Facing a church closure—First Palmyra UMC members reminisce
Editor’s Note: Every year, 8-15 churches across the Upper New York Conference close their doors for good. Here is the story of one church that will be closing effective July 1, 2019. Have you experienced a recent church closure? We’d love to help you preserve the memory of your church. Send your story to email@example.com.
Palmyra, New York has a rich history of Methodism. This area was one of the most popular areas of the Methodist circuit riders in the late 1700s. What is known today as the First United Methodist Church of Palmyra (FUMCP) had its first gathering as a congregation in 1797. After becoming incorporated in 1824 and being located on two different streets in Palmyra, the current church was built on the corner of Main Street and Church Street in 1867 and has served several generations of Methodists since.
The church is a gorgeous brick structure with tall, arched stain glass windows. The original sanctuary seats about 200 people on wooden pews with royal blue cushioning. A massive pipe organ that was installed in 1889 adorns the back of the sanctuary and still plays beautifully. Stitched and quilted banners made by members of the congregation over the years are hung on the sanctuary walls between the stained-glass windows.
Today, the church has 10 sole members and to save on utility bills, they do not meet in the large sanctuary; they meet in what they call the chapel (a room that was once the church nursery). This room has enough pews and chairs to seat 30, but it hasn’t held that many members in over a decade.
The remaining members of FUMCP are mourning. Their church will be closing effective July 1, 2019.
Judy Herrick and Ann Guest have been members of FUMCP since they were infants in 1941 and 1945 respectively. They remember days when the large sanctuary was full especially for the Christmas Eve and Easter services. Judy said, “It was so full that it was standing room only on Easter for all three services every year.”
Ann piggybacked off Judy’s comment remarking on how the Sunday school classes flourished over the years. Ann said, “There were 10 or more kids in every single grade of Sunday School. And the Junior High youth group and Senior High youth group each had 15-20 kids.”
For several years, the church had a junior choir and senior choir, each with 30+ members. Ann, reminiscing about the choirs, said, “They wore these gorgeous purple robes with gold stoles and there were amazing singers from young children all the way through members who are as old as I am now.”
Over the past couple of decades, the membership numbers of FUMCP started dwindling. There hasn’t been a Sunday School in the past six or seven years. Children who have grown up in the church have since moved all over the country.
Ann and Judy discussed one indicator of the declining membership—the flowers for special services in the sanctuary. Judy said, “The sanctuary used to be overflowing with flowers for Christmas and Easter…and every year, there were fewer and fewer to now only a few arrangements.”
The remaining members of the church have still been very active disciples; during the Christmas holidays of 2018, they filled 471 shoe boxes of toiletries and other necessities for community organizations.
They have had very successful chicken barbeques and pie sales that have been successful fundraisers to keep the church afloat, but they no longer have enough people to keep the fundraisers going.
As a group, nine of the 10 remaining members voted for the church to close.
The Rev. Patience Kisakye was appointed to the church on July 1, 2018 and has seen the members through the process of deciding to close the church in the fall of 2018. She said, “The fact that many generations of families have been members of this church has been a strength, but also, it has been a downfall because it has been difficult for new members to assimilate.”
The church will be celebrating their history on June 30 and members of several churches will be attending to show them their support. Judy said, “We are sad about the church closing, but we will continue to do our jobs of spreading God’s word, and serving those who need us spiritually, emotionally, and physically.”
Hundreds of people will hold memories of how wonderful it was to be a member of FUMCP.