Wallowa UMC closes after 144 years of faithful ministry
When Peggy Gentle and her family arrived in Wallowa, Oregon, in 1960 from California, it was a pretty easy decision to start attending Wallowa United Methodist Church.
“I was Episcopalian, but the church was 20 miles away and I have five children,” said Gentle, who is now 97. “We lived two blocks from the (UMC) church. I marched all five of them down there.”
Through thick – and thin – Gentle raised her children and helped raise other children as a Sunday school teacher for more than 30 years in this tight-knit community. But the time had come that the church could no longer financially support itself or its building. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference will vote to formally close the congregation during its meeting on Sept. 16.
But Gentle looks back on her time at the church with adoration and pride for the gatherings they held and the many ministries the church provided for the people in the surrounding community.
“We did so many things,” Gentle said of the congregation.
Kaye Garver has served as the lay pastor of the church for the last 21 years – it’s the longest she’s served any church – and reports that over the course of the church’s 144-year history, they have had 37 pastors and more than 2,000 people call it home.
The church was started by F.C. Bramlet in 1876 and a church building was officially erected in 1899. The church building was later purchased by the Church of Christ, then was bought and painted by a privately family and is known as the “purple church” in town.
At the same time the United Methodist Church in Wallowa was growing, the Presbyterians in town built a church building in 1910. In 1940, Wallowa UMC purchased the church and that’s the space they occupied until January 2019, when for safety reasons and declining membership, they started holding services at the local community center.
But that old church building, replete with an organ, served the Wallowa UMC well for a long time. Gentle’s children played a large part in that. Her three oldest sons were responsible for starting the coal furnace in the basement of the church before worship. By the time it was turn for her fourth son to do it, the church converted from a coal-fired furnace to oil.
The church membership also boasted four organists, who each took turns playing the large instrument. Gentle spent time teaching Sunday school when her children were young, and thought she’d “retired” from the volunteer gig. Then her grandson would come to visit and they hadn’t found her replacement.
“I made it a point to go every Sunday,” Gentle said. “I figured the children needed their teachers.”
Garver said the church has made a lasting impact on the community through its Memorial Day breakfasts and United Methodist Women’s Christmas teas for years.
Then, nine years ago, the church started a new ministry with a re-sale clothing store in the basement of the church, partnering with the local Presbyterian Church. Everything was a quarter.
“The motto was ‘transforming the world one quarter at a time,’” Garver said.
The Presbyterian Church will continue the re-sale clothing shop, which has often supplied clothing to people who have been impacted by fire or other disasters.
“That’s a place in the community where a lot of times they don’t even charge people money,” Garver said.
The remaining church members will have their memberships transferred to Joseph UMC and Gentle said she’d still love to meet up with her remaining church friends for meals at the senior center every once in a while when the pandemic subsides.