The story of the La Grande First Christian Church is one of joy-filled congregations, numerous fund drives to help the less fortunate, stunning hand-made ceiling arches and a lingering mystery.
Today nobody knows why the first church building was physically moved six blocks southeast from Washington
Avenue and Depot Street to Penn Avenue and Seventh Street in 1913, said Carol Haddock, the church’s
“It may have been because more space was needed, but we really do not know,” she said.
What is known is that the move was a herculean feat.
“I’ve always wondered how they did it (without modern machinery),” Haddock said.
After it was moved, the wooden building, originally constructed in 1900, continued serving the La Grande congregation for the next four decades until it was torn down in 1952. Today La Grande First Christian Church is located at 901 Penn Ave. in a still striking brick building constructed in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, no remnants of its original building remain, Haddock said. Still, the church continues to have a presence at Washington Avenue and Depot Street for this is where La Grande’s U.S. Post Office is. Fittingly, La Grande First Christian Church has a post office box there.
The public will have a chance to learn more about First Christian Church’s 1913 move and many other chapters of its history Sunday when it celebrates its 130th anniversary with an open house. Numerous items from the church’s archives will be displayed, including scrapbooks, photos and bulletins. A DVD about the construction of the education wing and sanctuary in the 1950s will also be available to view.
This marks the church’s 130th year for it was formally organized in 1889, Haddock said. The First Christian Church’s congregation did not have its own building the first 11 years while it met at a variety of sites including the old McWhirter Building in downtown La Grande.
The church was then light years from where it would be in the 1950s when its current structure was built on Penn Avenue. Its education and fellowship hall were first constructed in 1950-51, and the new church sanctuary adjoining the education wing was built in 1954, according to a booklet on the church’s history written by Haddock with help from Carolynn Vaughan, the church’s longtime administrative assistant.
Haddock credits Gene Robinson, who served as the church’s minister from 1946 to 1959, with inspiring the congregation to provide the support needed to build its current building six decades ago.
“He had a vision and inspired them to dream,” she said.
Haddock said a new structure was badly needed because the congregation was growing and the condition of its building was declining due to age.
Robinson was one of 29 ministers, including three interims, the church has had. Jack L. Hart, who served from 1973 to 1988, is the minister with the longest tenure, and Robinson ranks second.
People attending the open house will be able to see photos of most of the ministers regularly displayed on a wall in the church building. They will also have the opportunity to learn about the church’s architectural features, including the wooden arches in its sanctuary. These soaring arches were made over a three-year period by congregant Harvey Elmer with the help of many friends. Today they remain the sanctuary’s best-known feature.
“We owe such a debt of gratitude to Harvey Elmer,” Haddock said.
Haddock is encouraging people who were married in the church to sign a guest book indicating their wedding. She said the church has long been a popular place for weddings, perhaps because of its large sanctuary. Haddock said years ago local churches with large sanctuaries like that of the La Grande First Christian Church were rarer.
The church’s weddings in recent years have been conducted by Ray Smith, the current pastor. Smith, who has served the La Grande congregation since 2014, said he is looking forward to Sunday’s anniversary celebration.
“It is a special time,” Smith said.