Heritage Sunday to celebrate Third Avenue UMC’s history

COMMEMORATIVE CANDLESTICKS: (From left) Gordon Mallett discusses the commemorative candlesticks he is making for Heritage Sunday with the Rev. Kim DeLong and Birnie Thomas. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

COMMEMORATIVE CANDLESTICKS: (From left) Gordon Mallett discusses the commemorative candlesticks he is making for Heritage Sunday with the Rev. Kim DeLong and Birnie Thomas. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

BIG RAPIDS — Third Avenue United Methodist Church has been in the same location in Big Rapids for more than 130 years, and its congregation will celebrate that fact with a Heritage Sunday observance at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23.

“This is the first time we’ve observed the anniversary of the church, as far as I know,” said Birnie Thomas, a longtime member.

Heritage Sunday plans include the worship service at 10 a.m., followed by a display of church history compiled by Yvonne Walsh and a communal meal in the church basement. Former pastors have been invited back to share memories during the meal.

“It would be great if we could have people attend who used to be part of the congregation, especially if they have stories to share,” Thomas said. “One time I was washing the front windows and a car pulled up and stopped. The people got out and told me about their grandmother who used to attend church here. This church has a lot of history within the community.”

The church at the corner of Third Avenue and Adams Street — then known as Third Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church — was dedicated in the summer of 1884, the same year the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid on Aug. 5 and the construction of the Washington Monument was completed on Dec. 6.

J. W. Hallenbeck, the pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Big Rapids at the time, organized a Methodist society on the east side of the Muskegon River, which divided the town geographically and socially, to meet the needs of people in that neighborhood. He also made plans for a church building.

The first building, which faced Adams Street, was destroyed in a fire and the present building, facing Third Avenue, was built in 1925. The large stained glass window at the front of the church was installed in the 1930s.

Together with the Rodney Methodist Church, the Third Avenue church was part of the Big Rapids Circuit until 1948, when the Paris church was added to create the Big Rapids United Methodist Parish. Historically, churches often didn’t have enough ordained clergy to staff each church with its own pastor, so churches were built at distances equaling a 35-minute buggy ride, explained the Rev. Kim DeLong.

Even to the present day, one pastor serves more than one church. As head of the Big Rapids United Methodist Parish, DeLong is responsible for the Third Avenue, Paris and Rodney United Methodist Churches. The congregations of the Paris and Rodney churches voted to join Third Avenue for its Heritage Sunday observance.

Today, the church is active in the surrounding community in an effort to recreate the neighborhood church feeling of its beginnings.

In addition to recent events such as the neighborhood block party, Third Avenue has offered a free lunch program to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Alcoholics Anonymous meets twice a week at the church, the congregation participates in the annual CROP Hunger Walk and supports the food distribution trucks through the parish. Third Avenue also is one of three Methodist churches sponsoring Church in a Café services once a month.

“We might be considered small, but we think we’re a vital part of the community,” Thomas said.

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Posted by Candy Allan

Candy is the Pioneer's associate editor. She also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Parenting pages. She can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at callan@pioneergroup.com.

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