First United Methodist has deep roots

PARKERSBURG – First it was slavery, then a fire and then an explosion that kept First United Methodist Church constantly busy building a new church.

The church’s roots go back the late 1700s and the first 100 years were full of changes.

“We’ve been in Parkersburg for the last 200 years and the last 100 have been at this location,” said the Rev. Damon Rhodes, pastor of the church.

Under the direction of Reece Wolfe, a Methodist preacher who came to the area in 1796, and William Beauchamp, a friend of Wolfe and also a Methodist preacher, the church held its first service in 1799. After that first service, it took around 15 years to have a physical location. In 1815 the first church was built on Avery Street between Third and Fourth streets. By 1835, the church had outgrown the small building and another one was built on the corner of Fifth and Market streets.

Rhodes said that several years later in 1844, with the Civil War looming and slavery on everyone’s mind, the church was split into Northern and Southern branches and members were forced to pick a side. The Southerners kept the church at Fifth and Market and the Northerners met in homes until a church was built on Fifth Street in 1846. Men of the church cut the timber themselves and it was built in only 14 days. This church became known as “the little frame church on the hill.”

“St. Paul’s United Methodist came out of this church. They were the South church,” Rhodes said. “We were the North church.”

In 1862 that church was demolished and another, larger church built in its place, but in 1873 the church was destroyed by a fire.

The next church was built on the corner of Fifth and Juliana and what became known as “Old First Church.” It was built in 1874. Church historian Linda Watkins said in 1895 an explosion on a boat on the Little Kanawha River near the Juliana Street Bridge caused extensive damage to the town and the church. Some renovations were made and they continued using that church until 1911.

Rhodes said around 1906, the congregation decided to build a new church in a location closer to where its members were living, what is now known as the Julia-Ann Square Historic District.

“More of the members had moved up to that area,” said Watkins. “Also, they had outgrown the other church.”

The site was found at 10th and Juliana streets and the church began being built in 1909. This would become the current church and be dedicated in 1911.

The church is built in a Gothic style and features several large stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. Watkins said originally the church also featured a tower of stained-glass windows in the center of the sanctuary, but over the years the ceiling began to cave in and cause extensive damage. Eventually the tower had to be removed and some renovations done to repair the damage.

“It took them about a year to redo it,” Watkins said.

Rhodes said a unique part of the church is in a room in the basement that once housed a coal-burning stove to heat the church in the early years. On the walls of that room are religious paintings done by the person who kept the fire going.

Watkins said not much is known about who the man was or why he did the paintings, but they still remain on the walls today.

Watkins, who has been a member of the church for 35 years, said one of the reasons she was drawn to the church was because of the strong music program.

“Our music program has always been well done,” Watkins said.

She said her favorite part of the year is going to the church’s annual candlelight advent celebration, which features music from the choir and other groups.

“It’s always my favorite part of Christmas,” she said. “It’s so pretty.”

Watkins and Rhodes both agreed the church has an active presence in the community through outreach and ministry work.

“This church, I think, historically has been involved in a lot of community programs,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said the church is active in serving several different organizations around Parkersburg, including the Salvation Army, Latrobe Street Mission and House to Home.

“We don’t have one particular ministry that we do here, but the people are really active in a lot of things,” he said.

Rhodes said even if they can’t donate time to certain ministries, they will donate money instead. He said it’s the people of the church who make it so special.

“The building is beautiful, but the people are even more beautiful,” Rhodes said.