Old churches reflect Canal Winchester history

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By Linda Dillman
Staff Writer

As Canal Winchester prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its Labor Day Festival, a pair of churches has a rich history in the city as well, with one dating back over 200 years and the other tracing its lineage back nearly as long.

Hope United Methodist Church

Messenger photos by Linda Dillman
Hope United Methodist Church sits regally along Columbus Street in Canal Winchester.

Hope United Methodist Church, 83 E. Columbus St., began as a United Brethren Class in 1815 in a log schoolhouse and home owned by Ludwig Kramer. Shortly thereafter, Kramer added a large frame room onto his residence for meeting purposes.

When the house was later sold to Sam Dietz, Kramer stipulated the room must still be made available for church use. When services became too noisy, Dietz bought out the meeting room. A few of Hope’s current members are descendants of the founders of the church and town.

Nearly two decades later, a frame meeting house was erected on East Columbus Street in 1833 and was the first of three structures built on the present site. During the early years, it was common for different churches to share the same building. Hope shared theirs with the Methodist Episcopal Church from 1838-50.

In 1851, a brick building replaced the frame one and in 1887, the present structure was erected using many of the bricks, floor, and joists salvaged from the old building. A fellowship hall and kitchen were added in 1952 and an educational annex in 1960.

Not only is Hope Church the first of its kind organized in Canal Winchester, it is also responsible for many other religious firsts in the life of the growing community. It hosted the first Sunday School in the village in 1833, its church bell first beckoned parishioners in 1846, and the first organ in the United Brethren Conference was installed in 1865.

According to church secretary Linda Fields, 30 years ago Hope was a vibrant church with many children and young people carrying on traditions established more than 200 years ago. However, she said most of the children grew up and moved away or no longer attend church.

“I would say 85 percent of our church are over 70,” said Fields. “The younger generation is also drawn to the big churches with praise bands with which we can’t compete. I used to be the head of the youth group in the 1980s and we travelled a lot with over 25 kids. Now there are only two of those children who worship here with their families. They are now in their 50s. Unless there is an influx of people, we know our church will not survive another 20 years. This is sad for all of us.”

According to Fields, the decline in population has not gone without notice and over the years parishioners discussed ways to adapt to changing times. She said endeavors have so far been unsuccessful. Sunday School was cancelled, services are less formal, meeting times were moved up so members can get out earlier and the church is welcoming to a more diverse population.

However, none of the ideas resulted in an uptick in membership lamented Fields.

“There are so many churches in Canal Winchester that I believe anyone who wishes to attend church has a wide open range to pick from,” she said. “Our church is traditional, where we sing the old, known hymns, we have a choir, we have prayer and a sermon and we’re done. If someone likes that kind of worship, we are still here and would love to have them join our Hope family.”

Although membership is aging and declining, those who attend Hope United Methodist Church are, according to Fields, very active—serving as volunteers and board members—in community activities such as the food pantry, historical society, city council and the Labor Day committee.

“We have a children’s clothing ministry where people come once a month to get free clothing,” said Fields. “However, it has turned into a children’s clothing exchange, where most people bring in their outgrown clothing each time they come to get more. This is a wonderful outreach, but has not brought us any new attendees at church. We also sell homemade buckeyes year round. This, again, has brought many people into the church to buy buckeyes but not to attend church.”

David’s United Church of Christ

The history of David’s United Church of Christ on Columbus Street dates back to 1839 when the congregation shared their building with David Lutheran Church.

According to David’s United Church of Christ’s Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, the church’s beginnings date back to approximately the same time period as Hope’s, circa 1816 or1817, when minister Rev. George Weisz began preaching to German Reformed people who settled in Canal Winchester, Violet Township, and Lithopolis.

It was other members of the Dietz family—John and Elizabeth Dietz—who were instrumental in establishing the foundation for the German Reformed and Lutheran Churches in the area, which much later became David’s United Church of Christ, 80 W. Columbus St., and David Lutheran Church, 300 Groveport Road. The couple provided space on a rotating basis in their log cabin at Winchester and Lithopolis roads for the first services circa 1830.

David’s (German) Reformed Church and the David Lutheran Church built a shared sanctuary at Washington and West streets in 1839, where both met until 1875 when doctrinal differences became more emphasized.

“Though our congregation had its beginnings somewhat earlier, we have considered 1839 when our first building was built as our establishment date,” said Darnell. “Each congregation then sought to build their own building. The David’s Reformed Church bought out the Lutherans’ share in the first building.”

The new David’s Reformed Church building opened in 1883 debt free. In 1904 the interior of the church was renovated and in 1923, a new Sunday school wing was added. In 1934 the church became known as David’s Evangelical and Reformed Church.

A pipe organ was installed in 1937 and the first church phone was connected in 1945. The Congregational Christian Churches and Evangelical and Reformed Church merged in 1957 and became the United Church of Christ in 1957, resulting the name now familiar to the Canal Winchester community of today.

According to a history of Canal Winchester written by Frances Steube and Lillian Carroll, the neighboring Oley Speaks family home was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a church addition including an enlarged kitchen, dining room, offices, parlor and a prayer chapel.

“Several decades ago, there were many farming families in David’s Church and Canal Winchester at large,” said Darnell. “Today there are only two or three farming families left in our congregation. This is reflected in the wider community as Canal Winchester has grown from a small town to a burgeoning suburb. There was a time when our congregation drew only from the surrounding community. Today our congregation members live not only in Canal Winchester, but as far as Westerville and Lancaster, as well as Pickerington, Groveport, and Reynoldsburg.”

Like many congregations, David’s has a sizeable senior citizen membership, but there are also many younger families raising their children in a progressive faith environment. Darnell said the congregation has changed as the community and its needs change.

“Over the years we have spearheaded ministries to meet these needs,” said Darnell. “The Canal Winchester Food Pantry was founded and housed at David’s Church, until it became part of Canal Winchester Human Services several years ago. David’s Way was begun by United Church Homes, with leadership from our congregation, to provide affordable senior housing in our community. In the wake of the George Floyd killing, we led weekly sit-ins in support of Black Lives Matter on our church lawn.”

Since 2012, David’s established a policy of being an “open and affirming” congregation, in support of the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in its ministry. Church members have hosted refugee families over the past several decades, and are currently preparing to welcome a new refugee family in the coming year.

In looking to the future, one of the biggest challenges Darnell sees for Canal Winchester is the division between lifelong Canal Winchester residents and others who have settled here more recently. He said there is a tension between the small town feel of the community and the city’s growing suburban nature.

“Churches are one of the few places left in any community where people of diverse perspectives can come together for a common cause,” said Darnell. “David’s Church cares deeply about creating community beyond any divisions. I think we have a unique role in bringing people together for the betterment of our community, no matter our background or where we come from.”

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