Located on Broadway, Sterling IL
The Oldest Church In Sterling Celebrates 125 Years
The First Methodist Church, the first church organized in Sterling, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
As early as 1836, two years after the founding of the city, the Methodists were holding services, but it was not until 1838 that the church was organized with Barton H. Cartwright, cousin of the fighting Peter Cartwright, as minister. Both Peter and Barton spent much of their lives in the saddle, riding from place to place, preaching wherever they could find a little group of zealots. Barton Cartwright lived to be almost 90 years of age. He was a man of intense patriotism as well as religion and, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted as a chaplain in the Union Army serving in many campaigns and ending with Sherman on his march to the sea. He died in Oregon, Ill., in 1895.
Hezekiah Brink, founder of Sterling, was one of the organizers of teh First Methodist Church. The first services were held in Brink's cabin. Records show that was not only instrumental in the formation of the church, but he was also an active member for over 30 years. Mr. Brink also aided in the erection of the edifice in 1856; in fact, he made part of the brick.
The members of the first church were Mr. and Mrs. Luther Bush, Mr. and M rs. Hezekiah Brink, Mrs. Greer and Mrs. Pratt. These early membes used the old stone schoolhouse and the court house for services. With the coming of the railway and the building of the dam, they bought lots to build the first church.
In 1855, Rev. S.F. Denning became the first resident pastor. He remained two years, and promoted the erection of the church in 1856. The original cost was $9,000, and as its completion there was a large debt, a heavy burden on the 40 members. This obligation continued until 1862, when the church was sued, judgment rendered, and the building sold to Henry Murray for $2,000.
This was the darkest period in the history of old Broadway, but her staunch friends rallied to her support, and invited the persuasive Dr. T.M. Eddy to conduct their services at a grand jubilee of the congregation. In response to his fervent appeals, subscriptions were received sufficient to satisfy the judgment, and Mr. Murray deeded the building back to the trustees.
The debt had hardly been paid off when new troubles arose. An argument broke out over the system of renting pews. Some of the members wanted a rental on pews and some wanted them free. A number of members, withdrew from the church. In 1867, 30 members who had withdrawn organized the Second M ethodist Church which became the Fourth Street Methodist Church. Naturally this withdrawal was a serious blow to a congregation just emerging from previous struggles. From that congregation the Rock Falls Methodist Church was organized, thus becoming the granddaughter to First Methodist Church.
In 1868, during the second pastorate of Rev. S.F. Denning, the church was entirely free from debt for the first time. Then in 1877, the Women's Foreign Missionary Society was organized and the first parsonage was erected. It stood to the south and west of the church building until 1920 when it was disposed of and the present parsonage was erected and completed in 1921. The organ was installed in the church in the same year. As a result of this, again a heavy indebtedness was involved and was not liquidated until February, 1949.
The original church building survives as an integral part of the pesent structure, but it is so altered and enlarged as to be indistinguishable. The spire was destroyed by lightening in 1902, leaving only the cupola which was changed further when the church was remodeled in 1914. At that time additions were made in the east and west sides, the southern entrance closed and the front of the church moved to the east, or Broadway, side. The old bell still hangs in the tower which is now on the east, or front, side of the church.
The next big event in the history of the First Church was the Centennial celebration in 1938 when Rev. A. Melvin Tinker was pastor.
The 110th anniversary in 1949 was especially important in the lives of the First Methodists. Rev. James McKelvey was the pastor of the church at this time. The burning of the mortgage which had been held against the property of the First Methodist Church of Serling for 35 years was the feature of the opening service of the celebration. Fay Nice, the church treasurer, and John David, lay member, represented the congregation in this burning.
In this same ceremony, it was stated that bids for the new addition had been let, and plans were that it would be ready for occupancy sometime in the fall. Since the church had planned for this addition, it would be debt free if all pledges were met faithfully.
The second fire in the First Methodist Church was the night before Easter in 1960. Easter services were held at the Church of the Nazarene in Sterling. Redecoration was again necessary as a result of the fire.
In the past year, the exterior of the church has been cleaned and restored as well as the interior remodeled. The future looks bright as plans are being made for another addition to the church since the membership has been expanding. Membership has reached approximately 925 today with Rev. Ridell A. Kelsey as pastor. Mr. Ralph Thomas holds the honor of being an active member of the First Church for the longest period of time, 72 years. He is still an active participant in church activities.
To participate in the anniversary celebration this year, Bishop Charls Wesley Brashares of Chicago and District Superintendent WIlliam Rasche of DeKalb, will conduct the church service April 28.
A fellowship potluck meal will be held in the church parlor May 2. Former pastors are invited to the dinner, a display of interesting objects will be available, and Gunner Benson, president of the Sterling Historical Society, will speak on the "History of First Methodist Church".
The pastor of First Methodist Church, Rev. Ridell A. Kelsey is in his third year of pastoral duties at First Methodist. He will conduct the anniversary service Sunday morning. Rev. Kelsey came to Sterling in July 1960 from Evergreen Park with a fine record in the Rock River Conference. He served for eight years, until 1962, as a member of the committee on conference relations. For periods of three years each Rev. Kelsey was district youth director in the Rockford district and also in the Salem Ore., district. Serving with the Southern District of the Rock River Conference, Rev. Kelsey was a member of the district board of buildings and church locations. [Article in the Daily Gazette Friday April 26, 1963]
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