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First Christian Church marks 160 years

It will take a full month for the congregation to adequately celebrate the impressive 160-year milestone of the First Christian Church’s mission of service to God and community, beginning with a celebration of ministers during Sunday services.

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ABOVE: Looking out through the dome of the First Christian Church. The view is representative of the eye of God looking down on the congregation.  FRONT PAGE PHOTO: The gold dome is an iconic feature of the First Christian Church, 215 E. Sandusky Ave. (EXAMINER PHOTO S| JOEL E. MAST)


Workers toiled to raise the church anew after a January 1915 fire destroyed the original structure at 215 E. Sandusky Ave., opening the new structure in April 1916. (PHOTO | FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH)


During the church rebuilding process, the First Christian Church congregation gathered to worship at the old opera house along Court Avenue. Rally Day, Dec. 19, 1915, drew an attendance of 1,200 and the collection of $64.30. (PHOTO | FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH)


The church honors former pastors and dedicates the anniversary quilt, handmade by women of the church, with a message, Ministry Then and Now, followed by an anniversary potluck dinner.

The church celebrates its music ministry Oct. 14, with a historical memorabilia display and a service of song by vocalists and musicians past and present, followed by a reception. The church’s Christian nurture is celebrated Oct. 21, with worship designed in the pattern of the old Sunday School opening, an historical overview of classes, and personal reflections and testimonies, with a reception to follow. The Oct. 28 service celebrates the church’s outreach missions, with guest speaker Associate Regional Minister LaTaunya Bynum, an overview of ministers past and present, and the presentation of the Cup of Blessings gift, followed by a potluck dinner.

The month-long observance is an effort not only to celebrate the milestone, but to help the congregation and the community understand that for 160 years, the church has sought to be a light of what Christian unity is about and how church founders sought to fulfill a mission that reflects the principles and teachings of Christ, according to current pastor, the Rev. F. Michael Valentine.

The First Christian Church was formed with 12 charter members in 1852, part of a Protestant movement known as the Disciples of Christ, according to historical records. It was the first church truly indigenous to America, according to Pastor Valentine, and met in “the old First Baptist Church” for the first five years.

“It was a ‘frontier church,’ ” Pastor Valentine related of the denomination founded under the premise that America was a nation of liberty and that the church could reclaim its heritage from the New Testament to put aside divisions.

The church’s first dedicated home was erected in 1857 at 140 E. Columbus Ave., a structure that served the congregation for 40 years.

In its infancy, the church was led by elders, with circuit evangelists leading worship services on a rotating basis. First Christian’s first dedicated minister, D.D. Burtt, began his tenure in 1896 and led the church to purchase ground and construct a new church home at 215 E. Sandusky Ave., at a cost of $16,000.

Disaster struck in January 1915, when a fire burned the structure to the ground. Under the leadership of the undeterred Pastor Traverce Harrison, described as a “fiery brand of evangelist” by Pastor Valentine, the congregation raised $20,000 in just two weeks, enough to begin the rebuilding of the church as it stands today.

As the rebuilding process began, the congregation met at the old opera house along Court Avenue, often with a packed house.

The new structure was to be more than just another church building.

“There is a message in the (new) building,” Pastor Valentine explained. “It was a statement,” he said, a rejection of the neo-classical style of old European influence, that said “No. We are not a European church. We are an American church with American values.” The new building also boasted the now iconic copper dome with a stained-glass design representing “the eye of God looking down on the congregation” when viewed from the sanctuary.

Thousands, he said, gathered for the April 30, 1916, dedication, with 7,800 answering a call to amass the largest Sunday School gathering of its day. “It was (nearing) the end of World War I and (this) gave the community a tremendous lift.”

In 1930, the church welcomed its first settled pastor in September 1930, Pastor E.B. Higham, who served the church through 1941. Upon his departure, the church was led for the next six years by I.J. Cahill and M. Dale Humbert, before the lengthy tenure of the Rev. Keith L. McNeill, who led the congregation through the remodeling of the current building and expansion of the parking lots through the purchase of neighboring properties.

Now in his fifth year, the Rev. Valentine began his ministry at First Christian Church on March 1, 2007. He serves on the Regional Council and the Commission on Ministry for the Christian Church in Ohio.

Over the years, the church has expanded the parking area, performed comprehensive interior remodeling work, purchased new musical instruments and made a number of other improvements and upgrades.

In addition to numerous congregational activities and events, the church hosts Boy Scout Pack 94 and Cub Scout Den 94, Light the Way Christian Counseling and Kids Corner preschool, while supporting Our Daily Bread and Weekday Religious Education programs.

In November, the congregation will get back to its mission of service and continue its regular Sunday schedule with coffee fellowship at 9 a.m., followed at 9:30 a.m. by church school classes for all ages and morning worship at 10:30 a.m.

“We’ve gotten a lot done, have a lot going and a lot yet to do,” Pastor Valentine concluded.

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