Pioneer United Methodist Church history stretches back to Walla Walla's roots

Pioneer United Methodist Church traces its origins to 1859, before Walla Walla even had its name.

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Pioneer United Methodist Church, which traces its history to 1859, moved into its Poplar Street location in the early part of the 20th century.

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Pioneer United Methodist Church, which traces its history to 1859, moved into its Poplar Street location in the early part of the 20th century.

Eighteen fifty-nine was an exciting year in history: Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was first published, The American Dental Association was established and Big Ben was built. But for members of the Pioneer United Methodist Church, Oct. 11, 1859, marks the congregation's first service.

On Sunday at 10 a.m. the church will hold a special celebration, "150 Years Strong -- The Journey Goes On," and service to mark the 150th anniversary of its founding. A reservation-only catered dinner will be held at 5 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling the church office at 525-1870.

The community is invited to attend Saturday's program, which will feature words from previous pastors and music that was specially commissioned for the event.

Perry Jones wrote the composition "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." The Rev. Chuck Hindman describes the piece as conveying "a sense of the ongoing history that has touched so many lives."

The piece -- written for brass quartet, chorus, handbell choir, piano and tenor soloist -- will serve as a focal point of the celebration. Jones said the opportunity to write the piece was one he couldn't pass up, and his personal history with the church served as his inspiration.

"Upon reflection I was reminded of a quarter century of wonderful memories. A flood of emotions came over me as I began to recall these memories. Once I tapped into the emotion of the piece, it basically crafted itself," said Jones.

Before Walla Walla was Walla Walla it was Steptoeville, and it had just one Catholic church (St. Patrick). The Rev. James Wilbur, superintendent of the region, gathered area citizens interested in a Protestant church, and the First Methodist Episcopal Church was created. Wilbur appointed George Berry as pastor, and the first services were in a log-cabin courthouse on Fifth Avenue and Main Street.

Steptoeville became Walla Walla and the church moved to various locations. In 1906, the parsonage was moved to Colville and Poplar streets.

In 1916, First Methodist Episcopal Church and one of Wilbur's other local congregations, Wilbur Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, joined as Hope Church. Six months later the name was changed to Pioneer United Methodist Church.

There were concerns about how the merger would play out. Hindman told a story of the superintendent allegedly saying of the two congregations, "We need them to merge and we're going to pray until they do."

A newspaper article covered the merger: "Pioneer church will begin history with over 600 enrolled. The congregation which has built a beautiful new house of worship includes some of the best known people. All walks of live are represented, however, and now that they are cemented together in one big church, a greater religious power is predicted. "

The joining of the two congregations enabled the church to have the resources to build the sanctuary that is still used for worship today. When it was built in 1917, the sanctuary featured the largest stained glass windows in the Northwest.

In 1949, the lot behind the church on Birch Street was purchased, and the Education Building was constructed in 1954.

The church has newly renovated facilities, including a new lobby, handicap accessibility and a larger kitchen.

Hindman attributes the continued success to "loyal, creative, dedicated people" and "grounded, wise leaders."

"We would really like to invite the community -- past, present, future people -- to come help us celebrate," said Betty Pearson, chair of the committee for the celebration.

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