For a concise history of the church, please see A Second First Start published by Northwest Quarterly Magazine.
The Story of Our Joining by Sally Hoff
December 2015 marks the third anniversary of that glorious day when First Presbyterian and Second Congregational Churches joined together. All of the work that led up to our decisions to federate was validated when we met in the streets with hugs, laughter and tears to commence our new future together.
Lay leaders from the two churches had begun to talk about sharing resources around 2009, and those conversations grew more earnest when the senior pastor retired from First Pres and the associate pastor of Second Con left to become a senior pastor elsewhere. With the support of Rev. Mike Solberg of Second Con and the newly hired Rev. Beth Wagner of First Pres, lay people began to discern how similar the two congregations were. We each ascribed to a common theology, had a variety of thriving music and mission programs, and a strong commitment to the neighborhood and we each had very large, expensive to maintain buildings. Joining forces to do God’s work in one shared space became a fascinating idea.
On February 5, 2012 the members of Second Congregational enthusiastically agreed to formally invite First Presbyterian to join them “in worship, ministry and/or missions once, occasionally or permanently.” A Transition Team was formed of members of both churches who met regularly to discern what joining together could really mean for each congregation and how it could be accomplished. The team met with Blackhawk Presbytery and Prairie Association UCC ministers and a pastor of a federated church, examined finances and by-laws and programs, and held round table discussions with their congregations.
On June 23, 2012, First Pres voted to join Second Con and the federation process accelerated. First Pres put their beloved building up for sale, and the process of merging the contents of two historic buildings began. The Jeremiah Development Churches’ joint service was held at First Pres on September 23rd, a kind of benediction for the beautiful old church.
The two congregations “practiced” worshipping together in October and November and then on the clear, cold morning of December 30, 2012 worship services began at First Presbyterian and Second Congregational Churches. After some hymns and prayers, the members of First Pres rose from the pews, donned their winter coats, and walked out into the street, locking their doors behind them. At the same time, members of Second Con rose up, donned their coats, flung the doors open and went out into the street. Bells were pealing, Emmanuel Episcopal worshippers were cheering, and the members of SecondFirst Church met each other with joy!
The History of Second Congregational Church by Alice Fry DeWall Uphouse
Preface: From the history books of our archives:
The Fifty Year History Book 1849-1899
Diamond Jubilee 75th 1849-1924
125th Anniversary 1849-1974
150th Anniversary 1849-1999
First Edifice: 1849-1858
Second Edifice: South Church and Chestnut Street
The building we worship in today is the Third Edifice;
Burned Feb. 20, 1894, Re-Dedicated Dec.2 1895
Cornerstone laid for new Church building April 28, 1891, Dedicated May 6, 1895
(It has been compiled with a double purpose. To preserve an authentic record of the Church including the Golden Anniversary exercises. The second purpose was to hand down to future members of the church and congregation a record of the zeal and self-sacrificing struggles of its founders to establish a church of Jesus Christ, of the many years of fruitful service in his vineyard. And to all those who come after, and enter into the life and work of our church. This record is dedicated, with the sincere hope that it may ever prove an inspiration to render grateful and loyal service.)
February 1837 Rev. John Morrill and family arrived from New England and found a Methodist “Class” but no church organization. On May 5th, 1837 less than ninety days after his arrival, he was instrumental in organizing a Congregational Church with eight members, three men and five women of which he was chosen as the pastor. The first meeting place was in a large barn on the East side belonging to Mr. Daniel S. Haight (corner of East State Street and Kishwaukee Street.) Soon a new building was needed and with the help of Germanicus Kent, South Church and Green Street was selected. In 1845 the church was moved back to the East side. At this point in the history (1849) of Rockford Congregationalism came to a fork in the road, forty-three members united to form and adopt the Articles of Faith, Covent and Rules of Government and believed Rockford could support two Congregational churches. As the story goes the ladies did not like to cross the Rock River with hoop skirts, riding the ferry boat and tramping across the uncanny old bridge.
Some of those early leaders were: J.B Whitehead, Mr. Ralph Emerson, Mrs. Wait Talcott, Mrs. Chandler Starr, Mrs. Robert Lathrop, Mr. John Barnes, Mr. E.H. Keeler to name a few.
On the fortieth anniversary of the Church in 1889 Dr. Walter Manning Borrows, Minister disclosed plans for a newer and larger church building in a more central location. $80,000.00 was needed for construction. Mr. Ralph Emerson a community leader headed the subscription list and placed the cornerstone. Joy was short-lived however…for on February 20, 1894 not quite two years later, FIRE BROKE OUT…later it was determined to have been caused by an overheated motor of the pipe organ. Dr. Borrows stood in the rubble of the church—without a faint word or faltering voice said. “Brethren, let us arise and build on this spot a yet more beautiful temple to our Lord.” So the new Church was dedicated on December 2, 1895.
As I read from these History Books, one thing became clear and I quote (It is often said that the missionary spirit is a good index of the life of the church. Judged by that standard this church has been very much alive). From the Fifty Year Book: The records show the benevolent contributions up to the Thirtieth Anniversary, $32,000 was given to mission work.
Preface from the 75th Anniversary Book John B. Gordon Pastor: These seventy-five years have witnessed the transformation of the world’s political and social thought, of its industry and commerce, of its science and education, and a readjustment of its religious beliefs to the new knowledge. The history and work of this church is worthy of thought, study and preservation. We want the men and women, who are connected to this church, in years to come to know the self-sacrifice of the early believers, in the church and it’s Gospel.
From the 125th Anniversary
Dr. Joseph Cleveland was our pastor and during his tenure Gordon Chapel was dedicated in 1951 with Dr. Gordon and his wife present. At the close of the dedicatory remarks Dr. Cleveland stepped forward with a lighted taper, the sanctuary lamp was lowered and remarked “This lamp will burn forever… and declared Gordon Chapel “open for worship”. Along with the new administration offices and choir room, a hallway connected the two buildings. A life size portrait of Dr. John Gordon graces the wall as you enter. An endowment was given by Mary Emerson Lathrop to the project of a Youth Center named Emerson Hall dedicated to the memory of her parents Ralph and Adaline Emerson and their son Ralph Jr. Now Emerson Hall stands as a testament to the lives of this remarkable family.
The year of the Centennial Dr. Cleveland and Mr. Irl Martin agreed upon a need for a Congregational Church in Loves Park. On Easter Sunday 1950 the first service was held at Riverside Community Church. In January 1960 with the rapid growth of Rockford the Illinois Conference of Congregational Churches assigned us to establish two new churches. Spring Creek and Woodside Congregational and by Palm Sunday of that same year they held their first services.
Historically Second Congregational Church has been concerned with mission service from the time of our founding. Donations to Dindegal, India, the Chinese Female Seminary in Shanghai, Turkey, Indonesia and other countries around the world. Closer to home a pre-school for neighborhood children.
Dr. Cleveland developed the unique concept of “Mission in Reverse,” inviting Rev. K.J. Mills and his family from Ceylon to be missionaries to our church for a year.
Dr. Joe as we affectingly called him, served this congregation for twenty-two years. His record shows that during this time, (new members totaled 3,192), 943 young people were confirmed, performed 1087 weddings and 1613 funerals. The milestones of achievement that came about through Dr. Cleveland attest to the vision and caring and the daring of this unusual man.
In 1979 another fire devastated this congregation. The first fire Rev. Vernon “Pat” Flynn was serving as pastor. Volunteers from the neighborhood and church members arrived quickly and immediately began caring items out of the church. Richard Litterest (Fearless) was able to remove all of our Whitechapel English Handbells along with choir robes and all were taken to Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Records, art work and statues went to Rockford Title Company and the pre-school children were taken to First Presbyterian Church. Many discussions were held and 92% of the congregation voted to remain at the present location. Rebuilding came under the leadership of Rev, Dean Dalrymple and his wife Roma. In 1983 dedication of the sanctuary was held with a hymn with these words
This is the place where we can touch our God, in those times of fear and joy and awe, A place of hope with eternal with our Lord, Alleluia! Alleluia!… May there be beauty in this hallowed place, And may it call forth beauty in each of us, A place to listen, to hear when our God speaks, Alleluia! Alleluia!
In 1983 the church was growing with 84 new members. We had a weekly radio broadcast over WRRR with a recorded Sunday services. In 1989 The Memorial Garden was established. Monday Night Live, with suppers, adult education and entertainment with Rob Lindsey portraits of Biblical characters. Dean and Roma led a trip to Israel, traveled to China. In 1990 Dean was determined to bring Second Congregation Church office into the modern world of computers. With the help of the foundation that was started, $4,500.00 was added and Dean encouraged the church to be more active in order to insure that the church could meet unexpected emergencies. By 1995 the Foundation held over $3,500,000 which was invested to generate income. In March of 1995 Dean and Roma retired and purchased a home in Loves Park. As most Pastors he then served as interim in Florida where other songbirds go in the winter months.
Our church was busy over the next few years searching for a pastor.
Pastors Rev. Joe Dye, then Rev. Bruce Bueschel, and Rev. Michael Solberg
We have been fortunate to have other support staff including Rev. Mack Thomas, Rev. Curt Showalter Rev. Haines Moffat, Rev Jake Kim, Minister of Music Richard Litterst, Kristine Delmore, Bob Bates and Pastor Becky Erbe, and those that have passed on. If I have missed someone I apologize, this task for me has been truly a labor of love. As we celebrate the joining of our historic, marvelous, caring congregations I’m reminded of one of my favorite hymns,
BLESS BE THE TIE THAT BINDS, OUR HEARTS IN CHRISTIAN LOVE, THE FELLOWSHIP OF KINDRED MINDS IS LIKE TO THAT ABOVE…
First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Illinois by Joyce Pogue
In 1834, when American Indians still roamed over Winnebago County, Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake staked claims here. The first recorded Presbyterian gathering was in 1835 when the Rev. Aratus Kent, brother of Germanicus, came from Galena and 17 individuals came together to hear him preach. After 18 years of meetings in homes and school houses on the east side of the Rock River, this little band of believers and their leader, the Rev. Hugh Brown, crossed the river and settled in a room on the third floor of a building known as Porter Drug Store.
On July 8, 1854, a Saturday, they moved to the old Court House and FPC of Rockford was officially organized by a Committee of the Presbytery of Chicago. On that day, and at the following day’s Sabbath worship, 38 individuals were enrolled and became the nucleus of the Church. At the first Session meeting held on July 31, 1854, it was decided to allow a musical instrument in public worship, so a small melodeon was purchased. One of the Elders resigned.
During the first 50 years that group of 38 grew to a membership of 500. There were several sites of worship, pastors, the American Civil War and other important events during that time span as FPC became a strong and thriving factor in the Rockford community. Growing pains led the leadership and members to decide to finance and build a much larger facility to meet their needs. After many meetings and much discussion, they decided to stay on North Main Street. The residence of Dr. and Mrs. Rohr and family was purchased and then the building was bodily moved to the corner of Winnebago and Park Avenue to make way for the new church structure. (By the way, back then, Park Avenue was known as North Street) Just after the 50th anniversary, on October 6, 1904, the first shovel of dirt was lifted by the 5 year old son of the Rev. Ben-Ezra Ely. In 1905 construction began on the new building w/the cornerstone laid in May, 1905. The first service held in the new building was January 28, 1906. The Church was officially dedicated in 1908. Rev. Ely’s strong leadership in Rockford ended with his resignation in 1906. He and his family moved to Portland, Oregon where he continued his work. With his leadership, FPC had a new building, began the rotary Eldership on the Session, printed worship bulletins on Sunday mornings (1896) and elimination of pew rentals. He was invited to return to Rockford for the dedication service in 1908 and preached the sermon that day.
1912 & 1913 were landmarks in FPC history. In 1912 Miss Leola Arnold was hired as organist and choir director. Her leadership lasted more than 40 years at the Church and in the Community. Two outstanding contributions were the traditional Christmas Candle Light Service and in the spring the Lilac Festivals. In 1913 the Rev. Dr. William Holmes Fulton came to Rockford from Peoria. Dr. Fulton’s legacy to FPC parallel’s Second Con’s legacy by their outstanding leaders of that era. Among Fulton’s 40 years of religious and civic contributions: leadership of Camp Rotary, City Planning Commission, Inter-Race Relations, teaching at Rockford College, leading the Congregation to help with the beginning of the Booker T. Washington Center, a chaplain w/the YMCA overseas in World War I, strong leadership in holding the Church together during the Great Depression in which church deposits were caught in 3 different banks who closed their doors, trying times, but FPC weathered the storm.
From its official beginning in 1854 to December 2012 FPC was a stronghold of activity and life in downtown Rockford. In the 90’s the decision was made to stay in “down town”, we refurbished an aging building, helped form Jeremiah Development and then realized in the early 21st century our “Ice Berg” was melting. We joined in with the leadership of our neighbor, Second Congregation Church, to federate the two churches into “SecondFirst Church”. After many meetings, discussion, prayers, and tears plus the blessings of Blackhawk Presbytery, sold the building to another neighbor, Mendelssohn Club. During Sunday services on December 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Illinois, closed its doors for the last time and members walked to Second Con where members were welcomed to a new home and the service continues with our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Sources: First Presbyterian Church booklet, 125 Years 1854-1979
First Presbyterian Church Sesquicentennial booklet, 1854-2004
What does the joining of Second Con and First Pres Mean to Us? by Linda and Terry Mohaupt
We came to Second/First Church to visit because our daughter, Abby, who is a Presbyterian minister, had met Rev. Rebecca and Andy in Philadelphia, and thought we would like them, and Second/First church. On our first visit, we were welcomed to worship, and invited to come back. What was appealing from our first visit was the friendly spirit of everyone we met, the many opportunities to participate and learn, and the strong desire for social justice in the downtown area and in our city.
Initially, it wasn’t all that obvious that Second/First was a combination of two previously-separate congregations. We understood and respected the reasons for the move, partly because we had seen many churches that were struggling with dwindling memberships and money. It was inspiring to learn about the process these two churches went through to combine. The outcome to us is a comfortable amount of Presbyterian to go with slightly unfamiliar UCC, which ends up to be just right.