Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
The First Presbyterian Church in Fairfield is celebrating its 180th anniversary this year.
To honor the occasion, the church will host an organ concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, featuring organists Betty Mayer, Patricia Thoma Wheeler and Steve Berg. The following day, Sunday, Oct. 3, the church’s 10 a.m. worship service will be a celebration of its Presbyterian heritage, the history of the local church, with organ and choral music, bagpipes, communion, and appropriate scriptures and lessons, as well as the introduction of the new owners of the building.
The public is invited to attend both events. Attendees are asked to use the front doors at 200 S. Main St. Elevator service is available at the handicapped-accessible entrance just south of the main doors.
Earlier this year, the congregation announced it had sold its 145-year-old church. The new owners are Tammy Haessler and Adriene Crimson, who live on the second floor and rent out space in the rest of the church for special events. Their nonprofit organization that manages the building is called Golden Magnolia, and in addition to hosting gatherings, they hope to convert a portion of the church into a soup kitchen.
Sally Johnston, the communications chair of the church’s council, stated in a news release that the time had come to “right size” its church home.
“Our beautiful old building has been sold, after serving us for 145 years,” Johnston said. “The new owners are allowing us to continue to use the sanctuary for Sunday worship services at no cost and are renting us office and storage space.”
The congregation is contemplating its next steps as it remains a Presbyterian congregation, searching for the “perfect spot for our next church home,” Johnston said.
“The members of First Presbyterian Church have always been dedicated to the spreading of the gospel in word and deed to our community and the world, with wonderful traditions and meaningful worship and music,” Johnston said. “We are proud of our heritage. We see ourselves as a living example of those who follow Christ’s teachings. It is our hope that in 2041 this congregation will be celebrating 200 years of worship and service to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Five years before Iowa was granted statehood, the First Presbyterian Church of Fairfield was organized with a membership of nine men and nine women. The date was Oct. 2, 1841, less than two years after the village of Fairfield was established.
For two years, worship services were held in the courthouse or in the homes of members. In 1843, a frame building was erected at 107 E. Briggs Ave. This structure served the congregation until 1849, when “a fine brick building” was erected on the site of the present church at 200 S. Main St.
By 1854, the church had 250 members and was the largest Presbyterian congregation in Iowa. Membership fell during the ensuing years of the Civil War and then rebounded.
By 1874, the congregation had outgrown its home and voted to raze the building and erect what is the nucleus of the present structure, including the main part of the current sanctuary and the Fellowship Hall below, completed in 1876. During the following years, membership fluctuated. Through the 180 years of the congregation’s history, more than 1,500 individuals have become members of First Presbyterian Church in Fairfield.
The last major building project began in 1929. An addition was constructed on the west side to enlarge the sanctuary and the kitchen below, a new front entrance was added, and the “Kirk House” was built as an adjoining wing on the south, including classrooms and even a gymnasium.
In 1971, a thorough remodeling of the sanctuary was completed, including the replacement of the original stained glass windows with beautiful new ones. The church’s “fine brick building” is the oldest church building in use in Fairfield.
In 180 years, First Presbyterian has been served by 29 pastors — most installed and a few interims. The first pastor any of the current members will remember was Dr. Curtis Douglas. During his pastorate from 1944 to 1960, membership peaked between 600 and 700. Rev. Joseph Phipps has been the church’s pastor since 2008.
Music has always been an integral part of worship at First Presbyterian.
“We have always had multiple vocal choirs with talented directors, as well as skilled organists who have played our marvelous pipe organ for Sunday worship as well as weddings, funerals, and other special services,” Johnston said. “At times we have had a bell choir, and in keeping with our Scottish heritage, we include bagpipers and drummers in our St. Andrews Day observances in October.”
Recently, the church has added jazz Sunday services whenever a month has a fifth Sunday. The Fairfield All-Star Jazz Band was established at First Presbyterian for those celebrations.
For many years, the women of the church held a fall bazaar featuring sales of crafts and delicious food, most especially Hazel Montgomery’s chicken potpie at noon. There was often a line of diners out the door and down the street, waiting a chance to enjoy that delicacy. Hours and hours of fellowship were enjoyed as preparations were made for this event and hundreds of other dinners.
During the earlier years, the church sponsored at least 70 missionaries to destinations around the world. Locally, the women of the church have provided funds for milk tickets and clothing for children in need in the schools and have supported local causes including Scouts, the Lord’s Cupboard, and drive-by dinners at the Lutheran Church.
“We have shared our beautiful and spacious facilities with our community in many ways, offering space for a variety of activities — concerts, dramatic performances, meetings and meals for other organizations, and basketball games in the gym,” Johnston said. “Yes, the building does have a gymnasium on the top floor of the south wing of the building. In the mid-1960s, when the Fairfield school district was crowded for space, the district rented and remodeled several Sunday school classrooms to provide space for some of Fairfield’s kindergarten classes.”
In 1991, when the church carried out a yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the church under the leadership of the Rev. Richard Wallarab, there were 329 names on the church roll. Of those members, approximately 40 remain as members. At this time, in September 2021, the church has 76 active members, while its average Sunday attendance is around 30.