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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: How religion found Marion years ago

1911 POST CARD PHOTO

Although the present-day Valley United Methodist Church building at 3rd and Santa Fe Sts. appears to be a seamless limestone structure dating to the 1880s, only a portion of the current church building was built then. The original 1881 home of Marion’s earliest congregation — the brick structure at right in this 1911 photo — was replaced in 1923 with a stone addition matching the style of an earlier1887 addition to the brick building. The 1887 addition, housing the church’s present-day sanctuary, is visible at left and to the back in this photo, which also depicts the original height of an 1887 stone bell tower that has been shortened several times since then. Only very subtle differences can be seen between 1887 stonework and 1923 stonework.

For their first four years in Marion, the three families that founded the community in 1860 were on their own in religious matters.

George Griffith (1825-1905), patriarch of one of the families, was an especially devout Christian.

“He had brought with him the seed of the gospel in his heart to buoy him up through the hardships and privation of pioneer life,” the Cottonwood Valley Times, which later merged with the Record, wrote in an 1888 remembrance. “Ministers of all evangelical denominations that happened this way found a welcome in his home,” which often served as a place of worship.

Circuit riders from the Methodist Episcopal Church began visiting every one to three months, starting in 1864.

“The first came in the midst of winter over a road where one might feel that he was alone in a bleak and barren world,” the Times wrote. “His head was as white as the frost of winter, and his frame was enfeebled with age. He was not eloquent but an impressive preacher, and though he never came again, he is still remembered,” though apparently not by name.

A subsequent circuit-riding Methodist from Emporia, “Grandpap” Nathan Fairchild (1797-1872), returned from the battlefields of the Civil War to visit repeatedly until 1869, when Manoah Woolpert of the Emporia district of the Methodist church was appointed pastor of the city’s first church, technically referred to as a “class” or, alternately, as a “charge.”

Fairchild, like the initial circuit rider, was an aged missionary.

“His gray locks lay in curls that went to his shoulders, which gave him a venerable appearance and was a sermon in itself,” the Times wrote. “He visited the settlement a number of times, traveling on horseback more than 100 miles on each of his rounds.”

Fairchild wasn’t paid by the settlers.

“The settlers were poor and unable to do anything to gratify ambition or appease the pangs of poverty,” the Times wrote.

By 1869, however, they had become prosperous enough to provide $500 (the equivalent of less than $9,500 today) to pay for two years’ of preaching by the much younger Woolpert (1837-1908), who despite staying only two years frequently returned to visit after moving to California.

Griffith, along with fellow pioneer patriarch Levi Billings (1835-1898) and three others. formed the initial board of trustees for First Methodist Episcopal Church of Marion Centre, now known as Valley United Methodist Church of Marion.

The church, Marion’s oldest, will celebrate its 150th anniversary Old Settlers Day weekend.

Buildings were scarce and frequently had multiple uses in 1869, so services initially were conducted in a stone building that had been built to serve as a school and eventually expanded to serve as the county’s first courthouse, as well.

Until just two years earlier, the county’s boundaries had stretched all the way west to present-day Colorado and south to present-day Oklahoma.

Services later were conducted in Rogers Hall, better known nowadays as the old creamery building at 1st and Main St., demolished in the 1970s.

Billings, who also later left Marion, left the church, joining a Presbyterian congregation, which erected Marion’s first church building in 1872. That building, which still stands at 610 E. Lawrence St., is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Methodists acquired lots at Santa Fe and 3rd Sts. for $40 (equivalent to $960 today) in 1876 and five years later built a 32-by-50-foot brick church, complete with pews and fixtures, for $2,400 ($60,000 today). Pastor C.B. Mitchell was paid $800 ($20,000) a year.

A stone addition, completed six years later, added the church’s present-day sanctuary and bell tower. In 1923, the original brick building was demolished, and the present-day stone fellowship hall and classrooms were added, and large stained-glass windows were added to the sanctuary.

Extensive remodeling in 1967 enclosed a porch-like outer narthex added in 1923. The bell tower was shortened several times over the years, and a roof was added to it in 1975 .

Last modified Sept. 18, 2019

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