175th year on Holy Hill
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org July 11, 2012 8:02PM
The First United Methodist Church on East Highland Avenue in Elgin. The building is the third church that was built in the same location for 175 years. July10, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 13, 2012 1:40PM
ELGIN — Elgin’s First United Methodist Church has lived long enough to face every challenge from unfriendly Indians to Sunday-morning soccer teams, from arguments over slavery to Depression finances — and, oh yes, a tornado.
To commemorate this fact, Elgin’s second-oldest church is celebrating its 175th anniversary with a succession of events all year.
Elgin’s founders, the James Gifford family, arrived in 1835. Less than a year later, in May 1836, his family and fellow settlers organized the city’s first church. They reportedly voted on which denomination they wanted to make it, and Congregational beat Presbyterian by one vote. First Congregational thus is usually recognized as the oldest church in the city.
The formation of what is now First United Methodist was more gradual, but is traced by its members to the following year, 1837. In those days, Methodist pastors in frontier regions functioned as “circuit riders,” traveling on horseback to each settlement over a large territory once every two weeks or so. A history of First UMC written for the church’s 150th anniversary tells how by mid-1837 Methodists were meeting in three houses in the Elgin area.
In 1839 they erected their first building — on the same site as the present church, at Center Street and what is now called East Highland Avenue. It was a wooden building just 24 by 32 feet. Because it was coated with buttermilk paint, people called it “the Buttermilk Church.”
“We have moved through three buildings, but every one has been at this same location,” said the Rev. Robert Sathuri, a native of India who became senior pastor in June 2011. The present sprawling building, fashioned out of Bedford stone, was finished in 1924.
Old-time Elginites used the term “Holy Hill” for the few blocks centering around First Methodist and First Congregational’s buildings. Almost all the city’s original churches built their homes there.
Many people from outside the church may have first heard of the 175th celebration when they saw First UMC’s float in last week’s Fourth of July Parade — a truck-sized white model of the current church building. But Sathuri said events have been going on almost every month since they kicked off with an interfaith service in February.
The celebration will climax with a “Homecoming” for past and present members and pastors on Sept. 9, followed by an organ concert at 7 p.m. on Sept. 23 and an anniversary worship service at 3 p.m. on Oct. 14, followed by a dinner.
The United Methodist Women also will hold a “Celebration Market” on Oct. 14, and new members will be confirmed Nov. 18.
One prominent First UMC member in the late 1800s and early 1900s was publisher/author David C. Cook. Known as “the grandfather of the American Sunday school,” he set up David C. Cook Publishing Co. and mailed out hundreds of thousands of Sunday-school lesson books all over the country every year. At one time, the Elgin post office — located next door to First UMC’s building — estimated that one-third to one-half of all Elgin’s outgoing mail came from David C. Cook Publishing.
Another notable figure was the Rev. Carleton Rogers, who was appointed pastor in 1950. In the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations, pastors are rotated from one local church to another every five to seven years. But Rogers stayed on and on and on for a record-setting 34 years, reportedly because there was no higher-paying congregation in Northern Illinois to which the bishop could send him. By the time he left, the congregation had 1,500 members. When the post office next door was torn down, its lot became Carleton Rogers Park.
In the late 1960s, First’s parent denomination, the 10-million-strong Methodist Church, merged with the 1-million-strong Evangelical United Brethren denomination to become the United Methodist Church. Until 1998, that left Holy Hill with two United Methodist congregations kitty-corner from each other and competing for the same kind of members.
Over the next three decades, several trends — a nationwide decline of “mainline” churches in favor of evangelical denominations and independent megachurches, ethnic changes in the city, lack of parking and a reluctance among many new Elginites to go downtown to do anything — caused the congregation’s worship attendance to plummet to an average of 307 per week by 1995, about half what it had been in the mid-1950s.
Sathuri said about 150 to 175 now attend the Sunday-morning service, and that has remained stable since he became pastor a year ago.
Member/historian George Rowe noted that one tactic to compete with the new distractions was a ministry that started early in the Carleton Rogers era. Since 1951 the church has been paying radio station WRMN/1410 AM to broadcast its weekly service on Sunday morning to shut-ins and those bound for some competing activity.
Sathuri said First UMC also has adding some contemporary music to its services, though it still has a traditional sanctuary and pipe organ, handbells, and a choir led by Heartland Voices leader John Slawson.
First UMC also has reflected the city’s changes by becoming more diverse. “We have people from Africa and people from Latin America and people from Asia,” he said. He said more young people are joining, with 40 percent of members in their 40s or younger, and a youth group numbering about 25. Taking a cue from the megachurches, First UMC also has formed “small groups” that meet for Bible study, prayer and fellowship.
Except during the summer, the Sunday service has been complemented with Wednesday-night get-togethers beginning with a meal at 5:15 followed by worship at 6 p.m.
Sathuri said he’s proud of the church’s mission outreach. “Thirty of our people, from age 9 to 80, just returned from a trip to Joplin, Mo.” to rebuild tornado-damaged homes, he said. “We have one of the largest servings of the Elgin Soup Kettle every Monday evening. On Love Elgin Day in April 1,400 families received free food and medical care and dental checkups.”
“We’re not just looking back at 175 years. We’re looking forward at what God wants us to be doing in the next 25 years,” Sathuri said.