How did First United Church turn into the socially conscious, welcoming congregation it is today? It turns out that the church has a long history of leadership and civic involvement. It grew and changed along with Oak Park.
The early Oak Park church
Two Oak Park churches, First Presbyterian Church and First Congregational Church, merged in 1975 to form First United Church of Oak Park. But the history actually goes back to the 1860s.
The first congregation in Oak Park was called the Oak Ridge Church of Harlem and started in 1860. Denominations did not meet separately; these believers first met in a community building that was later called Temperance Hall. Oak Ridge Church changed its name to First Congregational Church in 1871.
James W. Scoville, a founding member of the church and an early Oak Park settler, donated the current property at the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Lake Street. The first stone church in Oak Park was dedicated in November 1874.
Separate churches and denominations split from this first church to form different Protestant churches in Oak Park. First Congregational Church remained in the original building, where the current building now stands.
People who had been Presbyterians in other areas conducted services in Oak Park as early as 1861, but they didn’t organize the First Presbyterian Church until 1883. The frame church built in 1886 at 931 Lake Street was replaced by a stone and brick church on the same site in 1901. This building is now the home of Calvary Memorial Church.
A more detailed history of the church, complete with early reminiscences about First Congregational, was written five years after the merger, in 1980. It can be found at this link.
On Sept. 5, 1916, First Congregational Church was struck by lightning, and the church was destroyed by the fire. Five days later, Rev. William Barton reflected the church’s resolve to rebuild with this message in the Sunday worship bulletin:
“Our holy and our beautiful house,
where our fathers praised Thee,
is burned with fire;
and all our pleasant things are laid to waste.”
The church appointed a group of church leaders as a new Building Committee immediately, and construction of a new building began a short time later. The present building was dedicated in 1918. The new building used many stones from the old building, and the bell was saved and installed in the new belfry.
A gym wing was built in 1924. Memorial Chapel was added to the current building and dedicated in 1955 as a space for smaller worship services and other occasions. A church school area was added in 1964. First United had a major construction project in 2006, with renovations in the lounge and office areas, with some small building extensions. In 2018, the church underwent a long-needed renovation of the 100-year-old slate roof, which also involved closing the Sanctuary for the summer for renovation and repainting. All areas of the church are now back in business.
A union church
During a period of intense community change in the 1960s and early 1970s, members of First Congregational Church and First Presbyterian Church worked together on several community and mission projects, especially related to a vision of Oak Park as an integrated community. Their common interests led them to unite as First United Church on May 5, 1975. This new church combines the governing ideas of two denominations: Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ. But members of all faiths are welcome to worship at First United, and members have transferred from many denominations of Christianity.
For a few years, First United used both buildings on Lake Street. In 1979, the Presbyterian Church building was sold to Calvary Memorial Church, and the proceeds were placed into a fund dedicated to mission known as SMEF, or the Special Mission Endowment Fund. Much of the church’s mission funding comes from SMEF. The church Faith in Action Committee makes those recommendations, and the entire congregation votes on those choices during the congregation’s Annual Meeting.
Women answer the call
Until the 1980s, all pastors and associate pastors of both First Presbyterian and First Congregational were men. The first female associate pastor, Rev. Bobbi Wells Hargleroad, answered a call to First United in 1989. The church has had a mixture of men and women as pastors ever since. First United called its first female senior pastor, Rev. Julie Ruth Harley, in 2008.
The decision to become an Open and Affirming (UCC)/More Light (PCUSA) congregation in 1995 was a major event for the congregation. This decision meant that the church affirmed and supported the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual individuals into the church both as members and as pastoral staff. Some members left First United over this decision. But more of them stayed to greet the new visitors and members who saw First United as an open and welcoming place to worship, no matter anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
New mission opportunities
First United Church has increased the mission use of our building. In 1992, First United became one of the original founders of PADS in Oak Park, which offers emergency shelter to homeless individuals one night a week throughout the fall, winter, and spring months. The Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry established its permanent home at First United in 2004 and is open every week on either Wednesday or Saturday to distribute food to clients from multiple nearby communities. In 2005, we started offering space to Cluster Tutoring one night a week throughout the school year so that volunteer tutors and students from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood could meet for one-to-one tutoring sessions.
The church also housed a walk-in ministry that is now incorporated into Housing Forward, a nonprofit that seeks to transition homeless individuals into housing stability. The church offers space for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Members meet regularly to knit and crochet for a prayer shawl ministry.
Our mission involvement doesn’t stop at our doors. We sponsored a refugee family from Iraq. For decades, First United has been a partner to people in crisis regions throughout the Middle East, and many church members have led trips there. Members are involved locally, statewide, and nationally on issues such as affordable housing, climate change, and the fight against gun violence.
For more than 100 years, women of the church met to expand their knowledge through presentations of ideas and programs and to fund mission projects across the United States and around the world. Originally aimed at younger women and working women who couldn’t meet during the day, the group expanded to include dinners and to offer a welcome to all women — and eventually to men, too. While the group that was once called Evening Division has now disbanded, members put together a special video to remember those leaders who came before us with a centennial celebration in 2013.