In 1836 the first white settler arrived in Whitewater followed by others in 1837. It was in 1837 that the first building, a one room cabin was built. It was also in 1837 that Methodist Circuit Riders “reached out to minister to the spiritual needs” of the settlers in the area. The new residents of Whitewater met in homes, formally organizing a Methodist society and class in 1842. Officially though the Whitewater Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1843. Sunday school was organized in 1849 and by 1858, the church went “off mission status.”
During the 1850’s the ME church was not the only church in town nor was it the largest. The Catholic had an attendance of 150, the Congregational had an attendance of 100, the Methodist an average of 45 while the Baptist and the Episcopal churches averaged 40. Whitewater in 1856 had a population of about 3000.
The wood frame Methodist Episcopal Church was located on the site of the present St. John Lutheran Church on Church Street. On Sundays services were held at 10:30 AM, with Sunday School at 12:00 PM with the evening service beginning at 7:30 PM. A mid-week prayer service was held on Thursdays at 7:30 PM.
In 1859 the 13th annual session of the Wisconsin Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church was held in Whitewater. Those attending took a strong stand insisting “that the assertion that the ME Church is constitutionally pro slavery, whether that assertion be made by our professional friends or by our enemies is a base slander.”
By 1871 when Rev C.N. Stowers came to Whitewater, the most pressing need at the church was space and the congregation undertook a huge building project. So large that when the plans were sent to the Wisconsin Conference, the leaders of the Conference discouraged the Whitewater congregation from erecting the proposed building. Determined, Whitewater church leaders bought a lot on the corner of Center and Prairie streets. The building on Church Street was sold to the German Lutherans. Begun in 1872, the walls are about 19 inches thick, solid stone faced with brick. The new church cost between $20,000 and $25,000. Eight hundred people could be seated on the main floor with an additional 150 in the balcony.
The ladies of the Whitewater ME church kept a boarding hall and lunch stand on the State Fair Grounds in West Allis to help pay for the new building. In 1874 boarders paid $1.25 per day. The total profit that year was $775 from boarders and diners.
There was much ecumenical activity between the Methodist Episcopal, Congregational and Baptist churches in Whitewater. Revival meetings began in Whitewater as early as 1843 and continued until 1910. They were usually held in January for a minimum of two weeks. While most evangelists were male, occasionally the evangelist was a woman. The three churches often had pulpit exchanges, helped raise money for each other and sponsored joint Lenten services.
In addition to revival meetings the members of the Methodist Episcopal in Whitewater took a strong stand against liquor as early as the 1840’s. In spite of that stand, there were 13 saloons in town in 1876. Nationwide the temperance movement began to grow in the 1870’s. Temperance had always been part of the principles of Methodist Episcopal Church. During that time period “local women were taking matters into their hands giving leadership to the Whitewater temperance movement.” Speakers often addressed church groups on the evils of liquor. A chapter of WCTU, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was established in the late 1890’s. Methodists were urged to vote for temperance candidates. Continuing to follow national trends, by 1917, city residents voted to issue no liquor licenses.
By 1880 the debt for the building on Prairie and Center was paid off. Whitewater continued to grow and by 1890 the city’s population was 4357. It was in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s that the first renovation of the church was undertaken. Forty six incandescent electric lights were installed; a pipe organ was purchased; the altar was moved forward to provide space for the choir between the altar and the organ and the sanctuary ceiling was covered with pressed tin for better acoustics.
Most pastors at Whitewater’s Methodist Episcopal Church had short tenures, usually two to three years. Often they left Whitewater to serve churches in larger cities, not necessarily churches with more members but often with bigger salaries. Whitewater was considered a large church at that time and was rarely happy to see a pastor leave. One outstanding pastor of the late 1880’s and the early 1890’s, Reverend A.J. Benjamin took in 175 new members in five years. A not so successful pastor, Reverend C.I.Andrews refused to support WWI, announcing from the pulpit in November of 1917, that he would not use the pulpit for “war propaganda.” He left in January of 1918.
Reverend Allen Adams replaced Andrews and the church saw rapid growth during his seven year pastorate: 130 members added; the Sunday School at 546 pupils; the church finally debt free. In 1925 Reverend Cecil Ristow was assigned to Whitewater’s Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1926 a committee decided that “the rate charged for a stove(electric) was too high so none was purchased.
In early 1929 a renovation project to cost at least $10,000 was begun. Included in the project were a new roof, a new oil burner and radiators, repainting, new rugs and carpets, new cupboards and new light fixtures. A major need not addressed, additional Sunday School rooms for the 243 pupils.
The Great Depression had a huge impact on the church as church leaders began the difficult task of cutting operating expenses and collecting pledges for the recent renovation. Everyone on staff took salary cuts from 1931 on including the pastor who took a 10% cut in 1934. The church hired a member (10 dollars first year and 20 the second) to go to members to encourage them to meet their financial responsibilities to the church. In 1938 with the Depression abating, the trustees were instructed to research the possibility of installing an elevator to the sanctuary. Nothing came of the research until the 1970’s. However, a new parsonage was built on the Boone Court property in 1940.
The pastor at that time was Reverend Alfred Hoad who was born and raised in England. “A contemporary member of the church remembers that Rev. Hoad did not hesitate to express his sentiments and views on the need for America to enter the war begun (in 1939) and to help fortify England against threatening German encroachments.” (Unlike the action taken against Rev. C.I Andrews, Hoad retained his position and served the congregation for 12 years. cw) Those 12 years represented the longest tenure of any pastor to that date.
In July of 1953 church members voted to erect an education addition to the existing building. At a proposed cost of $80,000, the addition would include a nursery for 20, a kindergarten room for 65, a primary room for 65, a junior room for 65, a chapel to seat 120, and a large junior and senior high room with kitchenette. The project was moving ahead smoothly until December 21, 1953 when the northeast wall of the sanctuary collapsed taking the pipe organ and other walls into the already excavated addition space. The new addition and repairs cost $145,000. While the new building was being completed and the sanctuary was being repaired, services were held in various public school buildings. The return of the congregation to the corner of Prairie and Center streets was celebrated October 3, 1954. The final completion of the sanctuary renovation caused by the wall collapse was dedicated in May, 1957.
In 1957 local church leaders realized a need for additional pastoral leadership existed and hired an associate pastor for the first time. The Rev. Arthur Johnson, a retired Methodist pastor, was hired for that job.
Over the years the congregation had been purchasing houses surrounding the church property; some of them were kept (the two on Center Street) but others were demolished. Yet another renovation project was undertaken during the time Kenneth Engleman was pastor. The gym over the chapel was retrofitted into three class rooms, stairways on both sides of the chancel were constructed or repaired. In addition new pews were purchased and the pew configuration was changed to a central aisle with two entrance doors from the narthex. The congregation provided the Methodist campus minister an office. The campus minister represented an ecumenical group of mainline protestant churches.
In 1968 the Methodist Church (so named in 1939 when the Episcopal reference was dropped), became First United Methodist Church . The name change was necessitated by the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church (a denomination similar in beliefs and administrative structure established in the US by German Americans).
When Earl Lindsay came to Whitewater in 1966, he found a “congregation with 72 PHD’s and 60 full time farmers” and a campus involved in the turmoil of the Vietnam War as well as the civil rights revolution. During the Lindsay years the church grew by 50 new members per year with an average weekly attendance of almost 400 and a total membership of 950.
Plans went ahead to finally build the elevator, a used pipe organ was remodeled for the church, and a parking lot behind the church was created with the removal of the Larson house owned by the church since 1960. The congregation had extensive bi-centennial programs including the planting of a Gingko tree by the chapel door. In the words of Pastor David Kruse, the tree will serve “as a symbol of this church’s roots in the community of Whitewater and its hope for the future.”
Dale Christopher came to Whitewater in 1978 and served until 1992, the longest tenure of any pastor at First United Methodist Church. Under his leadership a Lay Witness Weekend and A New Life Mission had successful results. A long range planning committee came to the congregation with a list of critical needs of the building, now estimated to be worth more than one million dollars. The recommendations included conversion of the heating system to gas, outside masonry maintenance and painting, improved lighting in halls and youth room, carpeting Epworth Room, Fellowship hall , front Hall, sanctuary stairs, narthex and sanctuary. The congregation agreed to have the work done with a price tag of $100,000 which included wrapping up the existing $10,000 debt into the $100,000.
The congregation participated in a six weeks pulpit exchange with Bolsover and Stavely parishes in which English Pastor Keith Howe came to Whitewater and Pastor Christopher went to England.
In preparation for celebrating 150 years of service in the Whitewater Community, First United Methodist Church embarked on yet another renovation project. The project included cleaning the exterior bricks, painting the outside trim, covering the bell tower roof with aluminum, restoring the stained glass windows and installing a new donated sound system for the chapel. The sesquicentennial celebration, shepherded by then pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lance Herrick, was held the weekend of September 25, 1993 with Saturday and Sunday activities.*
*Dr. Sents’ second book ends with the 1993 sesquincentennial. The following comes from my memory and is my interpretation of more recent history.
In 1994 Mary Kirkpatrick became the first female lead pastor in the Church’s history although there had been for one year, a female associate pastor. Pastor Kirkpatrick served for seven years guiding a huge $1,200,000 renovation that included a new roof, new electrical wiring, a new round stained glass window in the north wall of the sanctuary which incorporated as many symbols from the previous window as possible, a much enlarged chancel, redecorating the sanctuary, new carpeting for all the ground floor carpeted areas with the exception of the chapel, new carpeting of the Sunday School rooms upstairs, restaining the existing pews, and a new (1896) pipe organ. The goals of the sanctuary renovations were to make the area as flexible as possible as well as honoring and restoring much of its 1872 character.
The pipe organ was purchased through the Historic Organ Society and it, a Hook and Hastings, came from a Baptist Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Its 1896 date, construction and sound were close to the date of the original pipe organ installed by the Whitewater congregation in the 1890’s.
Pastor Kirkpatrick also oversaw the creation of the Whitewater Area Regional Ministry, a linkage of First United Methodist Church, LaGrange United Methodist Church and Richmond United Methodist Church.
Each church had its own pastor and council, its own stewardship drives, its own church school but united for Bible School, confirmation, secretarial services, women’s circles, youth groups, after school programs, Breakfast Club and intermittently Men’s Club. While there had been university ministry programs previously, by the mid-1990’s, they had disappeared as the young had less experience with church and appeared to be less interested in it. Another ministry begun during Kirkpatrick’s tenure was university ministry and university lunch. This program was an attempt to reach out to university students. While many approaches were tried, the free lunch for students has been the most successful. Beginning with only a handful of students, more than 300 have enjoyed Tuesday lunch at the church for most of the life of the program.
Reverend Pat Lyons replaced Pastor Kirkpatrick who retired in 2001. She brought with her a deep commitment to world mission, especially for the women and children of Cambodia, and made yearly trips to that mission field. During Pastor Lyons tenure a Hispanic Ministry, a totally separate entity using the United Methodist Hispanic Ministry plan as created by the General Board of the United Methodist Church was established. The new group met in First United Methodist Church but functioned as an independent group.
It had been decided at the end of 2000 that the congregation would hire a director of Christian Education rather than an associate pastor. Dawn Ramstad was the first person to fill that position. When Pastor Lyons left in 2004, Director Ramstad resigned to go to Garrett Evangelical Seminary to pursue a PHD. David Kalas came to First Church in 2004 bringing with him a vast knowledge of the Bible and a calling to engage the congregation in Bible study. Many participated in the 3X5 club which was a program designed to read the Bible completely in one year. Pastor Kalas taught a number of classes which were well attended between the 8:00 AM and the 10:00 AM worship services. The Wednesday Bible Study group begun in the distant past was also very popular. Anne Gibson served as the director of Christian Education until 2012. In 2011 Pastor Kalas accepted a position as senior pastor at Green Bay First, the church where he was baptized while his father was pastor there. Reverend Susan Bresser was assigned to Whitewater First. Bresser brought with her a great love of people, vast knowledge of the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church and a desire to work at creating an inviting community which operates celebrating the abundance of resources God has provided.
This history is far from complete; no matter how many pages a church history would be, it could never point to the influence the church has had on its members and community: the number of women who came to see themselves as capable because of their roles in Women’s Missionary Societies (now United Methodist Women); the number of broken hearts soothed by the kindness of fellow church members, the opportunity to think and question beliefs in an open and accepting atmosphere in eras when education was rote memorization; those counseled by caring pastors; the vast amount of money given over 170 years to the poor, to United Methodist colleges, universities and seminaries. It is perhaps a sense of belonging to something greater than one’s self or one’s family, a sense of being loved by a creating God, of finding forgiveness in Christ’s life and death, of being sustained in sickness and health, in good days and bad by the presence of the Holy Spirit that make written church histories so much more like skeletons than congregations.