The following is a condensed and edited portion of a paper prepared and read by Mrs. M. A. Blanchard at the celebration of the building on September 10, 1932, and published by The Garden City Telegram on September 15, 1932. Mrs. Blanchard is the author of The Conquest of Southwest Kansas.
The history of The Community Church dates from the beginning of public worship in Garden City - and its records are a direct continuation of the first organized church. In fact, its story begins almost identically with that of the town, and we cannot relate one without mention of the other.
Early in March of 1877, William D. and James R. Fulton had determined upon Garden city as a place for a town and made permanent settlement there with their families. Before long, they were joined by others, who came from various sections of the country, and nearly all were strangers to each other. Some came by train, but most of them found their way into this valley by following dim, uncertain trails across an unsettled country - and they were driving horses or oxen, hitched to covered wagons. Part of them located in Garden City, but a few were fired with an ambition to tame and cultivate the wild sod, and they settled on nearby homesteads. But from the first, both country and town formed a united community.
Those pioneer settlers lived a life of thrilling adventure - for beyond a narrow strip along the railroad, there was not a sign of civilization, just mile after mile of barren prairie. By day, they could look out and see roving herds of wild horses, buffalo, and antelope. On calm nights, the stillness of the prairie was broken by the howling of coyotes and wolves, and they were always in fear of hearing the dreaded Indian war whoops. Storms were not uncommon, and the fierce winds, filled with sand and sleet, would beat against their frail buildings, threatening destruction.
These people had many lonely hours living in such wild environments, and much time in which to meditate on the goodness of God, and they sincerely felt the need of one. It is no wonder their thoughts turned early to the benefits so, before any other organization, clubs, lodges, or even schools were given a thought, they met together and organized the church, of which the present Community Congregational Church is a continuation.
Sometime in the winter of 1878-1879 Elder Spencer of Sherlock, Kansas (now Holcomb), held a religious service in Garden City, preaching a sermon. This was the first and only public service, until Rev. W.D. Williams of Sterling, Kansas, visited the place May 18, 1879. Preaching services were held morning and evening and a Union Sunday School was organized in the afternoon. The attendance was so large, and the interest so manifest, that it was deemed expedient to continue religious services, and Rev. Williams announced that he would visit them again in three weeks.The services were held in the Landis and Hollinger store building, which was so nearly finished that by boarding up the front doors and arranging work benches, and making temporary seats of the lumber scattered around the building, the room was as comfortable as it was commodious.
Levi Wilkinson and W. H. Armentrout were appointed a committee to draft a constitution and by-laws for a church, which they presented for consideration on June 15, 1879. On August 4, of the same year, the organization was completed. It was chartered under the name of the First Congregational Church of Garden City, but the membership represented a union of five different denominations.
It was voted to invite Rev. L. H. Platt to become pastor of the new church for six months, and the church pledged $100 toward his support for that length of time. He accepted the call and began his labors with the church on November 15, 1879 and continued as pastor until July 1884. The services were held in the hall over Landis and Hollinger store, which was the only place in town suitable for public gatherings. The room was small and the wide boards in the floor were creaky, but it sheltered the first congregation for a period of three years. During that time, they received from the Home Mission fund $300 a year, and the same amount was supposed to be contributed by the local members for the support of the church, but according to records, they were only able to pledge $150.
Most of those early pioneers of old Sequoyah County were pretty hard up for cash, but they were an educated, ambitious people, and they sought to bring the same culture to their new homes as they had been accustomed to in the home towns they had left in the east. After the church became organized, it became the social center of the community. They had the advantage of a traveling library, and were in this way supplied with good books and literature. An organ was furnished by C. J. Jones, and D. R. Menke played the violin. The town has never had a better song leader then Levi Wilkerson, who possessed a fine tenor voice. He loved to sing and taught the children, and led the young people in many splendid services. There were special programs and organizations for the women. The work of every department was carried on with interest and efficiency. In May of 1881, the church received a present of a silver communion service from Mrs. Charles P. Whitin, of Whitenville, Mass., which was greatly appreciated.
The church records for July 10, 1881, show that a request be made of the Congregational Building Fund Society for a donation, or loan, to aid in building a church, and during the next year, the first church building in Garden City was built, on the corner of Eighth and Fulton Streets. It was dedicated September 10, 1882. Many donations of labor, cash, and furnishings were made by members and citizens of the town, and the large pulpit Bible, which was presented to the church that day by N. C. Jones, is still occasionally used in the church. The people were justly proud of the edifice and proud that Garden City had a church; for it was the first and for a while, the only one between Dodge City and Pueblo, Colorado.
The first church remained the only one until 1884 or 1885. By that time, the town was growing fast and a number of denominations organized and began to erect their own places of worship. But only one of these, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church have been lost or destroyed, so that not much information is now available.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized in 1884. At that time, the Congregationalists were holding regular services in their church, with Rev. Platt as their minister. Rev. Lowrence, a Cumberland Presbyterian, who came from Illinois with his family, and a few other families of the same denomination, who had been attending the Congregational Church, wanted a church of their own. A meeting was called and it was decided to settle the question this way. Rev. Platt stood on one side of the room, and Rev. Lowrence on the other. The ones wishing to remain with the Congregational standing with Rev. Platt, and the others taking their places with Rev. Lowrence; and this was the beginning of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. John A. Stevens was one of the trustees and was very active in securing the loan and in building the church. As time passed, both churches dwindled in size, so the two, Congregational and the Cumberland Presbyterians decided to unite and form a new church, which they called the Union Church.
Going back to the record of the Congregational Church, we find that Rev. Homer Thrall and Rev. Samuel Wood, served as pastors between the years of 1884 and 1889, and they were busy ones in the life of the church, for they covered the boom period, and may new people were coming in. The minutes of nearly every church meeting record the names of new members who had been received into the church. After that came the eight-year pastorate of Lyman Hull, and his years of service covered the darkest period in the history of Garden City. The great boom was over, and people were leaving the country faster than they had come in. There was a continuous drought in the land, which had previously yielded so plentifully, and almost amounted to famine. During all those bad years, Rev. Hull remained faithful to his charge, and he advocated a union of the struggling churches of Garden City. There were fourteen churches and all drawing support from their respective Home Missionary Societies in order to live. The union of the churches was the direct result of Rev. Hull's preaching, but it was not until Charles N. Severance became pastor in 1897, that a meeting was finally called and sufficient force put behind it to form a Union Church.
All denominations were in favor of a Union Church, but they wanted the union to be of their own creed. The result was that the Cumberland Presbyterians and the Congregational Church united with but three dissenting votes, under the name of the Union Church of Garden City, Kansas. This became effective February 1, 1898. From that time on, the services of the Union Church were held in Cumberland Presbyterian building, and the Congregational Church was sold to the Catholics and was the first building for St. Mary's Catholic Church.
After the Union Church had been organized for some time, it became necessary, in order to affiliate with some state and national organizations, to add the word Congregational. During 1928, a movement was started to change the organization into a Community Church. Within a few weeks after the organization was perfected, seventy-five persons became members, fifty-five of whom had never before been affiliated with any church. In the summer of 1929, the church was remodeled inside and out, and was formally dedicated the Community Church.
The Community Church continued to hold services in the former Cumberland Presbyterians Church building until 1951. The building was remodeled several times and several additions to the building were made through the years. Between the years 1929 and 1940, the Church continued to be a center for social activities. The youth groups were involved in the "theater group" and an orchestra. Regular "Talent Nights" were held, providing entertainment and some very good talent. During World War II, with the air base located here, the Church was also used as a USO center.
After World War II, plans were made to build a new church building. The property at Third and Walnut was purchased and this building was dedicated in May of 1951. The old building located at Sixth and Laurel was sold to the Assembly of God, and moved to a location at New York and Conkling Streets. The Community Church continued their affiliation with the Congregational Christian denomination and in 1961 voted to approve and join in the merger with the Evangelical and Reform Church, which created the United Church of Christ.
In addition to the worship services, many activities have been held in the present building. In 1965, Public Forums to meet the candidates were started. The Community Day Care was opened in 1969. The first Christian Arts Festival was held in 1967 and continued for twelve years. We have deliberately omitted the many names of the generous hard working people whose dedication and labor helped to build Garden City and this Church. The list is long and many of the names are recognizable as important to the history of both the City and the Church.
The congregation of the Community Church pays tribute to all of the many devout and generous people whose perseverance and hard labors are responsible for the continuation of this church and the rich heritage, which we are privileged to share.