The historical narrative which follows outlines the history of the First United Methodist Church, the oldest church in the community of St. Joseph, Michigan. This church has its roots in the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Church which were merged in 1968. This narrative outlines the histories of both churches. A brief history of the area is included as background for the development of the church.
The early history of this region is closely tied to the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan. The area grew and prospered because of this connection and the ease of trading during the early years of settlement. John Burnett established a trading post in 1775 on the St. Joseph River near the site now marked on Langley Avenue in St. Joseph. The traders originally did business with the Indians, then with the white settlers. The Michigan Territory was a land of opportunity in the early 19th Century. The Erie Canal was completed. The Territorial Road from Detroit to St. Joseph was open. Glowing reports of fertile soil, virgin prairies, congenial climate, and valuable forests appeared in New England newspapers. Settlers began arriving.
In 1834 the village of St. Joseph was incorporated by the act of the Legislative Council of the Territory. Trade via the river and lake grew in importance as vast amounts of agricultural products were shipped from the port at St. Joseph. The decline of St. Joseph as a major Great Lakes shipping port was predictable with the growth of the railroads during the mid and late 19th Century. (It was to be the automobile and subsequent fleets of trucks that virtually ended the lake-
The missionary outreach of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America (1784) rested with the circuit riders. Preaching in homes, barns, crude chapels, dance halls, saloons, courthouses, school buildings and under open skies, these men followed the trail of the pioneers. They traveled on horseback with nothing in their saddle bags but scant clothing, their Bible and hymnal and books to sell. The circuits covered large areas and the visits of the circuit rider were infrequent, usually only three or four visits a year to any one community. When one such preacher was asked to serve a new charge, he called attention to the fact that it made the "thirtieth appointment on his field". The first recorded visit of any Methodist minister to St. Joseph was in 1828 when Erastus Felton visited as a circuit rider.
In 1830 a mission was established, the first record of any church in St. Joseph. Erastus Felton and Leonard Gurley were the circuit riders assigned to serve the mission. Almost nothing is known of this early effort except that success would not come easily for St. Joseph which had the reputation of being "a very rough place". Throughout the 1830's, 1840's and the major part of the 1850's, the church continued as a mission, first with the LaPorte District of the Indiana Conference and later with the Michigan Conference of the Methodist Church. During this time the church services, if any, were held in the town hall on Church Street by one account and in the schoolhouse at the corner of Main and Ship Streets (where the Post Office is presently located) by other accounts. In either event these were the only places to hold services until the Methodist Church building was constructed.
In 1846, the St. Joseph Mission had only 18 members and was considered by the ministers as a "hard place". However, in the winter of 1848-
Through his efforts the circuit was divided so that St. Joseph became a separate church on June 13, 1857. The original trustees of the church were Lychester Olds, John Spink, Charles Marsh, Franklin Pew and Theodore Pew.
Immediately after the incorporation of the church, plans were made for a building. A lot was acquired from the village at the corner of Main and Broad Streets. This lot was formerly known as the Courthouse lot. A contract for a brick foundation was let to the firm of Barhight & Moulton. A frame church with the approximate dimensions of 38 x 56 x 18 was built (some reports have the size of the church 38 x 58 x 18). The cornerstone was laid in May 1858. The original plans had been for a brick building; however the Congregationalists, who had been meeting with the Methodists, indicated their intent to build a church of their own. This dissension led to a lack of funds and the frame church was constructed. When the church was dedicated in May of 1859, nearly all the building costs were pledged, including that of a bell purchased for five hundred dollars.
The first report of activity by the Evangelical Association in Berrien County was a visit by Bishop Seybert in 1849. He gave a glowing report on the possibilities of the area upon his return to Pennsylvania. (The Evangelical Association had originated in Pennsylvania in 1803 as an outgrowth of the ministry of Jacob Albright to the German-
During the 1850's and the 1860's, meetings were held in the homes of members or in the old schoolhouse which the Methodist Church had used until the erection of their building in 1858-
In 1868, J. M. Haug was appointed pastor to the St. Joseph Mission. The church was strong enough to consider purchasing a facility of their own, but because of costs it was decided to find a building in the "country". (Someone has said that in those days, children who lived south of Broad Street were considered "country kids" by their classmates who attended the Old White School, corner of Ship and Main Streets.) They bought the brick building at the corner of Elm and Main Streets from the English Baptist Society in 1858 at a cost of $2,643.39 for which the local church was able to raise $2,170.07. Conference gave the local minister permission to collect wherever he could throughout the conference to pay the remaining indebtedness.
The old brick church was just a box-
The Evangelicals were considered by some people a German Methodist Church in keeping with the origin of the denomination. In fact, the ministry of the Evangelicals in Michigan was mostly to the German people. The services of the St. Joseph church were all in German. As the Evangelicals were not afraid to shout when they were happy, they also earned the name of Jumping Methodists or Shouting Methodists.
In 1860, the Methodist Church gained possession of the property at 515 Court Street for a parsonage. In the fall of that year the building was raised and partially enclosed. The next pastor at his own expense carried the project along getting the house enclosed and plastered one year and adding a "cook room", putting in a cistern, and painting the inside the next year. In 1862, four rooms of the parsonage were papered, a portion of the lot was spaded up and shrubbery and strawberries planted. In 1864, more work was completed on the parsonage...a barn was constructed, the house was painted with three coats of paint, 13 1/2 rods of picket fence were built, fruit and ornamental trees were planted, all at a cost of $252 which was "collected on subscription and paid".
Not only did the holdings of the church increase but also the membership. There were 66 members in 1863. A revival held in 1864 (the first time since 1849) brought in 33 members. By 1865 the membership of the Methodist Church had grown to 107. The report submitted to Conference that year by the pastor stated, "There are no church debts on the charge...The Pastor's, Presiding Elder's and Sexton's claims, amounting to $753.00, were met in full...and the church property is also clear, estimated to be worth $6,500."
On June 16, 1866, the Methodist Church suffered a disastrous setback in its growth. Sparks from a planing mill fifty feet to the south of the church started a fire in the steeple and the church burned to the ground. (It is interesting to note that there is a discrepancy as to the actual date of the fire. Church records indicated in addition to June 16, a June 21 or even a February 21 date.)
In August of 1866 the cornerstone was laid for a new building at the same location, the corner of Broad and Main Streets. A two story brick building was erected. The first floor was completed for immediate use and the second floor was finished later. The Reverend Robert Hatfield of Chicago, Illinois, and the Reverend B. Ives of Auburn, New York, were the morning and evening speakers respectively at the dedication June 25, 1869, of the completed church, then one of the finest in this part of the country. (This building with some later remodeling served the Methodist Church from its dedication until 1970. It was torn down in December, 1970, after the congregation occupied the building on Leco Court.)
Prior to the burning of the old church, church music had been provided by an organ loaned by the Plum family who lived at the corner of Broad and Court Streets. The Plums, there were thirteen of them, carried the organ over to the church every Saturday night and carried it back to their home every Monday morning. In May of 1867 an organ (parlor-
During the 1870's both churches continued to experience growth. In the Methodist pastor's report for 1870, he reported 113 members; however, he stated that only fifteen or so attend the "means of grace" (meaning class meetings) and that "persons who we have reason to believe are faithful in all other matters are recklessly unfaithful to Class Meetings." By 1878 the Methodist Church had 216 members. From 1873 to 1893 the Evangelical Church was supplied ministers who traveled a circuit, usually working in addition to St. Joseph, the Bainbridge and Royalton Churches.
An anecdote is told by an earlier historian of this period. "One well-
In 1887 the Methodists disposed of their old parsonage and constructed a new one next to the church on Main Street. A porch was added later. To the church itself were added four rooms to the rear, two upstairs for Sunday School, one downstairs for Sunday School and one for a kitchen.
The appearance of the Evangelical Church property in the late 1880's indicated that hard times had fallen on the congregation. Even the Bishop reported the matter in the Evangelical Messenger, and Annual Conference appointed a committee to take steps to make the necessary repairs and improvements. The local church took action in 1892 instructing the trustees to sell the old church and lot and purchase a cheaper lot. This was not done, but they did sell one half of the lot and used the money realized from the sale to build a new church. The old brick building was torn down and the new building erected nearer the front of the lot.
The dedication services for the new building were held December 10 and 11, 1892. An account describing the event, presumably from the newspaper, in part said, "The new German Evangelical Church on Main Street was formally dedicated on Saturday and Sunday.... Excepting Sunday morning, the services were in English and all meetings were attended by people from all denominations and the sermons were all well delivered and full of encouragement.... The building is a neat structure, papered inside, well seated and carpeted, and will accommodate several hundred people. The cost of it is about $3,000 of which some $2,400 is already paid or assured. Over $800 was subscribed Sunday. Services are to be held regularly hereafter, the Sunday morning sermon will be in German and the evening sermon in English."
Starting in 1895 the Zion's Evangelical Church (the name used from 1895 until as late as 1904 when the name seems to have been dropped) showed new life. It was taken from the Royalton Circuit and made a separate Mission, a parsonage was built, and the Ladies Aid was organized. A newspaper item (September 28, 1895) stated "hereafter, preaching will be wholly in the English language in that church". By 1899 the church membership was 70. There was a Young People's Alliance with a membership of 40.
In 1892 the Ladies Aid of the Methodist Church started the Washington Day Dinner as a fund raising project. This festive occasion continued until the mid 1960's when it was discontinued.
Both churches benefited from a city-
Needing more room as a result of the increase in membership, the Evangelical Church undertook major remodeling and enlarging of their building. Sunday services were held in the City Hall Chambers during the period of construction. Dedication day, May 30, 1915, was a grand day with three services. The church was filled. Both the orchestra and choir performed. The mayor of the city and some of the aldermen attended one of the services. The entire cost of the project, estimated at $5,800, had been pledged before the evening service closed.
In 1924 the Methodist Church was remodeled at a cost of $20,000. An annex holding the Sunday School rooms was added on the Broad Street side, the front hall remodeled, and the auditorium decorated. Mr. Neil Ward gave the church a pipe organ in memory of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. H. C. Ward. A former choir member recalls the organ recital in which the Ward Memorial Organ was dedicated. "During one of the organ numbers, a chip evidently shifted and caused a pipe to keep playing to the consternation of all present. Among those present however were those who had valuable experience... and showed their skill by correcting the trouble enabling the program to proceed." This organ continued to serve the congregation until 1969.
During their remodeling, the Methodist Church like their sister church also found temporary quarters. The high school auditorium was satisfactory and there were sufficient Sunday School classrooms. However, those facilities were not available for the entire period and the smaller quarters of the City Hall Chambers had to do for the remainder of the time. One member remembers a Christmas party held in the Council Chambers, but the New Year's Watch-
The Methodists in 1925 authorized the minister to purchase a grand piano for the church, but as a condition to acquiring the piano he had to remain silent as to the cost.
Disaster again struck the Methodist Church on April 29, 1926. Fire originating in the attic caused an estimated loss of $10,000 with the sanctuary receiving most of the damage. An electrician examining the church after the
As the Depression hit the country, hard times hit the churches. From the minutes of the Official Board of the Methodist Church entries read: "An approval was given to the Pastor to paint the parsonage on April 7, 1931, however, it could not cost anything." "An approval was given to the church to borrow $150 from Farmers & Merchants National Bank in order to pay the coal bill." Circumstances had improved by 1935 and the Methodist Church installed chimes in its tower to celebrate 105 years as a congregation.
A brief mention should be made of denominational developments that left their mark in varying degrees upon the local congregations.
In 1922 The Evangelical Association (1816) and the United Evangelical Church (1894) came together as the Evangelical Church. The St. Joseph church, which had been affiliated with the Evangelical Association, of course, functioned under the new name. The Civil War had split the Methodist Episcopal Church, but in 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church (1828) became the Methodist Church. Though the cornerstone might still read Methodist Episcopal, the St. Joseph church functioned under the new name. In November of 1946 after many years of discussion and preparation, the Evangelical Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (their founders Jacob Albright, Evangelical; Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, United Brethren shared a common spiritual heritage) officially united and took on a new denominational name The Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). For all the impressive denominational action the local churches were not basically changed ... services and activities continued within the same walls and among the same people.
The 1950's were times of change and expansion for both churches. When the First Congregational Church built their new building on Niles Avenue, their old property on Main Street was for sale. The Evangelical United Brethren Church had felt the need for a more adequate church plant and saw fit to buy the Congregational Church property for $55,000. The congregation took possession of the new property September 15, 1955, and immediately began an improvement program in the new building that cost approximately $10,000 and involved over 2,000 hours of volunteered labor. The unity and spirit manifest in the building project carried over to the challenge of entertaining the Michigan Annual Conference in 1958, no small task for a church with a membership of about 230.
Church growth and Church School growth led the Methodist Church to the hiring of a Director of Religious Education in 1955. Needing space for the expanded program, the congregation added an education wing to the south side of the building at a cost of $95,942. The staff was increased by the addition of a second pastor in 1964.
Both churches purchased new parsonages. At the time of purchasing the Congregational Church the Evangelical United Brethren bought the house at 548 Archer Avenue ($16,500) only to sell it five years later (1960) to buy a brand new ranch-
Mergers heretofore had not significantly changed the local congregations. This one was to be different. With the likelihood of national approval of a merger of the denominations, steps were taken in St. Joseph to merge the two local congregations. A merger committee was formed with representatives from each congregation. This group had twenty meeting nights and over fifty hours of work preparing the merger agreement. Once the plan was ready, it was presented to the membership meeting in homes in small groups where discussion could take place easily and freely. The General Conferences had merged in April. The local congregations voted on May 27, 1968. The merger was approved. (The Methodist vote: 111 in favor, 47 against, 3 abstentions -- total 161. The EUB vote: 66 in favor, 13 against -- total 79.)
Centennial Sunday, July 14, 1968, took on added significance for the former Evangelical United Brethren congregation.
The name United Methodist did not slip easily off the tongue as yet, and understandably the festivities were marked by an underlying sadness. Following the morning service, a potluck meal was held. The Master of Ceremonies was one who had gone out from this church into the ministry. Older members of the congregation were recognized. Pictures had been gathered and organized to tell the story of a valiant congregation. Forty-
More was to come in this memorable year. An impressive service on unification was held September 8, 1968. With Sunday School boys in advance carrying the Christian and American flags and led by their pastor, the congregation of the Evangelical United Brethren Church walked the two blocks from their church at Market and Main Streets to the corner of Broad and Main Streets where the Methodist congregation led by their pastor joined the procession. Coming four abreast down Broad Street to Lake Boulevard, the group assembled for the unifying service at the band shell (at that time an old wooden band shell was located on the bluff between Broad and Ship Streets). The service advanced the spirit of oneness.
The words of the hymn sounded out "We are not divided. All one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity." The scripture from Jeremiah spoke of unity, "And they shall be my people and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and mind to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants." Two choirs sang as one. The people voiced the historic confession of the Christian Faith, "I believe in God the Father Almighty ..." The Methodists in St. Joseph from 1830 and the Evangelicals from 1868 serving from this time forth as the First United Methodist Church of St. Joseph.
Throughout the 1950's the Methodist Church had felt in order to survive it should follow the southward movement of the St. Joseph population. Authorization was given to investigate available sites for a future location of the church when time would indicate the necessity to build. Opportunity presented itself in 1962 when Leco Corporation made an offer of land in the Leco Square Subdivision. The land was a gift to the church with the stipulation that a church was to be built upon it within ten years or the property would revert to the company. By 1964, the congregation had voted to relocate. A building committee authorized an architect to draw up plans for the new church, but the financial drive in the fall of 1966 was not successful enough to move ahead with the building program. The plans were abandoned.
A new building committee was formed about the time of the merger of the two congregations. This building committee had members of both the former Evangelical and Methodist Churches in membership. New plans were examined and approved by the church. The key to the success in moving ahead in the construction of a new church building was the sale of the old Evangelical Church and the offer by the contractor of the building, Holland Construction Company, for the purchase of the old Methodist Church building for $100,000. Ground was broken for the new Church in May of 1969.
The new church, costing in excess of $600,000, was dedicated on March 1, 1970. The mortgage indebtedness incurred in the construction of the new church was retired in 1980.
The United Methodist Church of St. Joseph, resulting from the merger of the Evangelical and the Methodist Churches, with a record of service to this community since 1830, and occupying a new and totally owned church property, now faces the next 150 years with renewed spirit and determination to serve our Lord Jesus Christ and this community in the spirit of Christian love.
Whereas a history tells of buildings, members, disasters, and celebrations, it is to be remembered that for 180 years from the humble beginnings as a mission in 1830 to a leading church of the community in 2013, this church as a community of the followers of Jesus Christ has been a steady witness to His love, grace and power.