The History of First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo

In 1830 the Kalamazoo area was included in the Methodist charge known then as the St. Joseph Mission. It was a part of the Indiana Conference, and was served by a circuit rider from that conference. The first meetings were held in 1830 with the Reverend James T. Robe, a 25 year old minister, conducting services. In 1831 Kalamazoo Mission appears in the minutes of the conference with Erastus Felton as the missionary. At the next session of the conference in September 1832, James T. Robe was appointed to this circuit. He continued to preach, traveling from settlement to settlement, preaching the Word of God.

1833 Establishment

Reverend Robe was succeeded by Reverend Richard Meek in 1833, who organized a society in the fall of that year. This was the first organization of a Christian church in the village of Bronson, the name of which was soon to be changed to Kalamazoo.

In 1834, Titus Bronson, the founder of Kalamazoo (once named Bronson Village) donated some of his land to what later became known as Bronson Park. He donated space to the first four religions that became incorporated into the village according to law. The land amounted to 64 square feet for each religious dwelling. The first sermon of each was held in Bronson’s home, which is where St. Luke’s Episcopal Church now sits.

The original five churches that were included in the Bronson Park churches were the Baptist Church, First Congregational Church, First Presbyterian Church, First Reformed Church, and the First United Methodist Church. These churches were founded by less than 100 people and have served southwest Michigan for a combined total of over 800 years.

The church held its first services in the log cabin home of Titus Bronson, located at what is now the corner of Church Street and West Michigan Avenue, and also in the home of George Patterson. Later the members worshiped in a little schoolhouse near the corner of East South and Henrietta Streets.

1842 1st Church Building

In 1842 the little church society was able to build a church. It was a wood frame building at the northwest corner of Academy and Church Streets where the River Church now meets. The building faced east on Church Street, and had a wide elevated porch in front where children of the members loved to linger until called in by their elders. The church had a continuous growth and soon proved too small for the growing congregation. A lot was acquired at the southeast corner of Rose and Lovell Streets. The outgrown church building was sold to the Dutch Reformed congregation and the last Methodist service was held there on March 25, 1866.

1869 2nd Church Building

The work of building a new church edifice was begun. It was finally completed in 1869 but without the planned tower and spire. They were added in 1873. During the time the church was being constructed, services were held in the court-house and Union Hall until the chapel portion was completed. During much of the early period of this church, members rented the pews in which their families sat. This practice was discontinued in 1898.

The church’s congregation and its activities continued to grow in its second edifice. In 1919 in addition to the usual programs of the church, a different type of project was commenced. A motion picture projection room was constructed in the balcony and every Friday evening movies were shown in the sanctuary. This was very popular, especially with the young people of Kalamazoo.

By 1920 the church’s activities had grown to such an extent the church building was deemed to be inadequate. The Sunday School was overcrowded. The space for social activities was limited. The Student Friendly, an organization for college students, had become an important part of our church, and there was no proper place for it. The name of that organization was changed in 1926 to Wesley Foundation.

1920 Steeple Fire

While talk was commencing about the need for a new church building, something happened that resulted in a major change in the appearance of the old church. The tall, ornate, wood spire above the tower of the church caught fire in 1920 and this steeple that had been a landmark in the city for about fifty years toppled to the ground. The steeple was above the brick tower of the church which included a large clock face on the two street sides of the building. The top of the tower was repaired and altered without adding a new steeple. In 1924 the church entered into a contract to buy the site known as the Ransom property at the southwest corner of Park and Academy Streets for a new church building.

1926 Church Fire

Two years later an event occurred that hastened the plans for a new church building. On March 13, 1926, our church was destroyed by a disastrous fire. Without delay, the place of worship was changed to the Masonic Temple. On November 3, 1926, at a big church banquet, the congregation started a campaign to raise $100,000 in pledges to be paid by July 1, 1928. The goal was reached in four days.

1929 3rd Church Building

The building constructed is the beautiful church currently in use. It consists of a Late English Gothic exterior of Bedford stone and slate roof, a nave with a seating capacity of 1,100 and a chancel with fittings of symbolically carved mountain oak, large carved organ grilles, and beautiful stained glass windows over the high altar and in the balcony. The whole was constructed to “make individuals feel themselves in the House of God, and clergy and laity alike should be inspired.” The new church was dedicated on March 17, 1929.

Even in 1940 our church, while engaged in a campaign to pay for the sanctuary, had not forgotten its dream for the future. The original plans for the new church building included an educational unit of four stories, but it was realized in the 1920s that construction of the educational unit would have to be postponed for future consideration. The 1940 campaign literature, however, included a drawing of the church not only with the educational unit, but also with an imposing tower reaching high in the sky. The tower has never been completed.

1950 Educational Wing

For many years the church had felt the need of increased facilities for the Church School as the membership and attendance constantly grew. During the pastorate of Dr. Large the dream became a reality. Ground was broken on May 2, 1949, and it was completed in September, 1950. By this time our church membership had grown to 1,919.

The educational wing immediately became greatly used. It was crowded to capacity on Sunday mornings by the many Sunday School classes and other organizations. Rooms on the second floor were designated “Wesley Foundation,” and were used by that organization for several years until the Wesley Foundation building was constructed on the campus of Western Michigan University.

1991 Renovations

By the late 1980s it became apparent that additional work needed to be done to the building, including the need for an elevator, church school space, a space for the food pantry, rooms for the youth, and other refurbishments. The first building plans were rejected. Early in 1990, the congregation was presented with a second set of plans that passed, which included a new roof, elevator, new classrooms, an expanded food pantry and barrier-free buiding access. It also led to a new sound system.

The Letourneau Organ

The issue was first raised in 1987 that the condition of the original 1929 Skinner organ was slowly fading. With the assistance of Dr. James Kibbe from the University of Michigan, the organ committee chose an “Opus 52” with 47 stops and 54-rank Letourneau organ. The installation of this superbly designed organ was dedicated with an inaugural concert by Dr. James Kibbe on March 19, 2000.

2008 Renovations

For many years, there was noted a need for updates and renovations to the major gathering areas of our church. In May of 2007, the Building Study Committee presented to the congregation a plan for several major renovations. The plan was approved to remodel the social hall (now called Wesley Hall), kitchen, office, Welcome Center, and youth center. Additional renovations were made to the parking lot (adding a new garage and covered entryway), food pantry, restrooms, children’s classrooms, and the sound/light room. Climate control was added in the sanctuary and lower levels of the church. Construction finished in spring 2009 and we are now currently enjoying the blessings of these building renovations.

Stained Glass Census

In 2014, the stained glass windows of the church were added to the Michigan Stained Glass Census database. We invite you to view them from the Michigan Stained Glass Census website.