s fellowship hall.

Among other gifts, she received brightly colored sports socks and was told she

didn’t have to wear black anymore.

“I felt so loved and appreciated,” she said.

Abarno also received a certificate for a getaway to Bedford Springs Hotel, which she and her husband plan to take in September.

Her former congregation also gave her the gift of 80 new worship books donated in her honor.

“It was very meaningful,” Abarno said.

At First Lutheran, Abarno enjoyed the administrative duties of working in the office, which she considered a part of her work.

“We’re a downtown church, and people come for help,” she said. “We have a history of helping when we’re able. We help with utility bills, deposits for an apartment and groceries. That’s work only a pastor can do. We also refer them to other services who can help.”

Abarno also was a part of providing music and food to the community through the church’s noon concerts, good neighbors meals and giving thanks dinners.

The good neighbors meal is a simple gathering with entertainment held each May for anyone who wishes to attend.

The giving thanks dinner, which is sponsored by New Day Inc., is held the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and requires only that the church provide a place for the meal to be served.

“I loved being able to do all that, and people in the congregation wanted to help,” she said.

Before coming to First Lutheran, Abarno served as pastor at First Lutheran Church in Windber for six years and saw three Lutheran churches combine into one while she was there.

“That was Dec. 31, 2006, and I was glad to be a part of it,” she said. “That was when I left for First Lutheran in Johnstown.”

Abarno led Saturday night and Sunday morning services in Johnstown, seeing an increase in attendance with more informal services or those held outside on the grass.

“It was a good place to be,” Abarno said. “You’re busy all the time when you’re a minister. It’s hard to find a day off with emergencies and funerals, especially when you’re a clergy couple at different churches.”

Abarno first got to know her husband, Bob, when the two attended the same retreat seven years in a row.

“We saw each other outside of retreat and decided to get married in 1997,” Abarno said. “If anyone is single and looking, I advise them to go on retreat.”

At the time she got married, Abarno was teaching theology as a graduate student at Duquesne University.

“I felt called to the ministry 20 years before, but I didn’t do anything about it,” Abarno said. “I was a spiritual director and had other positions. I liked to study for myself and was a lay preacher.”

When Abarno felt the calling again, she left her doctoral program and went back to seminary.

Both Abarnos had been married before and moved to Johnstown 16 years ago when they received clerical assignments in the area.

Her husband pastored several United Church of Christ congregations in the area before serving at Christ Lutheran Church in Westmont and as chaplain at Allegheny Lutheran Home.

Abarno enjoys traveling, and much of her time will be spent visiting children in Maine, California and Florida, other family in Vermont and North Carolina, and friends in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Erie.

Outside the United States, she made her third trip to Ireland last summer.

Her claim to Irish heritage is a great-grandmother whose maiden name was Joyce, the same as Irish writer James Joyce.

“In Ireland you can go to Joyce Country where just about every name is Joyce,” Abarno said. “I’ve never asked anyone if we’re related.”

She goes to the Irish Festival in Pittsburgh and the Highland Games in Ligonier and has been known to visit Murphy’s Pub on St. Patrick’s Day and listen to the Irish music of local performers the Michael O’Brian Band and Tree.

“The big trips will happen again,” Abarno said.

In spite of saying “I love western Pennsylvania,” Abarno plans to leave her home in the Moxham section of Johnstown and return to the house where she grew up in Silver Spring, Md., in a year or so, accompanied by her husband.

The Abarnos are both spiritual directors and hope to get positions at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., even if they are only volunteers.

The institute is a Christian educational organization that supports contemplative living and contemplative leadership while being prayerfully attentive and responsive to God’s presence and guidance.

“My home is walking distance of the Metro,” Abarno said. “There are a lot of things in the Washington, D.C., area I enjoy. Growing up, I was there the day the National Cathedral was finished.”

Abarno is a pastoral care volunteer at Windber Hospice and also serves as  chairwoman of the campus ministry committee for the Lutheran Synod.

She expects to be asked to fill in at Lutheran churches that have no pastor.

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