Answer Man: Epworth Methodist's history had a lot of twists and turns

News-DemocratFebruary 22, 2014 

What can you tell me about the old Epworth Methodist Church that was on the west end of Belleville by the old Dewey School? Both are long gone, but my grandparents came over and went there as did my mother and her siblings, so I'm interested in its history. -- Keith Freeman, of Belleville

For more than 70 years, neither fire nor leaking gas nor mine subsidence could stop this flock from trying to stay on the road to salvation.

It had its beginnings in the late 1800s when the Aritheneum Union Sunday School began meeting at a location about a quarter-mile east of where it eventually moved. West Belleville still was largely undeveloped, but the group apparently saw the future promise when it decided to erect a church at Walter Street and Russell Avenue. (now North 48th).

At that time, the area was variously called "Dewey" or the "Rock Road annexation," depending on the newspaper report. But whatever they called it, residents there saw a new church starting to go up in February 1905.

It was to be called the Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church of Greater Belleville, melding the name of the hometown of Methodist movement founders John and Charles Wesley with that of the congregation's own growing city.

Dedicated on Aug. 19, 1906, the $3,500 church had a sanctuary, classroom and study decked out in Brussels carpet -- a "model of its kind," the Belleville Daily Advocate gushed. Clearly a congregation of younger folks, it boasted the best organized Sunday school in the state with some of the best teachers in the country, the paper reported. The Rev. Claire Moorman from McKendree College was the first pastor.

And they were just getting started. Just before Halloween 1923, the church took out a building permit to build a large "community house" on the west side of the church. Just four months and $17,000 later, the church rededicated itself with daylong services to show off its new addition along with a new basement and twin furnaces. They even started a drama club in 1929.

But just before Christmas 1932, the church's future turned cloudy. Subsidence from the closed Oak Hill Mine near 46th and the Southern Railroad began threatening both the church and nearby Dewey School.

On that Dec. 23, ground movement ruptured the gas main connected to the church. The Rev. Howard Kelley and his wife were overcome by the fumes and had to seek medical care. Fortunately, they recovered, and the situation apparently stabilized itself to where no major corrective action was needed.

There was, however, no escaping the tragedy that struck just over two years later. Late in the afternoon of Jan. 21, 1935, Kelley was in his study when he saw smoke coming from the chimney on the first floor. While he called the Rock Road Fire Department, a Dewey School teacher who had stopped by began throwing water on the smoke.

It was much too late. For the next six hours, firefighters in near-zero temperatures battled the stubborn blaze that could be seen for a mile and soon caused a traffic jam as spectators got as close as they could to watch.

By the time the final wisps of smoke blew off, only the study and the walls were left standing. Either an overheated furnace or a defective chimney had left the church in ruins to the tune of $20,000.

For the next two years, the congregation met on Sundays in Dewey School as they worked on plans to rebuild. Finally, on June 1, 1937, the Kloess Contracting Co. began work on a new church, which celebrated its first service the following March 6 and an official dedication two weeks later.

The cost of the new church was held to $18,000 thanks to the generosity of the community. The organ, pews, memorial window -- even the neon cross -- were all donated. And instead of a bell, members were called to service by a set of chimes connected to the organ, amplified and broadcast over loudspeakers in the church tower.

For the next 40 years, the church continued to be a center for weddings, funerals, communion and inspiration. It finally closed in 1977, and, according to Illinois Great Rivers Conference archivist Lauretta Scheller, it was sold two years later and probably razed shortly thereafter.

If you'd like to add pictures to your family scrapbook, you can find them on microfilm in the Oct. 29, 1937, and the Jan. 7 and March 3, 1938, Belleville Daily Advocate.

Today's trivia

Do you remember the three U.S. athletes who once tied for a winter Olympics silver medal? The sport? The year?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: The women's figure-skating world was thrown into a tizzy on Jan. 6, 1994, when Shane Stant slammed a baton into Nancy Kerrigan's right leg. But how many remember that Ukraine's Oksana Baiul took the gold medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lilehammer, Norway, a month later, beating Kerrigan and China's Chen Lu? The 16-year-old Baiul immediately turned pro.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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