First United Methodist Church in Orange congregation gathers for dedication ceremony

The First United Methodist Church (FUMC)  has stood strong throughout many years. It has now been recognized as a nationally significant historical site within the United Methodist Church in the United States. The Sanctuary of FUMC is noted for its architecture and beautiful stained glass windows. But the church is also being recognized for over 132 years of service to God and the Orange community it is heavily involved with.

The dedication service held Sunday, May 18, 2014, was a grand day for FUMC, located at 502 N. Sixth Street. It was a day for remembering heroic efforts of the past and being proud of the present. The attractive new historical marker signifies the remarkable accomplishments of generations.

The church has grown significantly over the years and has enjoyed the leadership of more than 55 senior pastors and a host of associate pastors. The membership of the church has fluctuated over the years along with the population of Orange, but it has never hindered the ministry that happens there.

The first recorded Methodist activity in Orange was in 1859, when the Rev. Valerious C. Canon was sent from the Woodville District. By 1871, Orange County was on a circuit which included Hardin and Jefferson counties.

Circuit riders, or Saddlebag preachers, was a popular term referring to clergy in the earliest years of the United States. The beginning of the circuit rider era was at the Circuit Rider Christmas Conference in 1784. The clergy assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations were true pioneers. They were part of the Methodist Episcopal church and related dominations.

Legend has it, the Rev. Daniel Morse, one of the first circuit riders, hunted alligators in swamps and marshes close by. He sold the hides to make ends meet. This practice became the norm with the “traveling clergy” and for that reason, the circuit became known as the “Alligator Circuit.” Traveling on horseback, it was a wet, rugged and challenging territory to cover in those days and to do so took true perseverance. The determined ministerial efforts of the circuit riders boosted Methodism into the largest Protestant denomination at the time.

The first pastor and part of the three-county circuit at one time in 1871 was W.C. Collins. The circuit  riders were lay pastors and the Methodist Church experienced explosive growth in those days. Circuits generally ended sometime before the Civil War.

FUMC has been very instrumental in improving the Orange community since a small band of faithful Methodist joined together to form the First Methodist Church in Orange in 1873, with services held monthly for 44 charter members. A Sunday School was established in 1879 and has been a huge factor in the growth of the church. Initially, the church was used by Christian believers of various denominations and was a mission until it became self-supporting in 1884. It was financed by subscription and built directly opposite Evergreen Cemetery. Subscription is the process of investors signing up and committing to invest in a financial instrument before the actual closing of the purchase.

The congregation grew quickly and a new, larger church was soon needed. The Ladies Aid Society within the church, held bazaars, socials, lawn parties, concerts and everything they could think of to secure money to begin building. Construction began again, this time at the corner of Border and Henderson Streets, and was completed in 1892. The church directory, dated September 1, 1894, listed 334 members, with addresses from the distant past like “west from depot”, “near church”, “three miles west”, “near Sells” and “at Judge Burton’s”.

In 1911, property on the corner of Sixth and Elm was purchased, followed by the building of a new parsonage. Soon the old church (1892) was moved to the new location. As membership continued to grow, plans for more expansion came into discussion. The next ‘new’ church was again financed by subscription and the tireless efforts of diligent church members, including children and youth who helped by “selling bricks” for ten cents each. The formal opening ceremony for the FUMC Sanctuary was June 10, 1923. The total cost was $140,000 . Calculating only the cost of inflation, it would cost $1,642,772 to build it today.

During WWII, the church continued to expand while Orange’s population leaped to 50,000, with many working in shifts and sleeping in cars and tents. The church was used for a variety of local events at the time, such as United Service Organization dances for naval personnel, civic functions and graduations. The Moller pipe organ, still operational in the Sanctuary, was purchased and installed in 1946, shortly after WWII ended.

Continually growing, a new parsonage was later acquired along with an education building, only to be followed by the Malloy Center and the stunning Slade Memorial Chapel, dedicated in 1954. The FUMC continues to create an exceptional place to worship with the addition of an elevator large enough to carry a casket, gated entrances and lovely gardens.

Ruby Boehme Parks, distinguished long time member, was born and raised in the FUMC congregation. She remembers when the Sanctuary was the only building, excluding the parsonage and a small boyscout hut in the back. She recalls sitting in the familiar family pew on the left side at Sunday worship. She remembers the names of the families who were the “movers and shaker” in the 30’s and 40’s. That’s folks who were active or influencial in some field or endeavor. (Yes. I had to look that up.)

Married in the Slade Chapel in 1957, her children grew up in the church and she served as secretary of the Administrative Board and Council on Ministries in the 70’s and 80’s. She is still active in the Intercessory Prayer ministry. She is thankful to her parents and their generation for creating a beautiful monument to worship in.

The speaker for the dedication ceremony last Sunday morning was the Rev. Dr. Faulk Landrum. He spoke of the mass conversions of the 19th Century camp meetings and said historian Charles W. Ferguson called them a “Frolics of faith.” He then told about the traveling adventures of a circuit riding preacher named Jesse Hoard, during the same time period.

“The need and opportunity are just as great today as they were then,” the Rev. Dr. Landrum said and then asked, “How can we be as effective as these pioneers? We’re heirs of these Soldiers of the Cross. We need to constantly find a way to speak a healing word.”

The present day FUMC carries on the tradition of the frontiersman, always pushing forward. Also, the tradition of keeping Methodist ministers on the move is still alive today. The average time a minister will stay at a local church is two to five years. The Rev. W. H. Crawford served as the first full time pastor in 1884. With 53 senior pastors and many associate pastors in between, Pastor John Warren, part of a distinguished group is currently pastor at FUMC.  He is honored to be a soldier of God and pastor of such an amazing congregation and church.

“Our congregation is tough and has been through a lot,”  Warren said.

Programs sparked by FUMC include the Greater Orange Area Literacy Services and the Habitat to Humanity project which was responsible for building almost three dozen homes in Orange. Today the church is involved with Orange Christian Services, Building Great Readers at West Orange Cove Elementary, Stop Hunger Now, Feed My Sheep food kitchen and Share Fest, which brought 42,000 pounds of potatoes free to the public last year. Services and school supplies for 1500 Orange County school children are also provided in coalition with other churches. FUMC strives to feed the spiritual lives of those who attend its services and go out into the world and make a difference.