Otsego United Methodist Church still grows after 175 years

Virginia Ransbottom

The United Methodist Church of Otsego is celebrating its 175th anniversary and the public is invited to join them for a celebration to the past and future on Sunday, Aug. 13, at 1 p.m. in Brookside Park for a concert, picnic and children’s activities.
While the current Gothic/Victorian-style building was erected in 1889 and awarded the city’s first historic marker in 2003, the congregation has served the community since its organization in 1842 as part of a circuit served by a traveling minister on horseback.
Lucius and Abigail Anderson, Sidney Ketchum and Angeline Lane gathered for prayer and mutual support with the circuit rider, and the gathering grew.
The Andersons owned property in the village. Records show Lucious was a school inspector in 1837, a Justice of the Peace in 1839 and the town clerk in 1840.
Lane lived in Watson Township with her husband Leland who was township supervisor in 1847,
Ketchum spent much time in Allegan overseeing construction of its first grist-mill, saw mill, dam, water race for industry and then planning for a church building in Otsego began in 1843. Construction was completed in 1847. The structure seated 250 in the sanctuary and membership stood at 110.
In 1850, the Otsego circuit was formally organized. Ranson Goodale was appointed as the “pastor-in-charge” of the circuit that included churches in Otsego, Gun Plains, Cooper, Alamo, Pine Creek, Silver Creek and Martin. This linkage of churches stayed the same until 1868 when Plainwell and Martin joined with South Wayland to form the Plainwell circuit.
Rev. Goodale was 32 when he became Otsego’s pastor and perhaps the pace of seven churches was too much for him. He died at age 37.
The first church building stood on the site of the present structure. It was torn down in 1889 to make way for a new edifice.
The building’s cornerstone was dedicated on Dec. 22, 1889, at the site of the first church. Over 900 townspeople attended the dedication.
Civil War mapmaker Charles Prentiss designed the present church with Gothic and Victorian elements. He was a Civil War mapmaker and marble cutter. During the war he was a prisoner at Libbey prison for 40 days until an exchange of prisoners was made. At one time he owned a planning mill on the race in Otsego. He later owned a wallpaper and paint store.
The paper industry had just begun in Otsego when the church was built. The church saw Otsego’s transformation from railroad stop and hot springs resorts to mill town.
The church’s building leadership was also shared with Joseph Lindsey and Bartlett Nevins. Local builder William Healey helped other church members build the church by hand with no power tools. Electricity wouldn’t come to Otsego until 1903.
Art Stained Glass Works in Chicago made the windows in the sanctuary, which were dedicated to the church’s pastors or eldest members.
Coloring the morning light is a stained glass window depicting Jesus and dedicated to William Allen, the oldest member in 1889. Illuminated in the afternoon is a window dedicated to former Otsego Rev. Frank McCoy who gave his life in 1889 to serving the poor in Calcutta.
There are more than 20 other stained glass windows illuminating the church at any given time. The church also has its original ceiling rafters, Corinthian columns and ornate wooden pews to add to the ambience.
A new church organ was added around 1949 and in 1950 a basement was dug, which many architects said was impossible. With its completion, the Sunday school had a quieter setting to meet. The upper elementary students no longer had to join in the furnace room where Ms. Smalla cleaned the coal dust off seats before class and went home to wash up before worship.
In 1957, a news article said the church’s nativity scene, built by 100 members from every church in town, had been viewed by people from all over the country during its two decades on display since its quality was of the old masters.
When the church broke ground for a new parsonage on Walden Drive in the early 1970s, the tradition of honoring the eldest member continued along with honoring the youngest. The elder Edith Rush and toddler Michael Panse wielded the shovel together.
Exactly 100 years after the church was built, the new fellowship hall and Sunday school addition was added in 1989.
In 2003, when the church was awarded the city’s first historical marker, eldest members Donna and Dorothy Knight were also honored for joining the congregation in 1932.
Four years later, the church steeple was removed for repairs. Its bell, believed to be the original from 1847, is still being rung using a rope. The church roof was also repaired. The original had been tin and lasted at least 125 years.
Today the church has 365 members and 325 constituents who continue mission work that began back in 1879. Along with worldwide support, the congregation also serves the needs of the poor and hungry in the local area through several endeavors, including ministering to children in a local mobile home park and offering them back-to-school, Mother’s Day and Christmastime assistance.
The history for this article was gleaned from former Otsego UMC pastor Bob Roth’s booklet, “A History of the United Methodist Church of Otsego” printed in 1984, newsclippings, and from church member Donna Church who organized a history display that now spans the width of the fellowship hall.
The display table and wall includes hymnals dating back to 1878; member records dating back to 1888, a 1926 voucher for a gift of $47.25 to the Anti-Saloon League of Michigan; historic photos and written histories; and a 1905 quilt made by the Ladies Aid. The quilt is covered with church member names embroidered in each square—including the Dugans and Strattons who still have members in the church.
Roth’s history book leans towards people, experience and ministry over buildings and physical resources.
“I believe the church is the people,” he wrote in 1984 while serving as Otsego’s pastor.
Roth is now chaplain and director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Michigan, an ordained Elder in the Detroit Conference of the United Methodist Church, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor and author of several publications and books.
He will be leading the 10 a.m. service on Aug. 13, followed by the community picnic at 1 p.m. at Brookside Park. The public is invited. Bring your own lunch and enjoy free dessert, beverages and crafts for the kids.
The church will continue its celebration Aug. 20, at 10 a.m. with Sarah Rollandini as guest speaker keeping in the theme of remembering Abraham who lived to be 175 according to Genesis 25:7.
Starting Sept. 10, services are at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Current pastor Joe Shaler begins leading the “Celebration of our Connection” to scripture.
Sept. 24, District Superintendent, Rev. Dwayne Bagley leads in the “Celebration of our Connection” to United Methodists.
Oct. 29, Rev. Dan Minor leads in the “Celebration of our Connection” to the future.
Visit them at www.otsegomethodistchurch.com.


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