WILLMAR — Dear Bishop, I hope things are fine there in Indiana. Things are going well on my circuit here in Minnesota Territory. Some of my native Indian friends here showed me how to weave things like big, flat baskets to fasten to my boots so I can walk on top of the snow. That makes it easier going. I have left my good horse in the care of a family on my circuit because the weather is too harsh for the animal. Grace and peace, your obedient servant.
In various archives, letters similar to this paraphrase were found from Methodist circuit riders back to their bishops in the Indiana territorial offices. The letters were found as part of research 25 years ago for the Wilmar United Methodist Church’s Centennial Year.
This church has English-speaking Methodists, German-speaking Brethren and Swedish-speaking Methodists in its roots.
While Methodist and Brethren circuit riding (mostly lay, or not ordained) preachers laid the foundation for later formation of localized congregations, there were also Swedish lay Methodists holding worship services in their dugout homes in the region.
Willmar Town was platted in 1869 by an official of St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Church records indicate that the same railroad official gave permission for the small Methodist congregation to hold regular worship services in a boxcar set aside in the railroad yards.
Appointed by the bishop back in Indiana, to serve as pastor in Willmar, was Thomas Libby of Maine. He and circuit riders served the parish until 1873. After that, services were hit-or-miss until 1893. There were indications in the historical record that it was difficult to fill the post way out here in the frigid frontier.
In 1893, the Rev. H. E. Chase was appointed to the Willmar-Raymond circuit. He spent his first year fundraising so that a proper church building could be constructed in 1894, the official birth point of the Willmar Methodist Church 125 years ago.
In Methodist archives, Chase and his “heroic wife” were credited with raising the money and shepherding the construction of the new building at a cost of $3,207.57 and no debt. It was on the corner of Trott Avenue and Fourth Street Southwest.
There was some confusion when a new church structure was built in 1922. The old building was moved, though part of it was used in the new construction.
The old building had three large stained-glass windows and several smaller ones. They were made in Europe, shipped to New Orleans, loaded on paddle-wheelers for the trip up the Mississippi River and then perhaps part of the way westward on the Minnesota River, with the final leg of the journey made heavily padded on wagons pulled by oxen, deemed to be more surefooted with a gentler ride than horses.
Those beautiful windows were a source of pride for the congregation. When it came time to construct the new church, there was some miscommunication.
Church history records note that one very early morning a week before the church trustees expected the demolition group to arrive, neighbors close to the church heard horrific grinding and banging from the property.
By the time trustees arrived at the church and paused demolition, of the treasured mosaics they found only the large stained-glass window of Christ knocking at the door and three of the smaller ones. They rescued those and set them aside. The beautiful mosaics now reside in the current property at Ninth Street and 19th Avenue Southwest.
The new downtown church was well-maintained and periodically remodeled and renovated, according to the records. In 1941 the members and holdings of the Swedish Methodist Church of Willmar transferred into and united with First Methodist Church of Willmar.
Over the years between the 1920s and about 1950, Willmar Methodist obtained and disbursed various church and home structures, which were used for such things as additional Sunday School and office space.
From 1955 to the mid-1970s, the Willmar Methodist Church operated Vacation-Aire Drive-In Worship Services at 9:30 a.m. Sunday from Memorial Day through Labor Day at the Green Lake Drive-In Theater in Spicer.
An outdoor chapel from which to preach and an old Hammond organ each spring were moved by men of the church to the drive-in; returning them to the church property each fall. Every Sunday 15 men from the church were needed to direct traffic and guide people to parking spots.
A story hour for young children was held on a hill on the drive-in grounds. Coffee and Kool-Aid were served after the service.
In June 1964, ground was broken for the current building of the church. The first worship service in the new building was held April 4, 1965, with pastor the Rev. Clayton Oberg preaching.
The construction fundraising goal was $300,000. Five years ago Willmar United Methodist Church raised that same amount for renovation, which resulted in an every-floor elevator, new restrooms in the main areas, and a new air-conditioned library and committee meeting space.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough oversees the United Methodist Churches in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of the UMC. The bishop will preach at the 9:30 a.m. Sunday service as part of the 125th anniversary observance.
Former pastors, former members, friends of the church and current members have been invited.