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home : news : news Wednesday, December 13, 2017

10/11/2017 Email this articlePrint this article 
First Congregational UCC celebrates 175th year in DeWitt
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt is nearly as old as the town of DeWitt itself.

It was the first church established in both the town and in Clinton County, and was just the 13th Congregational Church organized in the state.

Needless to say, the UCC has a rich, long-standing local history.

As the church celebrates its 175th anniversary, local families say it is a history of which they are proud to be a part.

Ellis and Myrtle Barber of DeWitt figure they are two of the oldest - if not the oldest - members of the church.

Both 92 years old, the couple started their lives as husband and wife 71 years ago in that church.

The old church, that is.

New Englanders organized

The story of the UCC in DeWitt began July 10, 1842, when a group of people met to organize and founded the church.

They were Iowa pioneers, former New England residents who held several meetings at the former county courthouse - a log cabin in the southwest corner of Lincoln Park.

They missed their eastern churches and wanted to organize a church of the Congregational faith.

The Rev. A.B. Hitchcock was chosen chairman, and the Rev. Oliver Emerson Jr. was appointed secretary.

Hitchcock acted as minister for the first year of the church's existence. As membership for the church grew, officials voted April 16, 1843, to apply for admission to the Congregational Association of Iowa.

Hitchcock's marriage to Eliza Bedford was the first marriage in the new church. Its exact location is unknown, but it is believed to have been somewhere on the south side of Seventh Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

The first church was dedicated Feb. 22, 1853. Before it was built, the log courthouse was used as a meeting place.

The next church was built at Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. The lot was donated by Samuel Newell Bedford. However, a fire destroyed the building on Dec. 6, 1887.

The next year, the church was rebuilt at a cost of $3,115, which was raised by the ladies' group by serving three meals a day at the Clinton County Fairs, oyster suppers, talent plays, and publishing the "DeWitt Cookbook." The group also installed the first electric lights in the church.

The new building was dedicated Oct. 31, 1888.

'Help other people'

It was in that church that the Barbers were wed - more than seven decades ago.

"We were both 21-and-a-half when we got married," Ellis said with a smile. "We've been members ever since."

Both were active in the church. Ellis served on the finance committee, while Myrtle taught Sunday school.

"That's when I was one of the 'young ones' at the church," Myrtle said with a smile. "And for 42 years, I cooked lunch for the DeWitt Noon Lions meetings at the church. ... I just stopped doing that two or three years ago.

"We're an old church that has done a lot of things over the years, ... things that help other people. And it doesn't matter who you are. That's what I enjoy about it most. We're very open and friendly, and anyone is welcome."

That is exactly why Matt Ohnemus and his wife, Heather, of DeWitt are proud to call UCC their church family.

The couple were married in 2005 in the existing church, at 520 E. 11th St.

The current church was built with funds donated by church member Lillian Fell at the time of her death.

Work began in the spring of 1993, and the building was dedicated Nov. 20, 1994.

The stained-glass window from the former church was incorporated into the narthex of the new building.

Quarter century of changes

Many changes and special projects have taken place over the past 25 years.

The Sunday school rooms were painted and furnished. Central DeWitt Community High School graduate Brandon Hunt painted pictures from the story of "Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors" in one room, and Steve Anderson painted a mural of "Noah's Ark" in a room across the hall.

Carol Beck designed and commissioned the stained-glass-effect windows in the sanctuary, which were installed in 2000; a memorial garden was planted and built on the west end of the church with funds from several families, with benches from Carolyn Ruggeberg, Art Lindstrom, and Harold and Dorothy McMain.

An outdoor labyrinth was planted on the north side of the church as an Eagle Scout project by Tom Mullen, and the Wednesday night "Faith Café" worship and youth programs started in 2009 and continue to provide faith information to all ages, including confirmation and adult classes.

The "Hands of Love" entryway, a memorial to Howard Ehrler, has a bench, scripture, and photos of hands; a grand piano was donated by Marian Giddens for use in the sanctuary; and mission trips have been taken to the Sunbeam Boys Home in Jamaica; Harland County, Kentucky; Joplin, Missouri; Longmont, Colorado; and Haiti.

And April 24, 2016, the church became "Open and Affirming."

The fact the church is open to and accepting of anyone is one of the things that makes it so special to the Ohnemuses.

Matt, an instructional coach and head wrestling coach at Central DeWitt Community High School, and Heather, a nurse practitioner, are the parents of 3-year-old Eloise and 1-year-old Brooks.

'It is my church family'

As they sat in the church's butterfly garden, designed and created by Dave Frohwein last fall, the couple reflected on what attending UCC meant to them.

"For me, in a literal sense, it is my church family," Matt said. "I was born and raised in this church, and my family on the Fox side was as well. Coming to church every Sunday is about seeing my community and church family, but also my own family. Growing up, I always knew - every Sunday - I would see my relatives.

"To have it be the same way for my kids now, it's very special."

Heather appreciates seeing the different generations of members.

"There are younger families like us, but then you can look down the aisle and see people like the Barbers," she said. "Everyone is so welcoming."

The church might not officially have become Open and Affirming until last year, but Matt said it was a concept the UCC had embraced since the beginning.

The church had one of the first woman ministers when A. Mabel Mannington became pastor in 1918.

"That speaks to the openness of this church," he said, "of welcoming everyone. It's deeply-woven into this church, and is the bedrock that it's built upon. It's just a spectacular place to be a part of."

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