After a devastating fire in 1916 destroyed the church, the congregation rebuilt and dedicated a new building in 1918. First United decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our building throughout 2018 with a year-long celebration.
To start our Centennial Celebration we published two booklets, “The Walls Tell Our Story,” and “Memorial Chapel Windows,” to further explain the rich history of First United Church. The booklets describe much of the history of the church in two ways.
The first booklet shows, through images and photographs of some of the paintings on our church walls and of old photos that are kept in our church archives, how the church was rebuilt after the 1916 fire and how the building and the church’s mission grew. It also includes a handy timeline of church history, starting from the 1860s, when the first church in Oak Park, then called the Oak Ridge Church of Harlem, grew and branched off into other denominations. The Oak Ridge Church became the First Congregational Church, which stood on the site of the current church today. It merged with First Presbyterian Church in 1975 to become First United Church.
The chapel booklet describes the symbolism and Bible stories behind the artwork in the chapel windows. The text and explanations came from the book, Symbolism and Art in the Memorial Chapel of First Congregational Church Oak Park, Illinois, written by an unknown author.
Our Leadership Role on Fair and Open Housing
In June, the church sponsored a four-person panel of long-time Oak Parkers who told the history of the fight in the 1960s and 1970s for open and integrated housing in the village. This was before the merger of the two churches, but members of both congregations were heavily involved and had leadership roles in making sure housing in Oak Park was open to all, regardless of race. In 1968, Oak Park became the first community in the country to pass a Fair Housing Ordinance. The church also became the first home for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which still focuses on fighting segregation by offering renters and owners free services throughout the village, directing renters of all races to all areas.
Our speakers on the panel included Mac Robinet, whose family was among the first African-American families in Oak Park; Bobbie Raymond, who led the effort to start the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and was its first director; Sherlynn Reid, who promoted racial diversity as manager of the Village of Oak Park Community Relations Department; and Lois Merrill, who at the time was a local Realtor and trained other real estate agents in how to make sure housing stock in the village was open to all.
An audio version of that panel discussion can be heard at this online link.
In September, the church held an old-fashioned picnic featuring a fried chicken lunch, music, and games on the church lawn. The bluegrass band that usually plays at the Oak Park Farmers Market entertained the crowd. The church supplied chicken, lemonade, and the fixins’ for ice cream sundaes. Church members supplied side dishes and other desserts.
Children and adults alike took part in some old-fashioned games on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Raise the Roof Talent Showcase
The culmination of the Centennial Celebration was a November evening of choral and instrumental music, dance, and comedy in a Raise the Roof Talent Showcase, directed by Steve Pederson and produced by Marcia Ashton. A new sound system purchased for the event added to the sound quality and is being used each week to enhance worship services.
The appreciative audience enjoyed the acts, which included several classic comedy numbers, our own First United Woodwind Ensemble, a bluegrass band, a Sam Cooke soul music rendition, a jazz trio, a talented young flutist, and a dance number from our First United High School group. That’s a lot of talent in one church. Many are asking for an encore!
A slide show of more photos from the performance and a recording of the show will be available soon on Vimeo with a link on this page.
Rev. Lydia Mulkey, singing a number from Company by Stephen Sondheim, let her jilted-at-the-altar suitor know that she was “not getting married today,” while up in the loft, soprano Martina Reese blessed that decision with an “Amen!” Who knew that one of our pastors was a budding Broadway star?
A Centennial Hymn
Also as part of the Centennial Celebration, members wrote poetry to express their thoughts and feelings about the church and about each other. One of those poems took the form of a new hymn, written by church member Phil Gehring, a retired music professor and composer.
Then, Lord, a seed was planted and took root.
Our forebears gather’d in a faithful band
To sing and pray, to hear your word and raise
A cross above our homes in this young land.
Now, Lord, the church that from that seed has grown
Still sings and prays and listens for your word,
Still welcomes all at table and at font,
And still it makes its gracious message heard.
When, Lord, more generations have gone by,
New congregations in some future year
Will bring their hearts and spirits to this place,
And say with firm assurance, “God is here.”
So, Lord, we pledge to tend our lamps of faith
In peaceful times and also times of stress
To speak for justice with the prophet’s voice
And live the Christian life that we profess.