Through war, lightning strikes, fire and challenges of aging, the area’s oldest continuing church perseveres in service to God and the community
Close to the Gardner Junction, where the California/Oregon and Santa Fe trails separated into different paths headed West and Southwest, a small band of Christians realized their dream to establish a church – one that has spent 150 years spreading the gospel and serving the community.
First Presbyterian Church will celebrated its “sesquicentennial” anniversary Aug. 12-14 with a number of events.
Rev. Dr. Kimby Young, pastor, says it wasn’t a smooth start. “Initially, the founders planned to start a church and private school together, but the first battles of the Civil War intervened,” Young said. “Although forming the church had to wait, Dr. Woodman Shean and his wife, Anstress, did launch a private school in their own home in 1858. Their daughter, Myra (Shean) Sponable, taught the first classes.”
Shean became one of the church’s first elders when it finally got off the ground Aug. 12,1866; but according to church historical records, he almost didn’t live to see the day. Shean had come to Gardner to help make Kansas a free state and was on Quantrill’s raiders’ hit list. In the dead of night just before sacking Lawrence, in 1863, the Bushwhackers stormed Shean’s home. Luckily, the doctor escaped out the back door and hid in the tall grass until they gave up and left.
The Civil War wasn’t the only challenge the First Presbyterian Church faced. The original stone church, built in 1870, was struck by lightning in 1892, rebuilt two years later, on a new home site at the corner of Shawnee and Elm. Nearly 100 years later in 1993, the wood building that replaced the original church was destroyed once again, this time by fire. Still, First Presbyterian’s congregation showed its resilience, rebuilding a larger, contemporary worship center in 1996. In 2010, the congregation expanded its Fellowship Hall, making more room for the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship, as well as a comfortable space for the Boy Scouts to meet.
“After the fire, they were able to save several beautiful stained glass windows. Some were used in the new building chapel and narthex. This year the final 12 windows have been restored as an Eagle Scout project by Grant Fairchild and mounted at the entry to Fellowship Hall,” Young said. “In many ways, we feel those windows symbolize Christ’s resurrection – and, as the oldest active church in the area, it also speaks to God’s persistence in working through us to serve Gardner.
Like most churches, First Presbyterian has been challenged with an aging population, but Young says members are excited to see some new growth, new community programs and a great deal of enthusiasm.
Young says the church feels called to build a vibrant and welcoming community of faith.
“We’ve experienced a renewed passion for ministry in the community,” she said. “Our emphasis is on reaching out, both within Gardner and to surrounding areas. And our goal is to show the love of God in concrete, caring ways.”
First Presbyterian Church cares for the local community and worldwide missions through a number of outreach projects. Along with food pantry donations, SafeHome and Operation Christmas Child, its programs include:
Joy Closet – In 2013, The church launched Joy Closet on Main Street to provide clothing and bedding for those who need help, while also providing a thrift store environment that also offers open shopping. Thanks to the community’s active support and donations, Joy Closet became financially independent in 2015.
The Care Portal – The church is a member partner of the Johnson County Care Portal, which provides various resources and financial support to help children and families in need with special resources and financial needs.
Johnson County Health Center – In cooperation with the “Strengthening Families” program, First Presbyterian Church will host its first 14-week series of parenting classes for struggling families beginning August 18.