First Methodist Church: Another Trial by Fire

Rev. James T. Robe

Rev. James T. Robe

The First Methodist Church of Kalamazoo lays claim to being the oldest congregation in the city. While other churches claim this distinction as well, what is known is that James T. Robe, a Methodist circuit rider, preached his first sermon in Kalamazoo in 1832. By 1834, the faithful had grown in number, and the first services were held in the log cabin home of Titus Bronson, located at what is now the corner of Church and West Michigan Avenue and also in the home of George Patterson.

Growth and Early Building

Steady growth saw the early Methodists worshipping in a little schoolhouse near the corner of East South and Henrietta Streets. Then, in 1842, the small church society was able to build a wooden frame church building at the northwest corner of Academy and Church Streets. The building faced east on Church Street and had a wide elevated porch in front where children loved to linger until called into the services by their elders.

Continuous growth soon proved this building too small for the congregation, so a lot was acquired at the southeast corner of Rose and Lovell Streets where the AT&T building now stands. The outgrown church building was sold to the Dutch Reformed congregation.

First Methodist Church - exterior

First Methodist Church, south east corner of Lovell and Rose, c1890

New Church Structure

In 1865, work began on the new edifice and was completed in 1869, a tower and spire being added in 1873. During construction, services were held in the courthouse and Union Hall until the chapel portion was completed. The project cost $6,000, which doesn't sound like much by today's standards. One has to realize however, that this was undertaken while the Civil War raged and, at the time, was a great challenge to the members' financial donations. The completed building was rectangular in form with round-arched windows and had a definite Romanesque Revival influence. Between 1873 and 1905, a tower, spire and new front entry were added. The tall ornate wooden spire above the tower of the church caught fire in 1920, and the steeple that had been a landmark in the city for about fifty years toppled to the ground. The steeple was above the brick tower of the church, which included a large clock face on the two street sides of the building. After the steeple fell, the top of the tower was repaired and altered without adding a new steeple.

An Unique Program

The church's congregation and its activities continued to grow in this second building. In 1919, in addition to the usual programs of the church, a different type of project was begun. A motion picture projection room was constructed in the balcony, and every Friday evening movies were show in the sanctuary. This was popular with the young people of Kalamazoo. They were able to see, at reasonable prices, films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd and other old-time movie favorites. The main purpose of this endeavor was to attract young people and others to the church.

First Methodist Church - interior

Interior of the church on Lovell Street, undated, but probably about 1890

Disastrous Fire

The balcony that held the projection room played a large part in the tragedy of the fire of 1926 that destroyed the church. On March 13, a Saturday evening, two Kalamazoo firemen were killed and five others were injured after a blaze was discovered at 6:00 p.m. Although the church was within a block of the Central Fire station, the entire roof was enveloped in flames that would gut the church in the short space of an hour. The fire was virtually under control when the tragic deaths of the two firemen occurred. They had been sent into the building as a relief squad to spray water on the burning interior, when the roof of the second balcony gave way and fell on them. This was the fourth major church fire in as many months in Kalamazoo. Though arson was suspected in the series of blazes, no one was ever apprehended or brought to trial.

Immediately after the fire, the Third Christian Reformed church and the Capitol movie theater offered their buildings for the Methodists to use for services. The congregation would first use the Masonic Temple and then the Capitol Theatre.

First Methodist Church - fire

The fire that destroyed the church on Lovell, 1926

The Third Church Building

The fire hastened plans that were already underway to build a new church. Five years before the fire, the First Methodist church had purchased property at South Park and Academy Streets from the Emma Ransom estate. While not anticipating the need for a speedy move to this property, the trustees had studied preliminary sketches for a thoroughly modern church structure and church house on the site. These plans now went into high gear.

Ground was broken for the new sanctuary, and a cornerstone was laid on 4 December 1927. The completed church was dedicated in March of 1929. It has a rich Gothic exterior of Bedford stone, an interior narthex, impressive chancel, lofty timbered ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows. When completed, it was another church in the cluster that had begun to ring Bronson Park.

Community Programs

As were the other churches in the city, First Methodist Church was 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. Help was sought from other downtown churches, and the name was changed to Bronson Park Food Pantry. This grew into the organization now known as Loaves and Fishes, which meets a continuing need in the city. The Methodists also helped in the relocation of refugee families from such far-flung places as Latvia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and Viet Nam.

Assisting New Methodist Congregations

First Methodist has a tradition of helping new congregations get started. As early as 1882, it raised funds to help erect a church in Comstock, and one on the north side of Kalamazoo. A lot on West North Street was purchased for the Simpson Methodist Episcopal Church, which served this area for 90 years. Aid was also given throughout the years to establish churches in Richland, the East Main and Stockbridge Methodist Churches, the Wilson Memorial Church at Recreation Park, as well as the Westwood and Sunnyside Churches.

Sources

"Falling Balcony Crushes Firemen"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 1926

Web Page: First United Methodist Church

First United Methodist Church: One Hundred Fifty Years

  • Ford, Henry III
  • May 1983
  • Copy in History Room Subject File: Methodist Church

History Room Subject File: Methodist Church

  • Includes the picture of James Robe at the top of this page

Kalamazoo Lost & Found

  • Houghton, Lynn Smith and Pamela Hall O'Connor
  • Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission, 2001, page 64