CHOCTAW — In August 1892, a small group of pioneers chartered the Methodist Episcopal Church in an area known as Choctaw City in Indian Territory.
A circuit preacher already leading a congregation in Tecumseh was assigned to shepherd the newly formed church nearby.
Eventually the new church became known as Choctaw United Methodist Church, and it is celebrating its 120th anniversary this month.
Shirley McConnell and Sharon Brown, members of the church's history preservation committee, said the church has held several special activities in the past year leading up to two services that will culminate the church's anniversary celebration.
The longtime members said the church's history and a special video will be presented at services on Aug. 12. McConnell said the Rev. Robert Hayes Jr., bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference, will be guest preacher at services Aug. 19, and an anniversary dinner will be held after the second service.
McConnell, 76, and Brown, 72, said the church began as the first and only religious center in the Choctaw City area. They said it is now known for the strong friendships and relationships that have developed among church members and the community at large.
Afton Morton, 84, who has been a member of the church since 1930, said many things have changed over the years, but the church's loving, family atmosphere has remained the same.
The Rev. Andy James, whom Hayes appointed to serve the church in June, said loving relationships is chief among the reasons many church members continue to worship at Choctaw United Methodist, 1200 N Choctaw Road. He said the church has an average Sunday attendance of about 250.
“I asked members what they loved most about the church, and without being prompted, they said, ‘The people,'” James said. “What I took from that is this is a congregation that values its relationships. It's not the building. It's not the program. It's the people.”
McConnell, who has been attending the church since 1936, said those early-day Methodists met in homes, barns and brush arbors until 1893 when the church bought property at First and Clark streets in Choctaw. The first church building was constructed in 1894.
She said another church building was built in 1946 at Third and Clark streets. The church's current building on Choctaw Road was completed in 2009.
McConnell said her family, like Morton's, was very involved in the church through the years. She said she remembers going to the church to roll bandages for the American Red Cross during World War II.
Morton said the busy life of the church during the war also sparks many memories for him, in particular how many people left to serve in the military and those who did not make it back home.
McConnell and Morton said the church's historic bell brings back many memories.
McConnell said the bell is one of the congregation's most cherished possessions because it was purchased by local merchants at the Mertes Brothers Store as a gift to the church in 1896. She said the cast iron bell was created in Ohio and shipped via rail to Kansas City. From Kansas City, it was delivered to Choctaw by a mule-led wagon.
Morton said he remembers as a small boy hearing the bell toll from several miles away. McConnell said she as a child helped a family friend clean the church on some Saturdays, and the bell was an important part of the afternoons.
“Sometimes she would let me ring the bell, and that was a thrill for me,” McConnell said.
She said the church was delighted when young member John Hyman, as his Eagle Scout project, built a structure to house the bell in front of the current church building.
Continuing to serve
McConnell said the church's history preservation committee invited Sunday school classes to make presentations about their respective group's history at the church and in the community. She said church members gave creative presentations that showed how much missions and community service are a part of what they do.
All of these aspects will be celebrated in the coming Sundays as the congregation gathers to mark the church's historic anniversary and a future filled with hope.
“People have a very forward-looking vision for this church,” James said. “There's a real sense of hopefulness — that the best days are still ahead of us.”