By JULIE MARIE BUSH
OBSERVER Staff Writer
The Fredonia First United Methodist Church is celebrating its bicentennial with a very enthusiastic pastor, a rich past, and an abundance of upcoming events planned for the community to get involved with?
Chairperson Shirley Erbsmehl and the Rev. Steve Wiggers have both been very involved in orchestrating the Fredonia First United Methodist Church’s bicentennial celebration.
"There isn't many things in life one can be a part of that have a 200-year history," said Pastor Steve Wiggers.
Wiggers has been a pastor for 25 years, serving in Magnolia, North Harmony, Arkport and Panama United Methodist Church and as of July 2010 he became the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Fredonia.
"I've always been a part of a faith community, back to my early upbringing in North Clymer," Wiggers said. "This is really neat walking into a 200-year celebration. It gives us a chance to really look back on history. So it is a real privilege to be appointed here when we look back on the shoulders of giants that came before us. That is a blessing in itself ... Keeping the rich legacy going of the early pioneers. That is a joyful responsibility."
At the helm of celebratory preparations is chairperson Shirley Erbsmehl.
"The committee started brainstorming for this last year," she said. "We have held monthly meetings and we are still coming up with new and creative things to enhance the celebration."
The Jubilee Committee, as it is called, in charge of the bicentennial celebration includes Erbsmehl, Wiggers, Wally Latimer, Sandy Albano, Barb Faxlanger, Karen Kwiatkowski, Joe Faxlanger, Dorothy Fitch, Marilyn Blue, Joyce Haines, Norene Schulenberg, Linda Cooper and Tom Cooper.
"In order to make the community aware of the celebration, a 14-foot-long banner was put on the educational wing of the church," Erbsmehl said. "In March small discussion groups met for the Lenten period that lasted six weeks in members' homes. There were 51 individuals that met in about six different homes because that's how the Methodist Church began is with small groups of people gathering together."
THE CHURCH'S HISTORY
The Fredonia First United Methodist Church has experienced several resurrections since its beginning in 1811. Four different buildings have housed the congregation throughout the years.
"In the early years, people lived in the forests and were eager for company and wanted the spiritual word," Erbsmehl said. "They would have discussions and prayer and sing. When the circuit rider came around, which sometimes was only once a year, baptisms and weddings would be held."
In order to stay in touch with other isolated settlers, they depended on the circuit rider, traveling by horse, who brought word when he traveled. Circuit riders referred to the clergy in the early years of the United States that were assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations.
According to a detailed history of the church by Doug Shepherd, the first meeting house was built in 1822 near the present Saint Joseph's Church on Main Street. As the congregation increased in size, a structure was built at the corner of Center and Barker Streets in 1839. This was torn down in the 1940s but served many different purposes throughout the years - several different businesses used it as center of operations, including a watch shop ("Waste not," Erbsmehl noted).
Membership continued to grow so in 1869, the property at 25 Church St. - where the church stands today - was purchased and the red brick church was built by 140 members for $30,000. On Dec. 21, 1922, a fire destroyed the church. Soon after the fire, the current English Neo-Gothic-style edifice was built for $121,000 (with its value today at over $2 million).
In 1956, a campaign was held to raise $165,000 and resulted in our building a modern education wing. A major renovation of the sanctuary, office, heating system, and kitchen occurred and was topped off by the dedication of the Schlicker pipe organ in 1971.
Five years ago, the church had an ecumenical worship service and joined with the Baptist neighbors next door and the sanctuary roof was replaced. Work continued in 2008 with the completion of the new windows for the education building and the start of the refurbishment of the stained glass windows, which is a four-year project.
Some major renovations were also done this year.
"We had received a very nice donation from an anonymous donor to buy carpet, but we decided before we put the carpet down we would renovate the front of the sanctuary," Erbsmehl said. "Tom Lafferty drew up a couple of plans and the church members picked the one to go with. One level of flooring was taken off and an amazing amount of work was done in one week. Then we had all new carpet put down."
Thanks to the help of volunteers, Lafferty's talents as a professional contractor, as well as his dedication to his church and the help of some skilled workers, the church has deemed this renovation a success.
On June 12, a service with the Fredonia Baptist Church and the First United Methodist Church took place. Following the church service, a picnic was held at Russell Joy Park. They shared church facilities over the years. A wooden tabernacle was built in 1915 between the two churches where the driveway is now. It seated 2,000 people in the middle of middle of winter with no heat.
The church has been feting throughout the year for its 200th anniversary. Some upcoming events in recoginition of the church's bicentennial will be held each month, September through December. The community is welcome to join in the festivities.
"On Sept. 11, there will be a unique experience it will be fun, although it's a somber day because it's the 10th anniversary (of the terrorist attacks) but we decided to lift it into something because we have the freedom of religion," Erbsmehl said.
The circuit rider and his trusty steed will be in attendance and the worship will be in the form of what they did years ago, where the men sat on one side and the women sat on the other side. Hymns will be sung. This old-fashioned church service is open to the public and people are asked to dress in costumes if they wish to.
On Oct. 23, Bishop Matthews will be coming to celebrate with the congregation, with the morning service followed by a family dinner with everyone bringing a dish to pass. On Nov. 12, the community is invited to an old-fashioned square dance in the community room of the church.
The grand finale event will be held Dec. 11, which is a presentation of the play "The Best Christmas Pageant Opera." It will be directed by Joyce Haines and auditions open to everyone in the area. The play will be performed at the Fredonia Opera House with goodwill donations being accepted for the Opera House.
"I am a doer," Erbsmehl said. "I'm running the new photo directory. I don't mind getting my hands dirty. My husband and I have been members of the First United Methodist Church since June of 1990."
The church is has been successful at sustainability and growth thanks to Wiggers, who has a lot of energy and drive, enthusiasm and an affinity for laughter.
"He does have a good sense of humor and in some ways is a story teller of things that happened in is youth and applies them to various biblical concepts which make it interesting," lay leader Jerry Mathewson said.
A time capsule is being put together so it can be opened in 100 years. It will contain a photo directory with things that are timely to the current time period. Erbsmehl's daughter Barb Flaxlanger is in charge of the time capsule. According to Erbsmehl, she plans to include a CD of the church choir, a booklet of the church's history and a list of the membership. The church today has roughly 300 members.
Additional information on the church, upcoming events and hours of worship may be obtained by calling the church office at 679-1513 between 9 a.m. and noon daily.
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