The First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo is the oldest congregation in the city. The church traces its origins to James T. Robe, a young Methodist circuit rider, who came to Kalamazoo in 1830 as part of a missionary effort known as the St. Joseph Mission and conducted the first Christian services here. Over the next two years Robe continued to come to Kalamazoo and other local communities, nurturing a fledgling Methodist congregation of eight members. In 1833 Robe was replaced by Reverend Richard Meek, who continued to build upon what Robe had started. That fall Meek organized the congregation into a formal church and by the following year these early Methodist faithful conducted regular meetings in private homes. Early meeting sites included the log cabin home of Kalamazoo's founder, Titus Bronson, which was located at the present-day corner of Church Street and West Michigan Avenue.
Growth and Early Building
The congregation grew rapidly and private homes soon proved inadequate for services. By decade's end the Methodists worshiped in a small schoolhouse near the corner of East South and Henrietta Streets. Then, in 1842, the young church had both the need and resources to erect a wooden frame building at the northwest corner of Academy and Church Streets specifically dedicated for their use. The church was built in the popular Greek Revival style. The front of the building faced east on Church Street, with a gable roofline intended to mimic the form of ancient Greek temples. A tall steeple-less tower rose over the entry and gave the Methodists a commanding presence on the village's skyline. Another notable feature of the church's architecture was an elevated front porch where it is said that children loved to linger until called into the services by their elders.
This building was rather substantial by the standards of the day. However, the Methodists' occupancy of the structure was short-lived. Within two decades of its dedication, the continuous growth of the Church's membership had rendered this building too small. Plans for a new and larger edifice started to develop and a lot was acquired at the southeast corner of Rose and Lovell Streets, where the AT&T building now stands. The old building was sold to the Dutch Reformed congregation. The Methodists held their final service there on the evening of 25 March, 1866. Years later, when the Reformed congregation required a larger structure on the site, the old landmark was moved to the corner of Eleanor and Burdick Streets where it served as a wagon shop prior to succumbing to the steady expansion of Kalamazoo's business district.
Second Church Building
Construction of the church's second home was made a reality by the efforts of two of the congregation's pastors of the 1860s. These men were Reverends Charles Shelling, who served from 1865 to 1876, and L.H. Pearce who served from 1867 to 1869. Unfortunately for the Methodists, they chose an inopportune time to undertake such a large construction project. The Civil War had drained available funding. Further complicating matters, the war had driven up the price of construction materials considerably. Nonetheless, the Methodists responded to the fundraising efforts with enthusiasm, and the project's final cost of nearly $46,000 was successfully raised within the church membership. However, fundraising difficulties did result in some construction delays. Work began on the new edifice in 1865 and the sanctuary was completed in 1869. Due to fundraising limitations, the planned tower and steeple were not added until 1873. As the new sanctuary took shape, between 1866 and 1869, the congregation's services were held at the county courthouse and Union Hall.
The new church was designed by architect D.S. Hopkin. It was rectangular in plan with Victorian Romanesque Revival styling. However, the tower and steeple were heavily influenced by the Gothic style, resulting in an unusual hybrid structure. The interior presented a more classic Romanesque example, featuring rounded arched windows and ceiling beams. An elegant balcony wrapped around the space on three sides.
In the course of its lifetime, a number of changes were made to the building, inside and out, to accommodate both the growth of the membership and changing tastes. Among these was a new entrance and vestibule that were built in 1905. More noticeable was the loss of the landmark steeple to a fire in 1920. The tower was promptly reconstructed but without replacing the clock or steeple. The repairs were kept to a minimum because plans were being made for the congregation's move to yet another location.
The reasons pushing the Methodists into yet another home were familiar. Both the church's membership and programming had expanded beyond the building's walls. Of particular concern were the congregation's varied offerings for young people. These included an active and overcrowded Sunday school. Another program of note was the Student Friendly, today known as the Wesley Foundation, which was an organization catering to Kalamazoo's college student population. There was no space available to house the group.
Despite its spatial shortcomings, the old building had been successfully adapted to accommodate a few of the church's youth programs. One of these was the Friday evening film series. A makeshift motion picture projection room was constructed on the balcony, allowing the sanctuary to host films. Movies became a successful way of attracting young people to the church. The program proved so popular that a projector room was included in the design of the new church.
Tragically, the 1920 blaze that destroyed the tower foreshadowed a greater disaster. At 6:00 pm on 13 March 1926, a fire was discovered in the church's basement. The fire spread quickly and within minutes the entire structure was engulfed. The roof collapsed, and firemen fought a losing battle for over an hour. Finally, with the fire seemingly under control, firemen were able to enter the building and attempt to extinguish the blaze. That is when the tragic deaths of the two firemen occurred. Without warning part of the tower crumbled, raining bricks upon the sanctuary's balcony. The balcony, in turn, collapsed burying seven firemen under a pile of wood and masonry. Firemen Claus Slater and John Morren were killed while five others were pulled from the rubble with serious injuries. It would take two hours to uncover the victims.
When the smoke cleared, the entire building had been reduced to ruin. In addition to the devastating loss of life, financial losses were estimated at over $100,000, less than half of which was covered by insurance. This was the fourth major church fire in as many months in Kalamazoo. Though arson was suspected for many of the blazes, in the case of the Methodist fire, the cause was speculated to be faulty wiring or an overheated boiler in the basement.
Immediately after the fire, the Third Christian Reformed church and the Capitol Theater offered their buildings for the Methodists to use for services. The congregation would first use the Masonic Temple and then the Capitol Theater until their new home could be completed.
Third Church Building
The fire hastened existing plans to build a larger structure for the growing congregation, which up till then had progressed slowly. Two years before the fire, in 1924, the Methodists purchased property on Bronson Park at South Park and Academy Streets from the Emma Ransom estate. Church trustees studied preliminary sketches for a thoroughly modern church structure and church house on the site, but until the fire there was no urgency to break ground.
Architect Ernest S. Batterson, who later designed the Douglass Community Center, envisioned a monumental Gothic structure faced with Bedford limestone and richly detailed with massive pointed arched windows, buttresses, oriel windows, and tracery. The interior was equally detailed with a spacious sanctuary and elegantly detailed chancel featuring carved wood. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the proposed building was an enormous tower between the sanctuary and church house.
Ground was broken, and a cornerstone was laid on 4 December 1927. The sanctuary was dedicated on 17 March 1929. As with the congregation's prior home, financial realities dictated that construction was piecemeal. This was due to the rushed construction, the onset of the Great Depression soon after the sanctuary's completion, and the Second World War. The church house, designed to house ample educational facilities, would not be built until 1950. The massive tower was never built.
Since the building's completion, the structure has served the Methodists well and has stood as a familiar landmark on Bronson Park. A number of alterations have been made to the rear of the building, the west side that faces a parking lot. A new organ was installed in 2000. Otherwise the impressive architecture has stood the test of time.
Like other congregations in the city, First Methodist Church has continually been involved in outreach to the community. It was responsible for the construction of the Patwood Project, which provided housing on the city's north side for persons needing assistance. In 1979, the church began a food pantry for the benefit of people having emergency food problems. Later this program was expanded to include other downtown churches, and the name was changed to Bronson Park Food Pantry. The program developed further into today's Loaves and Fishes, which serves a continuing need in the city. The Methodists have also aided in the relocation of refugee families from Latvia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and Vietnam.
Assisting New Methodist Congregations
Besides helping the community at large, First Methodist has a long tradition of assisting new Methodist congregations in the area get off the ground. As early as 1882, it raised funds to help erect a church in Comstock. In 1886 a lot on West North Street was purchased, and the Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church, which would serve this area for 90 years, was built. First Methodist has also had a role in establishing the Richland, East Main and Stockbridge Methodist Churches, the Wilson Memorial Church at Recreation Park, as well as the Westwood and Sunnyside Churches.
2013 marks the 180th anniversary of First Methodist.