Conshohocken United Methodist Church History
Updated by Robert J. Wise, Church Historian, March, 2005
The first service conducted by a Methodist preacher in Conshohocken was held in 1848 under a tree near Marble and Forrest Streets by the Reverend Thomas C. Murphy. Other meetings were held from time to time, and in 1854 the first Methodist Society was formed under the direction of the Merion Square (now Gladwyne) church with the Rev. Lewis C. Petit in charge.
For the first few years, the group met in the old Temperance hall on Elm Street above Forrest and also in the old Presbyterian Church standing at Elm and Maple Streets. In 1856, Conshohocken became a separate church with Reuben Owen as the pastor. During his first pastorate, a lot at Elm and Fayette (or Turnpike) Streets was bought at a cost of $666.66 and the church built with the cornerstone being laid on August 1, 1857. Great names took place in the corner stone laying, such as William Taylor of California, later Bishop Taylor, and Alfred Cookman, one of the saints of early Philadelphia Methodism. The church was still unfinished at the outbreak of the Civil War and the unfinished auditorium was used as a drill room by the troops of the community.
The church was finally completed and dedicated in 1867 during the second pastorate of Reuben Owen. Bishop Simpson who had delivered the funeral eulogy of Abraham Lincoln presided at the dedication service. A parsonage was erected that same year. Reverend Owen was responsible for a great revival in which over 150 individuals were received into the church. Lewis Petit, the first pastor, also had a wonderful revival in which 130 were converted. The meeting was held in the Presbyterian Church and forty of the converts joined the Presbyterian Church.
From 1873 until 1876, there was a great depression. The church had more members but less money and some of the pastors managed to live on a very small salary. How they did it only the Lord and themselves know. The Epworth League was organized in 1892, later becoming the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
The church enjoyed steady growth until by the end of nineteenth century members had to arrive early to get a seat and the Sunday School was filled to overflowing. In 1903, a property was purchased at the northwest corner of Fayette and Sixth Avenues to serve as the location for a new church home. A house that stood in a corner of the lot was moved one block west to become the new parsonage. While preparations were being made for the erection of the new building, the fiftieth anniversary of the official establishment of the Conshohocken congregation was celebrated with a week long program in April 1904. Bishop Mallalieu provided the opening sermon.
The cornerstone for the present church was laid on September 29, 1906. The estimated cost of the church was $30,000.00, and some of the church members mortgaged their homes as security for the church debt. The church was dedicated on January 19, 1908. On that date the members met at the hall where they had been worshipping for some time and marched as a body up Fayette Street to the new church. The sermon of dedication was preached by the Rev. John Krantz of New York.
One of the most notable pastorates in the history of our church was that of Thomas Armour who served from 1914 until his death in 1928. He received hundreds of members into the church and baptized over 500 infants and adults. Through his efforts, the Boy Scout movement had its introduction to Conshohocken and they met at our church as long as the troop existed.
During the pastorate of Edwin Carson (1937-1942) a major addition was made to the church. It was named Steele Chapel to honor the energetic and generous Miss Lillie Steele who was a leader in completing the project. The parsonage was renovated, modernized and faced with stone.
In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Protestant denominations merged and formed the Methodist Church. In 1940, various Methodist women’s organizations joined together to form the United Methodist Women, with its Needlework Circle providing clothing for those in need in the Conference. A men’s ministry was later formed, but lasted only for a few years.
Additional improvements and upgrades were made during the pastorate of Harry D. Boughey (1942-1949). Steele Chapel was dedicated in April, 1943. The church organ was completely modernized at a cost of over $5,000.00, and the remaining debt on the church and chapel was paid. The space under the sanctuary was completed and named Ely Hall.
During the pastorate of the Reverend James H. Brasher (1949-1957), a number of important improvements were made. The sanctuary and most of the fourteen other rooms of the Church and Sunday School were improved or redecorated. A new spacious memorial altar and other memorials were dedicated, as were a new pulpit and lectern with memorial Bibles. The sanctuary floors were refinished and a center aisle was added and the pews were refinished. A complete new kitchen was installed in the basement and a large adjoining room was laid out to be finished in the future. The Boy Scout Cabin, a landmark to two generations of scouts, was given a new and more spacious setting as the center of scouting for Troop 1 of Conshohocken, in the southeast corner of the large room under the sanctuary. The upper room above Steele Chapel was finished for the use of teens and youth of the church school with an assembly room and seven lesser class rooms.
The Live Nativity Scene began in 1957 as a way to put “Christ back in Christmas.” The project was a great success, well publicized, and “fan mail” was received from other towns and states. It continues to this day as a major part of the community’s Christmas season. The original organ was replaced in 1959 with one built by Edgar H. Magnin. It contains a total of 1413 pipes; of these, 597 pipes were retained from the original organ of December, 1916.
The first Holly Fair was held in 1961 and was an outstanding success. Almost every member of the church was involved in some way. It was continued for several years.
In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church. The merger ended the practice of officially sanctioned segregation which existed from 1939, when the Methodist churches African-American members were placed in a non-geographic unit called the Central Jurisdiction. The Central Jurisdiction was, in effect, a church within a church.
In 1975, the ravages of time caused the stone in the steeple to crumble. The decision was made to remove the bell and lower the tower. The bell, joining others throughout the country, rang for the last time on July 4, 1976. To answer the debt brought about by the steeple renovation, the annual Christmas Bazaar was instituted. In the late 1970’s, parts of the building were left unheated to conserve fuel because of energy shortages.
On October 9th, 1992, the Church experienced a devastating fire in Ely Hall which severely damaged the building. Through the quick response and heroic efforts of local fire companies, the sanctuary was saved. A gracious offer was made and accepted to have our congregation meet at the First Baptist Church for Sunday services while the church was rebuilt. A fine celebration was held to mark the rededication of our church
on May 9th, 1993.
In October 1998, our church noted the 150th anniversary of that first sermon under a tree with a fine celebration. Several dignitaries and former pastors were on hand to help celebrate this momentous event. Bishop Peter Weaver provided the anniversary sermon.
In the year 1999, Jubilee Presbyterian Church made arrangements to lease space from the Methodist Church as a meeting place for their congregation. Just as our church had been assisted while post-fire reconstruction occurred, we welcomed this opportunity to share our facilities for the benefit of others in the service of Christ.
Throughout the life of our church, several notable members have gone into the service of the Lord: Dr. Esther Shoemaker served as a missionary to Kolar India. Dr. Harold O. Koch served several churches in the Philadelphia Conference. Reverend Laurie Hopkins was ordained as a minister in the 1980’s and served as a missionary in Latin America.
In March, 2005, as this is written, the congregation has begun an ambitious rebuilding program to again renovate and restore our historic church facility.
The congregation of the Conshohocken United Methodist Church looks forward to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the new millennium, with the full intention of spreading the love of Christ throughout our community, our nation and our world.