Claire Plymel remembers exactly how she felt as she entered First United Methodist Church for Easter services on March 29, 1964, opening day for the newly built sanctuary at 505 Broad St.
“It was a big occasion, a great occasion,” Plymel said. “The new sanctuary was extremely breathtaking. It was so wonderful, so exciting to see it for the first time.”
Catherine Carmical, whose late husband, Jerry, was an usher that day and usher captain for more than 50 years, had much the same reaction.
“I was amazed at how gorgeous the sanctuary was,” she said. “It was just breathtaking when I walked in. We were all very thankful and very proud. I can’t believe it’s been 50 years.”
But it has, indeed, been a half-century, and the congregation will celebrate the milestone on Sunday with a combined 10:30 a.m. worship service featuring guest speaker Dr. Hal Brady, a LaGrange native and retired Methodist minister.
Brady and his wife, the former Myron Marchman, grew up attending worship in First Methodist’s previous sanctuary building, a much-admired Victorian structure with multiple gables and monumental stained-glass windows, built in 1898 and razed in 1963 – to the dismay of many – to make way for the new sanctuary. Bricks and much of the stained glass from the 1898 sanctuary were used in the LaGrange College chapel, built in 1965.
Over its five decades, the current sanctuary has itself become a much-admired landmark. Designed by Bothwell and Nash and built by Traylor Construction Company, the red-brick structure with columned portico and central steeple was built at a cost of $357,000.
The sanctuary is actually the fifth to occupy the same location. The first was a hewn log meeting house built in 1827, a full year before LaGrange was officially chartered.
“Our church is older than the town itself,” said member Clark Johnson, who is also Troup County historian and author of a history of First United Methodist Church entitled, “Where Your Treasure Is.”
As a 14-year-old acolyte, Johnson had one of the best views for the 1964 opening service. He said he wasn’t nervous about being “first down the aisle” as he and fellow acolyte Tom Traylor marched in to light the candles.
“I knew nobody had come to see me. They were there to celebrate Easter and see the new building,” he said.
The crowd was more like a throng. Attendance pads registered hundreds of people from six different denominations, dozens of churches and 10 states. Every pew was jammed, extra chairs were filled and, according to the church history, “over 200 people were turned away, including many pillars of the church.”
One who found a seat was current church secretary Dodie Patterson, who attended with her parents as a girl of 12.
“They had packed so many people into my row that I couldn’t even take off my sweater,” she recalled.
Her overriding memory, however, wasn’t the size of the crowd, but the size of the sanctuary, which greatly expanded the church’s seating capacity.
“It was just so big. To my eyes, it looked huge. It had that very long center aisle … Now it doesn’t seem so huge,” she said, laughing.
Flowers on the altar that day were gifts from the First Presbyterian and First Baptist congregations. Organist Lucy Lanier Nixon played Bach and Handel and accompanied Robert Darden, soloist, for “Open the Gates of the Temple.” Choir director Russell H. Everitt Jr. led the congregation in Easter hymns and was soloist that night for the first evening service in the new building.
Everitt recalls that after the morning celebration, led by pastor Reynolds Greene Jr., district superintendent John Tate, former pastor – and later bishop – Bevel Jones and LaGrange College President Waights G. Henry Jr., the crowd streamed outside to make photographs in front of the new building.
This year, the anniversary service will be followed by a church-provided luncheon in the Methodist Ministries Building, completed in 2002.
Dr. Harold Lawrence, current pastor, sees the anniversary as a reminder of “what vision and planning can accomplish,” as well as a chance to look to the future.
“Back then, spiritually and financially courageous people stepped out and addressed the needs of the future,” he said. “One of the challenges before us is to always look beyond self-serving habits and allow ourselves to make meaningful differences beyond our lifetimes. Because someone did that a half century ago, our church has made a sufficient witness in the community. Hopefully, an anniversary can inspire like minds and hearts.”