First Congregational Church: Fledgling Faith and Fire

The Congregational form of faith is deeply rooted in the history of Kalamazoo. The steady influx of Easterners seeking opportunity in Michigan Territory brought many to the village of Bronson, which would become Kalamazoo, for whom Congregationalism was traditional. "Their faith and their names left lasting memorials in the First Congregational Church and in many street names in older sections of Kalamazoo."

Early Beginnings

In 1834, the first Sunday school in Kalamazoo was an interdenominational one that met in the village schoolhouse on East South Street near Henrietta Street. There were 25 pupils and five teachers of the Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational faiths. When the nucleus of a church was formed in 1835, the Episcopalians did not join and the Methodists soon left.

Joint Union with Presbyterians

This left the Presbyterians and Congregationalists to worship in a joint union in Kalamazoo's first church. The adoption of the Congregationalist form of government led to an uneasy alliance. Congregationalist recordings of that period are just a tad less diplomatic than Presbyterian accounts of the separation of the churches. The discussion for the need of a larger church turned into a "...heated argument." In 1848, 45 members withdrew and formed the Presbyterian Church, while the Congregationalists kept possession of the old building.

First Congregational Church

First Congregational Church, Academy Street, Kalamazoo, c1885-1889

New Building

Because of the growth in membership, within two years the Congregationalists decided a new and larger church was needed. They purchased the property on the northeast corner of Academy and Park streets, and the old church was sold to the Dutch Reformed church. While the new church was under construction, the Congregationalists worshipped in the courthouse. Completed in 1852, the church was built of brick in a rectangular style that lent itself to a number of additions, though it had been praised as ranking with the Fireman's Hall and the McNair Block as "one of the finest buildings in the interior of the state," according to the Kalamazoo Gazette. The interior of this church was damaged by fire and repaired during the winter of 1868-69.

Congregationalists and the Issue of Slavery

During this period when the church was built, argument over the slave question ignited the Civil War. Churches aligned themselves on definite sides of the slave issue. Kalamazoo Congregationalists and members of the church throughout the country became the "radicals" and "progressives of the day," because they were adamantly opposed to slavery. They did all within their power to bring about freedom for the slaves. In Kalamazoo, one woman of the congregation sometimes brought Sojourner Truth to the church to talk of her slave days and raised $1,000 for the "Freedmen's" cause. This stand brought many new members to join the Congregational Church.

Sunday School

During this same time period, the church established an East Side Sunday school and a mission Sunday school was sponsored in the octagon house at Minor and Westnedge Avenues.

First Congregational Church, construction

First Congregational Church, construction, summer 1889

Third Church Building

Plans for a third new church began in 1887. The congregation was convinced a larger edifice was needed to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. They decided upon a massive structure of brick and stone that was built on the same site as the second church. It had an auditorium and galleries to seat a thousand persons. Sliding doors to double parlors and a chapel could make more seating available. The exterior had turrets, towers, and showed the influence of Byzantine architecture. In June of 1890, the new church was dedicated followed by a program led by ministers of other churches around Bronson Park. While this building was being constructed, services were held in the old Episcopal Church at Michigan Avenue and Park Street, which later became the site of the YMCA.

Fire

A fire of suspicious origin destroyed this massive building on 29 December 1925. It was one of a series of downtown fires that hit churches and commercial buildings in 1925 and 1926. Other churches destroyed  were the First Presbyterian Church and the First Methodist Church.  Arson was suspected but no one was ever charged with setting the blazes. Within 30 minutes of the discovery of the fire by two young boys passing by on their way to the YMCA, the interior of the building was engulfed. The roof collapsed at 1:05 p.m. Before the fire was under control, the trustees of the People's Church formally offered the use of their building as a temporary home.

Life in Kalamazoo

When fire destroyed this third church, business had been thriving in Kalamazoo for some years. In 1927 the city was listed as one of the seventeen most prosperous in the United States. The Upjohn Company, a number of paper mills, the Gibson Company, and the Shakespeare Company were busy. Kalamazoo College, Western Michigan Teachers College and Nazareth College all had increasing enrollments and were rapidly gaining accreditation. In 1929, the Kalamazoo Civic Players was founded, and by 1930 the population of Kalamazoo reached 54,786.

Fourth Church Building

The fourth, and present building was dedicated in 1928. It was designed by Aymar Embury, who had also designed the Kalamazoo Civic Auditorium and was the favorite architect of the Upjohn family. It is of English and French early Gothic design.

First Congregational Church

First Congregational Church, northeast corner of Park and  Academy Streets, Kalamazoo, c1912-1925

Interior Design

The interior had a touch of Broadway, though, at the time, that was in the future. Embury enlisted Lucinda Goldsborough Ballard and her cousin, Jean Cotton, to paint the murals on the interior walls of the church. Ballard had just finished her art studies at Fontainebleau, France and the Sorbonne in Paris. She was the daughter of Anna Girault Farrar Goldsborough, a friend of Embry's and a political cartoonist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. As the murals took shape, the pastor, Rev. Torrance Phelps, began to get complaints from some church members that the artwork was too "Pope-ish." He came to Ballard, and she asked him what he wanted for the ten side panels. He asked her to do the virtues. She replied that she thought there were only three. He then gave her a list of what he considered 10 virtues, saying, "That way I'll have enough for about 40 sermons." Ballard went on to become one of the leading set and costume designers for Broadway and Hollywood with productions such as I Remember Mama, The Glass Menagerie, Annie Get Your GunStreet Scene, The Fourposter, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She retired on Broadway after designing The Sound of Music.

Exterior Changes

In 1971, the church purchased the former YMCA property to the immediate north, which allowed for the addition of a thirty-place parking lot and a north entrance to the church. To replace a sunken garden facing Academy Street, which had been removed in 1959 to make way for remodeling and the addition to the parish building, the brick walls of the new parking lot were lined with memorial trees and gardens.

Community Outreach

Outreach efforts by the church over the years have included, in addition to the stance against slavery, monthly birthday parties at the then Kalamazoo State Hospital, resettling of freedom-loving refugees beginning in 1951, which has continued, and missionary work overseas.

Sources

Books

Who Was Who in America

  • "Embury, Aymar"
  • Chicago: Marquis Who's Who, 1968, volume 4, 1961-1968, page 287
  • R 920 W627

The Quest for Faith: Sermons

  • Keith, William A.
  • Kalamazoo: Sequoia Press, 1956
  • H 252 K28

Frontiers of Faith: Sermons

  • Keith, William A.
  • Kalamazoo: Sequoia Press, 1968
  • H 252 K28.1

Articles and Pamphlets

"Celebration to Begin Wednesday and End October 6"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 September 1925

"$175,000 Structure Destroyed at Noon"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 December 1925

"Late Architect Embury Designed Buildings Here"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 November 1966Copy in Historic Sites scrapbook #12, page 16

This Far By Faith

"First Congregational Marks 150 Years"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 April 1985, page A5

"Rising to the Top"

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 August 1988, page C1, column 1

"First Congregational Church was Massive"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 November 1997, page D2, column 2

Websites

First Congregational Church: http://www.firstcongregationalkazoo.com