History of the Rutherford United Methodist Church
Submitted and written by Rod Leith, Rutherford Borough Historian
Photo credits: Rod Leith and The Meadowlands Museum
The Methodist movement was established in Bergen County in the late 18th Century, but it didn’t reach Rutherford until the 1870s. It was in 1872 when the Ladies Aid Society of the Park M.E. Church, known then as the “ladies circle,” began raising funds for a church. But the society did not take hold here until after a remarkable visit from a Methodist minister from Corona.
The Rev. William H. Russell, who had established a Methodist Episcopal Church in Hasbrouck Heights, then known as the Village of Corona, was invited in 1879 by the clergy of the old Pilgrim Baptist Church on Highland Cross, to preach a sermon. His message so resonated with listeners like Thomas M. Dickey that it brought an immediate response to rekindle the Rutherford M.E. society.
The Methodist Church that was built in 1872 closed due to financial ruin. Its building went into foreclosure in 1878. The Methodists continued to hold services in Union Hall on Ames Avenue, sharing that overcrowded space with the Episcopalians. This arrangement is what generated humorous descriptions, with the Grace Protestant Episcopal congregation upstairs and the Methodist Episcopal gathering downstairs. According to one account, it frequently happened that the sounds of hearty singing downstairs would take precedence of more subdued utterances upstairs, but the heartiest good feelings generally prevailed.
In 1881, a small chapel was built on property donated by Mary E. Ames, for whom Ames Avenue was named. This church, built from materials salvaged from the 1872 church structure, again fell on hard times.
But membership in both the M.E. Church and its enthusiastic Sunday School grew to several hundred under a series of able ministers. With the leadership of Rev. Charles M. Anderson, the Methodists managed in 1891 to pay $5000 for a piece of land at the corner of West Passaic Avenue and Elliott Place. The noted Passaic City architect Herman Fritz was commissioned to design a parsonage (extant) for a tidy sum of $4000.
The Rutherford Methodist Church has included among its members some persons who have played important roles in the community and its cultural history. These would include William J. Slingerland, a former church trustee who served as a Borough Councilman; Barbara Chadwick, a former mayor; and Mary Morey Plass, who served historically on that “ladies’ circle,” the church’s Ladies Aid Society. After they settled here in 1868, members of the Hoag family, one of Rutherford’s earliest African-American families, became members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Their oldest daughter, Lillian, was a long-time member. Lafayette and Harriet Hoag had been married in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rochester. Lilian Florence Hoage, who died Sept. 3, 1950, helped her brother, Joseph Alonzo Hoage, with the purchase of property from William J. Singerland at 90 Montross Avenue. A house built there in 1900 was the setting of the marriage of Joseph and Clara Wright Keller on October 22, 1900. The ceremony was conducted by Rev. Julius F. Maschman of the Rutherford Methodist Episcopal Church.
While the design of the Rutherford Methodist parsonage is attributed to Fritz by J.J. Ketchum of Rutherford Illustrated, the architect responsible for plans of a permanent church next door on West Passaic Avenue remains unknown. Fritz, who was born in Rutherford, was a highly respected designer of both residences and schoolhouses, may have influenced the church vernacular Neo-Gothic plans. The trustees of Rutherford ME Church awarded a contract to George Riker for building its new church on West Passaic Avenue. The cost for completion of a brick structure with brownstone trimmings was about $15,000; awarded to Riker in mid-September 1895. To be completed in April 1896.
The bond brick church, supported by a Brownstone foundation, was dedicated November 4, 1895. Dr. S. Van Benschoten laid the cornerstone. Its Brownstone foundation would have come from a quarry in Belleville which supplied other architectural gems, such as David Ivison’s mansion, Iviswold Castle. Although its design plans have been lost, it is probable its builders relied on plans from an 1880-era booklet entitled, “Catalogue of Architectural Plans for Churches and Parsonages in the Methodist Episcopal Church.” In its 1981 critique, the Bergen County Historic Sites Advisory Board stated that the church’s “Now Gothic style, particularly in its English-derived manner, was popular here as elsewhere, and this is a pleasing example.”
Overseeing this period of the church’s development was a minister who came to Rutherford in 1895 and remained through 1899. Charles Larew Mead (1868-1941) was educated at Syracuse and later received his L.L.D. from the University of Denver. After serving as pastor with churches in Hoboken, Newark, and Baltimore, Rev. Mead was elected bishop May 20, 1920 at the General Methodist Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. During WWI, Rev. Mead served with the Y.M.C.A. for six months in France.
As its membership grew, so too did the needs of its highly active church groups. The Methodist Church expanded to meet the demand for more space. Between 1907 and 1923, a chapel was added and the Sunday School building was erected. Further construction in 1923-1930 changed the original double entrance façade, with two towers, to a single front entrance and new stained glass memorial window. A magnificent Moller organ was installed in 1929, supervised by M.P. Moller himself, at a cost of $9,600.
Like some of Rutherford’s other historic structures, the Methodist Church, now known as United Methodist Church, maintains its stateliness largely because of the quality of its original construction. The integrity is also due to high marks for its building stewards, well deserved for maintenance over the years. “As the main building and Sunday School annex have been practically rebuilt in recent years and excellently maintained in the meantime, no deductions have been made for depreciation and obsolescence,” stated an engineer’s appraisal in 1938.
In its interior, hardwood floors and lath and cement plaster finishing have withstood the wear and tear of nearly eleven decades. However, deterioration has taken its toll. The anticipated cost delayed repair of the Moller organ and the church’s basement, once the home of a thriving day nursery and Scout groups, is no longer in use due to water damage.
As strong as its structure is, it is no more than a handsome shell without the spirit and vitality of its members and their trusted servants. To wit, the church was able to announce in November of 1944 that the church’s campaign helped erase its $25,000 debt. Its pastor, Rev. Everett F. Hallock, proudly confirmed the campaign had raised $27,759. Four decades later, another effort looked to raise $30,000 to restore the church’s 88-year-old Sanctuary. Rev. Richard Wittig credited important fundraising assistance from Rev. G. Wayne Cuff of the Methodist Office of Field Service and Finance.
This undertaking in 1983, with the donation of an estimated $100,000 worth of labor, brought about the repair, painting, and plastering of the old Sanctuary. More than 50 church members, supported by Ray Tiedemann of Tiedemann Inc., and with assistance from a group of volunteer tradesmen and skilled workers, participated in the removal of the old chancel and pews. The design of the news worship space was supervised by Allen Lohrenz, with help from many others, including Allan Lawyer, Ed Nielson, Harlow Robbins, Carl Lohrenz (Al’s father), Ron Jackson, Norman Morrison, Jim Purdy, and John Tan.
Whether it was keeping the church’s financial condition in order, leading and directing the church’s Sunday School and youth groups, or making and repairing furnishings over the course of nearly 110 years --- many lay assistants have served in leadership roles. Historic names include Dr. S. Benschoten, Fred Doolittle, John Stephenson, Clement Eynon, and Roy L. Reed, whose family preserved many important church records. Women who have served in important roles include Barbara Chadwick, Jackie Bunker-Lohrenz, Elizabeth Carter, Anna McHale, and Shirley Marchion.