Quakers in the Highlands

by Polly Dunn, Doug Miller, Selden Smith

The State College Friends Meeting could actually claim to have been born in the Highlands, at 423 South Pugh Street, where, from 1913 to 1920, Hanna Maule invited Quaker students into her home for worship. For a few years, meetings were held in Friends Union on College Avenue, built primarily to house young Quaker men during their college years. The first Friends Meetinghouse in State College was built in 1927—just across Atherton Street from the present-day Highlands. However, Quakers had been in the Centre Region since the early 19th century, with meetinghouses in Halfmoon and Bald Eagle valleys, and in Bellefonte.

Friends Meeting House

Thanks to the foresight of Quaker John Ferguson, the Meeting purchased a 1.5-acre plot in the 600 block of East Prospect Avenue in 1961. Friends discussed building there over the next seventeen years, without coming to unity. In 1978, we made the decision to do so. The Meeting was blessed that contractor Ralph Way, whose Quaker family had a long lineage in Halfmoon Valley (think Way Fruit Farm!) was available, and by 1980 our new home was ready. We sold our Atherton Street building to the Mennonites, and moved to Prospect Avenue. We were finally permanent Highlanders!

When construction of the Meetinghouse was complete, a small group of members and parents launched the State College Friends School in its basement. Highlands neighbors might remember the Fun Fair, the annual springtime fundraiser, that was held in the parking lot of the Meetinghouse until the School’s move. Classes continued at the Meetinghouse for nearly two decades until 1999 when the School moved to its own building, adjacent to Foxdale Continuing-Care Retirement Village on University Drive. Foxdale had been planned by members of the Meeting in the late 1980s and was built by Ralph and Kamilla Way, opening in 1990.

The Cooperative Playschool, founded in 1947 by Meeting members and others for 3- to 6-year olds, also moved to the Prospect Avenue site in 1980. It closed in 2014 and was replaced by the Friends School “School House” for the same age group. The School House later moved to the main Friends School building. The Meetinghouse education wing is now the home of Child Space, for 2- to 6-year-olds.

Thanks to a financial pledge by Quaker Mae Rigby, most of the 1.5-acre Prospect Avenue property remains open green space, including the “Friendly Woods” play area, a community garden, a broad lawn and sledding hill.

Today, the Meeting has nearly 300 adult members and many non-member attenders. We share a strong spiritual life where the “light” shines in every person and the community itself is a source for nurturing the spirit. Worship is silent, there is no clergy, allowing the worshipers to be drawn together both in unspoken ways and in ways that inspire spiritual messages. This practice may sound mystical, and in many ways it is, but at the same time, Friends are very practical people and are committed to helping solve the problems of our time.

As problem-solvers, Friends engage in a variety of peace and social justice efforts locally and farther afield:

  • Meeting members are currently exploring the roots of racism and white privilege through book discussions.
  • Historically, Quakers supported anti-slavery efforts and the underground railroad; members and local historians have traced the routes of escaping slaves through Bellefonte homes that were “stations.”
  • Prison reform and support for inmates in their struggle for better treatment are longstanding goals for several Meeting members who visit Rockview and the Centre County Correctional Institution.
  • In line with Friends’ well-known opposition to war and violence, members provide training to groups seeking alternative ways of resolving conflict.
  • Several years ago, the Meeting installed solar panels; and our pollinator garden—planted by Sunday School students and blooming profusely throughout the warm seasons—represents another commitment to the environment.
  • Beginning in the 1980s, the Meeting began to labor with the issue of welcoming lesbians and gays, and providing same-gender marriage. In 1995 we resolved that same-gender couples would be married in the Meeting on the same basis as any other couple. Today, members are committed to the rights of all LGBTQ people.
  • The Meeting regularly holds fundraising dinners in support of local agencies such as Out of the Cold, Interfaith Human Services, 3rd Way Collective, Pennsylvania Prison Society, and others.

We are very pleased to have been part of the Highlands for nearly 40 years, and we invite our neighbors to visit on Sunday mornings at 11:00.

Polly Dunn is a community volunteer currently serving on the board of the State College Community Land Trust and on the Quaker Life Committee at State College Friends School. She is the assistant clerk of State College Friends Meeting and helps to promote local outreach efforts for the Meeting.

Doug Miller is an Emeritus Professor of Music at Penn State, having served as Director of Orchestral Studies from 1969-83 and Director of Choral Studies from 1983-2001, and as Music Director of the State College Choral Society for 28 years. He is the author of books and articles on Quaker meetinghouses and cemeteries and is working on a book encompassing most of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Selden Smith was born and raised in the State College Friends Meeting. He and his wife, Eve Homan, were the first couple to be married in the Highlands Meetinghouse.