170 YEARS OF MARION FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
In 1842 Marion was just emerging from being a frontier community. Iowa was still a territory, not yet a state. In 1839 the Iowa Territory was divided into counties, and Marion was designated the Linn County Seat. By 1842 the community had a few industries, such as a flour mill and saw mill, and businesses, including a bank, a hotel, a clothing store, tinsmith, blacksmith, livery stable, and other typical commercial establishments of a town at that time. Most of the area’s people lived and worked on farms.
That was the setting when our church was organized February 5, 1842, with nine members, several of them transferring their membership from the Linn Grove Presbyterian Church southeast of Springville, organized a year earlier. The original name was the Old School Presbyterian Church of Marion. At that time there were two distinct Presbyterian factions, Old School and New School. The Old School was considered the more conservative, but in the turbulent years before the Civil War, it usually was identified as being anti-slavery while the New School favored slavery.
Services at first were held in public buildings, including Linn County’s first courthouse, a wooden building, and soon in a new brick courthouse. Without a minister, the members heard sermons about four times a year by The Rev. Salmon Cowles, a Presbyterian missionary serving the Iowa Territory. Based in Keokuk, he traveled his mission area by horseback, as there were few roads and no railroads. He carried his Bible and belongings in a saddle bag, staying in homes where he stopped. Starting about 1849, the Marion and Linn Grove churches for several years shared the services of The Rev. J.S. Fullerton, who preached at one place Sunday morning and the other in the afternoon, if the weather permitted him to travel.
In 1851, the congregation purchased a lot for $60 on what was then Market Street, now Tenth Street, across from the city square, and began to construct a church building. In those early days much of the economy was based on a barter system. As a result, many of the subscriptions or pledges toward building the church, rather than money, were in the form of labor, lumber, nails, bricks, mortar, plaster, and other materials. With only volunteer labor, it was five years before services could be held in the building. Much of the work was done by Rev. Fullerton. In 1852 the first Sunday School was organized, and within a few years had an enrollment of 50. Classes were held in a brick school building.
The early 1850s were a trying time for the membership. Rev. Fullerton had left, the building was unfinished, and only occasional services were being held. A minister called from the East, while enroute to serve the Marion church, became ill and died of cholera on an Ohio river boat.
Then in 1851, a young minister educated in Pennsylvania, who had been preaching for several months in Wisconsin, happened to attend a meeting of the Cedar Rapids Presbytery. Also attending the meeting was William Vaughn, an elder of the Marion church, who invited him to preach in Marion the next Sunday, April 20. The following day a congregational meeting was held and the young minister was invited to become pastor of the Marion Presbyterian Church.
He was The Rev. Alexander S. Marshall, who was called Dr. Marshall. The congregation promised him the salary of $300 per year, with the Board of Home Missions providing another $200. Thus Dr. Marshall began a career of nearly 40 years as the pastor of this church. His first task was completion of the church building, which was ready for services in a few weeks.
There were many periods during Dr. Marshall’s career when the church fell on hard times, and could pay only part of the salary, which he needed to care for his family. Still Dr. Marshall became a highly respected community and religious leader in this area, and the Marion Presbyterian church managed to grow, as did the community of Marion in years after the Civil War when it became a railroad center. In 1881 he completed 25 years as pastor, and during that time he had received 410 members, married 283 couples, and conducted so many funerals he lost count of the number. Membership that year totaled 194, with church attendance in fair weather about 350.
The growth of the church led to planning for a new building, and in July 1884 construction began on our present sanctuary building. Stone for the church was brought to Marion from Stone City on the new Dubuque Southwestern Railroad line. As with any construction project, many problems arose but the structure was completed and dedication of the new church was held September 27,1885. Dr. Marshall died in 1896. Since then the church has had 12 senior and several associate pastors, including the Rev. Jay Miller who served 23 years, and our present ministers, the Rev. Dr. Howard Chapman and the Rev. Elizabeth Hilkerbaumer.
The sanctuary building existed without major changes until the Westminster House addition and other changes of 1954-56. Those included our kitchen and purchase of a new Moller organ, replacing an organ installed in 1896. Another major remodeling project occurred in 1967 with a new ceiling and new pews in the sanctuary. Our church built the Mission House in 1985, and a 1988 addition included the lounge, choir room, and pastor’s office. In 1989 our church acquired the lot northwest of our building, razed a factory building there, and made it into our parking lot. In 1992 our church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1999 the first part of a three-phase restoration project of the sanctuary stained glass windows was completed. Other significant activities during the church’s most recent decade included the establishment of a web site, implementation of the block curriculum for Sunday School classes, and decorating of the upstairs hallway in a Biblical theme to enhance Sunday School programs.
Also during 2001, the second phase of the stained glass window restoration was completed. A major project of the year was renovation of the Westminster House chapel to allow its use as a multi-purpose room as well as a chapel.
A history of First Presbyterian Church would not be complete without special mention of the mission projects conducted in the Mission House, a building erected by this congregation just north of our sanctuary. Housed there are The Churches of Marion Pantry, begun in 1982 and operated by nine local churches to make food available to needy families, and the Helping Hands Storeroom, operated by volunteers from our church for more than 30 years. The Storeroom provides donated clothing, bedding, household items, and toys to individuals and families in need. The need for services provided by both the Pantry and Storeroom has grown steadily over the years. In 1992 the Storeroom served approximately 2,400 persons, and by 2001 the number served was 4,717 individuals.
As First Presbyterian Church entered into 2002, its 160th year, a major renovation of the sanctuary organ was planned, and efforts continued toward completing the restoration of the stained glass windows. Also, the church officers, staff, and members of the congregation initiated a detailed study and analysis of issues, problems, and possible courses of action confronting the church in its 17th decade, a time of a much different social and economic environment than was faced by the founding members of this church.
In 2006 a capital campaign was launched to raise funds for a new roof, to repair and update the steeple and construct a new entry way from the alley on the north side of the church. The goal of the campaign was around $800.000 and we exceeded that amount hitting close to $900,000. The largest gift of $100,000 was from the estate of Selma Samuels, the aunt of long time member Jane DeWitte. In November of 2006, Pastor Chapman mounted a lift that took him to the top of the steeple, where the finial was permanently mounted in a celebration signifying the completion of the roof and steeple project. The entryway construction was completed in 2009 and a celebration was held in August of that year.
Now we begin our 18th decade with a new construction project, building a full size modern elevator off of the entryway. God has been faithful to our congregation over the years. As we move foward we strive to be faithful to God, internally nurturing, externally serving.