One-hundred and seventy-five years old and still going strong. That’s  First United Methodist Church of Independence.

One-hundred and seventy-five years old and still going strong. That’s  First United Methodist Church of Independence.

Organized as the Society of Methodists in 1835 with 10 charter members, the church is preparing to celebrate its 175th anniversary with three special worship services and a community ice cream social.

Why the celebration?

In an e-mail, the Rev. Mitch Jarvis,  lead pastor of the church at Spring Street and Maple Avenue wrote:

 “It’s been said, ‘The future isn’t what it use to be.’ Big anniversaries like this always remind me that the church today isn’t anything like it once was; it’s not better or worse, just different. But the real value of looking to our past is that we learn something about our future. That God has faithfully led us for the last 175 years means that God can be trusted to lead us in new directions for the future as well, and that’s worth celebrating.”

Focused around the theme “God’s Presence With Us in the Past,  Present and Future,” the celebration features three former pastors of First Church – Jim Smith of Independence (1999-2003), Harold Johnson of Lee’s Summit (1985-90) and David Kerr of St. Louis (1983-85).

Each speaker will be addressing the “past,  present and future” theme in a combined 11 a.m. service, beginning with Smith on June 13, Johnson on Aug. 8 and Kerr on Oct. 10.

Following worship on June 13, the celebration continues with a picnic and “tent-meeting singing” at George Owens Nature Park in eastern Independence. Then on Oct. 10,  a potluck dinner and a slice of anniversary cake awaits celebrants in Fellowship Hall following worship.

Wanting to involve the community in its milestone celebration, First Church is planning an old-fashioned ice cream social on Aug. 7 in the  church parking lot  – weather permitting .

“We are opening it up to the community in hope that some of the people in the neighborhood will come and join us, instead of it being just an in-house party,” says  Karen Anderson, First Church secretary for the past 30 years and longtime member.

To bring the past into the present, members of Marge Fleming’s historical committee have been busy gathering and displaying old photographs and other church memorabilia and artifacts.

Some of the seldom-seen historical objects on display throughout the church are an artist’s rendition of the first building, a piece of the original church beam, seven books with the names of all church members who have joined the church since 1890 and two blue books containing a sheet for every church family, listing their names and dates of their birthday, baptism, marriage and death.

The stately-looking red-brick church with its stained-glass winds and white steeple has been a fixture at 400 W. Maple Ave. since 1840, when a 40-by- 60-foot brick structure was constructed with two doors and two stoves.

“One for the men and one for the women,” Karen recalls of the building which became known as the Maple Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, South, because it sympathized with the South over its pro-slavery stand.

With the nation caught up in the slavery issue,  a much larger structure was erected on the Maple Avenue site in 1859. Little did church members know  that in three years Union troops would attack Independence,  chase their pastor out of town and use the church as a hospital.

For years, proof that the church was  once used as a military hospital was visible on the wooden floor.

“I went in when they took up the old carpet and I could see stains still on the wooden floors from when it was used as a hospital during the Civil War,” she recalls.

The 1859 church, with its  Gothic architecture, steeple and stained-glass windows, was renovated and enlarged in 1929 when an educational wing and new brick was added to the sanctuary walls.

During this $56,000 construction project, the congregation worshiped next door in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building.

Then some 31 years later, when the church was being completely remodeled, the congregation vacated the building again and met across the street on Sundays at the Grenada Theater.

“When the remodeling was done, we had a center aisle, new choir loft and air-conditioning,” says Karen, remembering watching wasps buzzing around the old wagon wheel light fixtures as a child because the windows were open to let in the breeze.

Life, though, wasn’t always a breeze at the church,   which became the First Methodist Church in 1939 and then the First United Methodist Church in 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with Evangelical United Brethren Church.

First Church has had some major setbacks over the years,  Karen recalls, but “We have persevered though some really challenging times in our 175 years.”

Karen, who believes “perseverance” best describes the legacy of First Church, says women of the church kept the church afloat during the Great Depression by making and selling quilts and by preparing lunches and selling them to workers around the Square for 25 cents.

Then there was the fatal fire in the parsonage adjacent to the church that snuffed out the lives of the pastor’s two daughters, the Union takeover of the church during the Civil War and the high winds that swept away the original  church steeple in the late teens or early 1920s.  After 75 years, it was finally replaced on Dec. 9, 2005.

Despite the unsettled world in which she lives, Karen believes First Church will continue to persevere.

“We are a family; we care about each other. We want to show people that if you allow God to control your life, it can be good. Step out of His way and let Him do it.”