HISTORY OF FIRST REFORMED UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
Burlington, North Carolina was first known as “Company Shops,” an unincorporated settlement inhabited principally by Germans, Scots, Irish and English Quakers. It dates back to as early as 1700. The name appears to have settled upon the community from habitual use, because the North Carolina Railroad Company shops were located there. In 1885 a municipal organization was formed, and the name was by popular vote changed to Burlington.
In this community stood a rather large frame building, known later as "The Old White Church," sometimes referred to as the “Union Church,” so named because various religious bodies represented in the community used it for their meetings. It was here that the interests of the Reformed Church first were fostered in 1889. That year the Classis of North Carolina met at nearby Brick Church and created the Alamance Charge, composed of St. Mark's, Stiner’s and a congregation to be organized in Burlington. The Tri-synodic Board of Home Missions of the Reformed Church had already voted a grant of $300 during its meeting, which convened April 8, to be used in the Burlington effort. Rev. Jesse Richards of Lakeside, Ohio, was commissioned missionary pastor and reported for work immediately.
A congregation was organized sometime later in the year in the home of Zimri M. Faust, who lived on South Main Street. The charter membership first contained the following names Z.M. Foust, Mrs. Z. M. Foust, Miss Lulu Foust, J.J. May, J.P. May, Mrs. J.P. May, Mrs. Rachael May, W.N. Mebane, W.M. Mebane, Mrs. W. M. Mebane, and Mrs. Jesse Richards. Rev. Richards held services in the old white church. During his pastorate, which lasted two years, membership increased to 50 people. But the next pastor, Rev. David P. LeFevre, who assumed his duties on October 1, 1891, served during a period that witnessed numerical loss in the congregation, leading to a decision by the Board of Home Missions to withdraw financial support from the Alamance Charge as of October 1, 1893.
Occasional visits by Rev. J.D. Andrew of the Guilford Charge held the small congregation together and on October 20, 1895, reorganization was effected with twenty-three members. Z.M. Faust and W.R. Garrett were elected elders, and J.R. May and A.M. Sheppard, deacons. Then in a special meeting of Classis at Newton, September 4, 1897, the Burlington Charge was formed from part of the Guilford Charge. Burlington, St Mark's and Fairview constituted the new charge. The Bi-Synodic Board of Missions re-enrolled the congregations January, 1898. Rev. J.D. Andrew, the commissioned pastor, began his work on September 1, 1898. Sunday School was organized with 19 members on April 23, 1899. On February 13, 1900, a site was purchased from B.R. Sellars for the sum of $265. On this, a brick church with an auditorium and two classrooms was built. The church was occupied on January 6, 1901. By May 6, 1906, all debts were paid. Owing to an increase in Sunday School enrollment, the congregation borrowed $500 from the Board of Home Missions to build additional Sunday School rooms. This was in October, 1909. Rev. Andrew closed his pastorate on June 1, 1913 and became President of Catawba College.
From 1913 to 1924 good progress was made under the leadership of three ministers: Revs. Dugan C. Cox, A.H. Zechiel and Samuel J. Kirk. A parsonage was purchased in 1913, a new parsonage was built immediately behind the church in 1917, and the congregation was made an independent, though not a self-supporting Charge, in 1918. The name was changed to "First" Reformed Church in 1924.
By the time Rev. Harvey A. Welker arrived to serve the parish in 1923, there was urgent need for new educational and worship facilities. On February 1, 1925, at a congregational meeting, a building and finance committee was authorized and instructed to make preparation for the project. The building committee was composed of L.A. Sharpe, J.M. Fowler, D.E. Clapp, A.C. Neese and John Hoffman. The finance committee consisted of Dr. H.M. Montgomery, George W. Hoffman, Herbert W. Coble, Ernest M. Cheek and George H. Fowler. Plans for worship and education needs were drawn and approved. Because the entire structure would entail too much of a financial burden for the congregation, it was agreed to first build the educational unit. Contract price for that unit was $37,800. Construction began on it May 1, 1928. Formal occupation occurred on May 12, 1932.
After a vacancy of six months, Rev. Banks J. Peeler became pastor on October 1, 1932. This period proved to be one of internal adjustment. The parsonage and chapel were repaired, and new furniture and equipment were installed in the new educational building. Debts were cleared on the building; the congregation went to self-support on January 1, 1934; church membership increased, the Sunday School was completely departmentalized, and the adjoining Curtis property was acquired. In June, 1934, through merger of the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church in the United States, the name of the church became "First Evangelical and Reformed Church."
When Rev. George E. Dillinger began his pastorate in 1939, he concentrated on completing the building project that had been started in 1928. Observation of the 50th Anniversary of the organization of the congregation on November 5, 1939, proved to be the incentive to set the movement in motion. On August 13, 1940, the Consistory was authorized to let a contract for the sanctuary. This exceptionally beautiful and appropriate house of worship was dedicated October 12, 1941.
Dr. Harvey A. Fesperman began his ministry to the congregation December 1, 1945. The Wilson property adjacent to the church on the west side was purchased on April 11, 1948; the 10th Anniversary of the dedication of the new church structure was observed October 14, 1951, and in 1951 the congregation helped organize St. John's Evangelical and Reformed Church in the Grove Park Community. The pastorate of Dr. Fesperman came to an end July 1, 1955, when he became president of Southern Synod.
Dr. Lonnie A. Carpenter became pastor on September 13, 1955. Air conditioning equipment was installed in the sanctuary; general repairs were made on education facilities; parking space was prepared on newly-acquired property; and Edgewood United Church of Christ, the first united venture in church extension undertaken by Southern Synod and the Southern Conference, was sponsored by the First Christian and the First Evangelical and Reformed churches. The act of merger already had been taken by General Synod in 1957, forming the United Church of Christ when the Southern Synod held its annual sessions in the First Evangelical and Reformed Church beginning April 26, 1960, while a similar gathering of the Southern Convention of the Congregational Christian churches was taking place in the First Christian Church of Burlington. On the evening of the 26th, these two groups of Christian came together in the First Evangelical and Reformed Church. It was a high moment and a blessed experience when more than 600 people representing the spirit of the newly formed denomination gathered for worship as the "United Church of Christ."
The pastorate of Rev. Robert W. Roschy, began on February 15, 1961. The church was now called “First Reformed United Church of Christ." Dr. Roschy, a gifted preacher and teacher, served during a time of internal struggle in the church. As a result of this internal struggle, a large number of church members left, formed another church in the community and chose not to be related to the United Church of Christ denomination. Those who remained at First Reformed, however, carried on with loyalty and vigor the ministry of the church.
By the time Rev. Hiram Davis became pastor of the church on September 1, 1965, most of the difficulties in the church had been resolved. Yet his pastoral leadership served as a healing agent in the congregation and he did much to stabilize and strengthen the church. He served the church for 13 years and resigned in 1978 to become pastor of a smaller congregation nearby.
Rev. F. Michael Hooper began his ministry to the congregation on February 11, 1979. In preparation for his coming, the church parsonage was refurbished. Also a church office complex was constructed out of existing classroom space to include the pastor's study, secretary’s office, and meeting room. At this time, the church decided to safeguard the beautiful stained glass windows by having them covered with lexan protective covering. With increased activities going on in the church, it was decided to modernize and remodel the church kitchen.
Over the years, upkeep and repairs to the parsonage became more costly and trends for pastoral housing changed. After careful study and review, it was decided in 1992 to raze the parsonage and offer the pastor a housing allowance. The vacant lot offered overflow parking on high attendance Sundays and provided potential space for building enlargement.
After serving the congregation for nearly 15 years, Rev. Hooper resigned in 1993 to accept a position with First Reformed UCC in Lexington, NC. While the church conducted a search for its next pastor, Dr. William Smith served as Interim Pastor for nearly a year.
Rev. Phillip R. Myers became our partner in ministry on November 1, 1994. One message that he continued to emphasize over the years is that everyone is gifted for some type of ministry and, although these gifts may differ within each member, none is more important than another and all are crucial in fulfilling the mission of the church.
This conviction, in addition to Rev. Myers’ appreciation for expressions of creativity, helped initiate a variety of new ministries over his term as pastor. In the first two years of his ministry, the following groups were established: Inspired Acts (drama ministry); Kindred Voices (reader’s theater); Joyful Noise (instrumental ensemble); a Lay Visitation Ministry; a Women’s Bible Study; and a Senior Adult Fellowship.
The congregation decided to hire its first paid part-time youth minister in the fall of 1996. Ms. Beth Cantrell-Counts, a student at Duke Divinity School, was selected for this position, and under her leadership, the youth program would grow dramatically. Within a few short years, an annual Talent Show, a youth-led Worship Service, and a special Christmas performance became highly anticipated events.
During this time, there was also an emphasis placed on community outreach. In 1997, our congregation joined First Christian UCC and Holt Manufacturing in constructing its second Habitat for Humanity house. Four years later, the church would join nine other UCC congregations in constructing another Habitat house.
Through the initiative one of the church members, Bill Price, the congregation applied for a federal grant so that a housing complex for the elderly might be built on property owned by the church. Once used as a ball field, this property had lain vacant for many years. A committee was formed, the grant application was made, and approval was granted for a $3 million facility containing 40 apartments. Construction on The Willows began in 1997 and was completed in 1999. Church members helped many of the new residents relocate from their former homes and have provided a variety of fellowship programs over the years.
Also in 1997, our youth director initiated a summer mission trip to Baltimore in which participants helped renovate row homes in the inner city. Becoming an annual event, subsequent trips included: working at a soup kitchen in Washington, DC; helping with home repair in eastern Tennessee; assisting with hurricane recovery efforts in eastern North Carolina; providing a camping experience for children from East St. Louis; and helping with home repair in rural West Virginia.
Frustrated with continual water damage occurring within the church building, the congregation hired Yelverton Architects in 1996 to conduct an extensive facility assessment. After completing this investigation, the architect’s recommendations included repairs of higher priority, lower priority, and miscellaneous. Mindful of the costs associated with each of these phases, the congregation voted in 1997 to proceed with repairs designated as higher priority at a cost of $417,500. During a Capital Campaign conducted that fall, members pledged $404,000 toward this work.
After repairs commenced in 1998, the decision was made to perform some of the work designated as lower priority because of potential long-term savings. Also during this period, one of the boilers ceased operating and it was decided to replace both units. Completed in 1999 and totaling $630,000, these building improvements included: re-roofing the sanctuary, educational building and tower; replacing downspouts and adding new ones; reworking the sub-surface drainage system; re-pointing the masonry joints on the entire building; repairing the sandstone on the front of the building; cleaning and repairing the stained glass windows; and restoring the coffered ceiling in the sanctuary.
Although this project exceeded the original estimate, expenses were paid in full by the end of 2001. Sources of income included: $438,800 in pledges from the congregation; a $100,000 bequest from the estate of Marjorie Clapp; $50,000 received from the land sold to The Willows; and other reserve funds.
Near the completion of this project, the Consistory appointed a Long Range Planning Committee to develop a strategic plan for the next five years. Meeting twice a month for over nine months, this group of twelve solicited input from the congregation and examined the strengths and weakness of the church. The committee’s recommendations were presented in the fall of 1999 and received enthusiastic approval of the congregation. Spanning the years 2000-2004, the Long Range Plan included these broad objectives:
*Become more intentional about inviting and accepting persons into our community of faith.
*Broaden and expand the congregation’s caring and nurturing ministries.
*Revitalize the church’s educational ministries so that members will be better equipped for their daily witness.
*Challenge and enable the congregation to grow in its commitment to being a Servant Church, locally and globally.
*Enhance and strengthen the worship & leadership ministries of the church.
*Renovate the building interior to maximize its use for the ministries and programs of the church.
*Develop the church property so as to maximize its use for the ministries and programs of the church.
*Develop a comprehensive stewardship plan whereby the congregation would be given a variety of opportunities to contribute to the mission and ministry of the church.
A few of these of these objectives are still works in progress and all continue to offer guidance to the ministries of the church.
After completing her studies at Duke Divinity School, Beth Cantrell-Counts was ordained by the Eastern North Carolina Association in 1999. Initially her position was expanded from one-half time to three-fourth time, but before the end of the year, she was hired as a full-time Associate Pastor. This proved especially beneficial the next summer when Rev. Myers was granted a 10 week sabbatical leave.
In 2002, the church received an incredibly generous gift from the estate of Marvin and Eva Clapp, two long-term members of the church. Having been named as the residual beneficiary of their estate, the church received a bequest of $5 million. As stipulated by the will, this gift would be used to create an endowment fund from which only the annual income could be spent./
An Endowment Committee was established in order to make recommendations on the governance of the endowment and to set up initial guidelines related to the use of the annual income. Following extensive research, the committee presented an Endowment Fund Policy to the congregation in September of 2003. Approved by the congregation, the policy specifies that annual expenditures should be allocated according to these percentages: 50% for Building and Maintenance; 25% for Mission and Outreach; 15% for People and Programs; 10% for Undesignated Contingencies. On occasion, these allocations have been adjusted to accommodate special needs of the church and when extra funds have been available.
Rev. Cantrell-Counts resigned from her position in the fall of 2003. Instead of hiring another associate minister, the leadership of the church decided to change the position back to a part-time youth director. Initially, Mr. Kevin Russell and Ms. Nora Driver were hired to fill the one position. When Kevin decided to enter graduate school in another state, Nora became the sole youth director. Like her predecessor, she has continued to stress the importance of Christian formation and community service. In both 2005 and 2006 she and the Senior Youth have participated in a summer mission trip sponsored by Carolina Cross Connection.
The major focus of the repairs conducted in 1998-1999 was on the “external envelope” of the church. Now desiring to make extensive interior renovations to the building, the congregation hired architect Tim Hoke to conduct another thorough assessment of the building. After receiving his report and making some modifications, the congregation voted to proceed with a $1.6 million renovation program. Financing would be secured by taking out a construction loan and making payments with income from the Endowment Fund.
Just as renovations were about to begin in the fall of 2004, the potential for fulfilling another long range objective presented itself – purchasing the remaining house and lot that lay between the church and The Willows. Acquistion of this additional property would make our property contiguous and open up future expansion of our church. The property was purchased for $75,000, the house on the lot was demolished, and the land was graded.
To ensure that the congregation would not have to vacate the building completely, the renovation project was conducted in three stages. Fellowship Hall improvements were completed first, starting in October 2004 and ending in January 2005. Work included: replacing the carpet with tile; replacing the wainscoating; painting; updating the restrooms behind the stage.
During renovations to the Sanctuary, the congregation worshiped in the Fellowship Hall from January to May. Work included: eliminating several pews and enlarging the chancel area; replacing the sanctuary carpet; refinishing the pews; replacing the pew cushions; repairing damaged plaster and painting; replacing the protective coverings on the stained glass windows.
Extending from April to December, the most extensive renovations occurred within the Education Building. The scope of this stage included: installing new carpet in all the rooms and hallways; repairing damaged plaster and painting; replacing the radiator heat and window air conditioners with zoned heating and cooling units; updating the electrical and lighting systems; installing drop ceilings in several rooms; replacing 100 wooden windows with an aluminum product; removing the exterior fire escape. For a six-month period, staff offices were moved to a vacant home on Edgewood Avenue.
For many years, the congregation had expressed a strong desire to make the entire building completely accessible. Helping fulfill this objective, an addition was constructed on the north side of the Education Building. Connected to the existing building via a reconfiguration of several classrooms and hallways, this tower contains: an elevator that provides access to all four floors; two handicap restrooms on each of the four floors; and an interior stairwell. The exterior of the tower includes two covered entrances – one with a handicap ramp and the other a drop-off point for car passengers.
Although not included in the original renovation plan, two additional projects were also completed. In July of 2005 a conservator from Asheville was hired to clean and repair the friezé of the Lord’s Supper. And, in 2006, the kitchen received a full makeover, complete with new cabinets and appliances.
In celebration of the completion of these renovations, a Service of Dedication was held on February 19, 2006. Special guests included the Rev. Steve Camp (the Southern Conference Minister), Rev. Vertie Powers (the Eastern North Carolina Associate Conference Minister), Mr. Tim Hoke (architect for the project), Mr. Marshall Fuqua (owner of H.F. Mitchell Construction), and Rev. Mike Hooper (former pastor). Recognizing the fact that these improvements would not have been possible without the generous gift of Marvin and Eva Clapp, the elevator tower was dedicated in their memory. Other gifts dedicated this day included new choir robes and choir chairs, a new piano, and a new cross to hang above the altar.
The blessings and benefits of the Endowment Fund extend far beyond these physical improvements. This generous gift has also greatly enhanced the overall mission and ministry of the church. Portions of these funds have helped: broaden the church’s music ministry; expand educational and enrichment opportunities; secure guest speakers and performers; provide continuing education for the staff; purchase resources and equipment; supplement the annual mission trip; increase support of benevolent agencies and institutions; and provide emergency assistance.
With the building renovations now complete, a new emphasis has been placed on clarifying the congregation’s mission and vision. While our members accept that every church shares a common purpose — to share God’ love and grace with all humanity – we also believe that each church possesses a unique purpose within its particular community. Realizing that this process of discernment will require persistent prayer and continual refinement, we desire to grow in our understanding of: who we are, what we believe, how we are uniquely equipped to serve, and what specific purpose God intends for us. Our aim is to distinguish God’s voice from the other voices that influence us, to discover our authentic selves and to offer ourselves more fully in the service to others. May God give us the wisdom, the strength, and the inspiration to fulfill our calling.