Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TOP STORY >> Church celebrating 165 years

Leader staff writer

“There’s a love in this church, a love and a caring between people,” Carolyn Gray says of First United Methodist Church of Jacksonville — the city’s oldest congregation, which celebrated its vibrant history with a recent homecoming and revivals.

Several the church’s longtime members shared their memories with The Leader last week, following the festivities. They also provided an account of its past that was written by church historian Walt Jones in 2004.

While many things have changed since JFUMC was established in 1850 — the location, buildings, services and programs — that sense of community has stayed, according Gray.

Also, the original 500-pound bell forged by the C.S. Bell Co. of Hillsboro, Ohio, and shipped by rail to Jacksonville is still around, behind the current chapel at 308 W. Main St.

Gray has been attending the church since age 5, but didn’t want to reveal a year. Gray joked that she didn’t want readers to know how old she is.

The others — Vera Gray, Colleen VanNostrand and Arleta Dupree — have been members since the 1950s.

The first church was a two-story log building in front of Bayou Meto Cemetery at the intersection of Hwy. 161 and Gregory Street. Russell G. Beall of Mississippi donated the land.

He bought the military bounty property that had been granted to John Ireland for service in the War of 1812 but which Ireland never settled on.

The building also housed the Masonic Lodge upstairs and school was held there on weekdays.

Carolyn Gray said she came to the church because her grandmother attended services in that very first building and her mother grew up with the congregation, as did she.

She recalled many fond childhood memories, like how one of the pastor’s wives would give her mayonnaise sandwiches, looking forward to vacation Bible school for the Kool-Aid and cookies it offered, earning stars for memorizing verses in Sunday school classes and being allowed to fidget beside one of the Wilson sisters during services.

Carolyn Gray said the sister who would make handkerchief dolls for her, “let me move some and lay down in her lap.”

The city developed about a mile south on the rail line while church was held in the Bayou Meto building. The lodge and school moved into town, and the congregation followed.

A new church was built on Main Street in 1876. Logs from its first meeting place were used for the flooring of the new facility.

The Gray family and J.P. Jones family donated land for the move.

The new 40-by-60-foot church faced south and had a steeple “reaching high and looking majestic.” But that had to be removed later because leaks caused it to lean.

A straight portico-style front with a belfry replaced the steeple.

There were two doors — one for women and one for men — two “amen corners” on either side of the pulpit and three rows. One was for men, another for women and the middle one was for youth.

The church was rebuilt in 1896 with one entrance, a vestibule opening to the east, belfry and side rooms for Sunday school classes.

Vera Gray recalled teaching Sunday school classes. She joined the church in 1950.

“Everybody was warm and friendly and reverent. You just felt at home. It meant so much to you. Your church was an important part of your life,” she said. “It seems like our church drew people to it...That was a blessing.”

Vera Gray remarked, “I can remember back in my kids,’ my children’s younger days, when we held Bible school and they’d climb up in the tree and I’d be out there (yelling) ‘get down out of that tree.’”

The building was remodeled at least five times between 1896 and 1957.

VanNostrand said she and her husband were the first to be married in a new chapel.

She told The Leader they shoveled sawdust on Friday night, borrowed chairs from Jacksonville High School and were wed Saturday night to piano music rather than organ tunes.

If the couple had wanted an organ, they would have been the last couple married in the old chapel, and VanNostrand said they wanted to be first instead.

The church has also had many leaders over the years.

Early pastors were students from Hendrix College or State Teachers College, which is now the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Since 1950, though, full-time seminary-trained men and women have preached there. About 50 pastors assigned by bishops have headed the congregation since 1878.

Vera Gray said of the preachers, “you got very close to them.”

Dupree added, “Each one of them has had some special talent.”

One thing is for certain, and that is the church has experienced explosive growth.

In 1942, there were 129 members and the property was valued at $3,000.

In 2003, there were more than 1,200 and the value had risen to $3.26 million.

In 1992, FUMC launched a major expansion of its Main Street campus. The $1.5 million project completed two years later included a 500-plus capacity sanctuary, Family Life Center, connecting the sanctuary and education building, demolishing a house the church owned to add parking and installing 24 stained-glass windows that had been donated.

The staff has also grown with the membership.

In the 1970s, four positions were added. Another 10 were added before 2003 — the year the major expansion was dedicated because that is when church debts were paid off.

In 2007, FUMC bought the old library building, which was renovated for $1 million and occupied by its staff two years later. The old church office then became the youth center.

That change made the most impact on Dupree because she was on the staff for 24 years.

“I was delighted when we (got the library building)...I knew we needed the space real bad,” she said.

Several ladies commented on how things used to be.

VanNostrand came to FUMC in the 1950s. Back then, she said, “There was not a lot to do. Now you have to spread yourself so thin. That’s why the church has become less important in people’s lives, maybe. They just don’t have the time because they’re involved in so many other things.”

Dupree said, “There’s been some times I haven’t been real happy, but this is my family...I go to church, and I see the young people with little children. I remember those young people when they were little children. And it’s so wonderful to see them in church bringing their children. That’s a highlight to me.”

The article written by the church historian in 2004 states that there were three worship services every Sunday (which are still being held today), compared to one when the church was founded; 19 Sunday school classes (there were just two or three at first), three choirs for adults, children and youth; a handbell choir, two youth fellowship groups, four women’s circles and one men’s group.

The church hosts several other programs and also provides space to community groups, like quilters and Boy Scouts.

All four women who spoke to The Leader agreed that, while the congregation has lost some of its closeness by growing so large and LRAFB bringing short-term members, more people have been touched by God’s word through it and that the church can do more for the community as well as be directly involved in worldwide mission work.