Mount Vernon UMC: A Brief History of an Early Local Church
By Dan Sherman
This article was written and researched by Dan Sherman with support from other congregation members from Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. Sherman serves as Mt. Vernon’s Church Historian. As one of the oldest surviving houses of worship in Champaign County we welcomed their guest column this month to tell the building’s unique architectural history, as well as the story of the congregation.
This church building at its crossroads in Hensley Township has been standing for nearly 150 years.
At a rural crossroads in Champaign County, a building was raised nearly 150 years ago. That building has been in continuous use since that time as Mt. Vernon Church. As the church prepares to celebrate its anniversary, you may be interested to know more about the history of the building and our congregation. This compilation of history comes from writings of many in the congregation including: Dorothy Brock, Phil Francis, Richard Rayburn and Lynn Weckhorst.
Mt. Vernon UMC Today. Courtesy of Dan Sherman
In the 1800s the Methodist church was sending circuit riders out into the frontier areas of Illinois to conduct worship services. One of the stops in Champaign County included the two-story log home of John Phillippe Sr. a few miles from the current church building on modern county road 2400N. The Phillippes came to the U.S. from France, settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and eventually, John Phillippe Sr. settled in Champaign county building his log cabin in 1836. In the early years of the Methodist Church in Illinois, events such as communion, marriages, baptisms, funerals, etc. were on hold until the circuit rider came through. By 1841, services were held regularly at the Phillippe home and that is the year we recognize as the start of our congregation. The first Methodist circuit rider of record was Rev. John A. Brittingham.
In 1855, the railroad was completed and the immigrants came pouring into Champaign county. They began building schools and the Mount Vernon congregation started holding services in the Liberty one-room schoolhouse, located on the Northeast corner of current County Roads 1000 East (Fisher-Dewey Rd) and 2200 North, one mile east of present day Mt. Vernon Church. The Liberty school was later moved one mile west to the southwest corner of County Roads 2200 N, 900 E and the name was changed to Mt. Vernon School; this is where the church gets its name from. The original school building has been added onto but remains standing as a residence across the road from the church. It is interesting to note that schools were spaced so that no student would be over a couple of miles walk from a schoolhouse.
People began to feel more and more the need for a building. In 1872, Sarah Phillippe Buckles (John Phillippe Sr's granddaughter) and her husband Wiley Buckles, donated an acre of ground for a new church building. This was a busy time for the leaders of the community to make plans and to raise money. On January 4th, 1874, a meeting of the church’s board of trustees was held. Those present were David King (chairman), James Wright, Walter Reese, C.F. Strahlie, M. G. Coyner, Mr. Yexley and Mr. B.F. Jones. The firm of Hubbard, Biddle and Miller was chosen to build the church at a cost of $3,171.41. Those who climb to the belfry can see many names and dates carved into the wood, including one of the carpenters “David Price” dated “July 29, 1874”.
Mt. Vernon UMC Archives. Dan Sherman
Mt. Vernon church is built with a post-and-beam construction and has a similar appearance to school houses and township halls constructed during that era. The church was built with large (more than 12 inch) square beams as the foundation, and everything was built up from there. The beams were originally supported by posts or masonry piers. This construction technique proved to be of sound craftsmanship, as during a 2011 renovation all the beams were still level, well-supported and showed very limited deterioration.
Mt. Vernon UMC Archives. Courtesy of Dan Sherman
The oldest known picture of the church reveals a few noteworthy items regarding the 1874 construction. Originally there were two entrances on the front of the church; the men went in the southern entrance and the ladies in the northern entrance. Inside, the pews had a center partition to separate the men from the women in the sanctuary. The belfry had open louvers which resulted in issues with water damage over the decades to come. Next, there was a chimney behind the belfry for a heating stove that was in the east end of the sanctuary. Also, the belfry is not topped with the spire, which is now an iconic feature of Mt. Vernon church. Longtime member Wilma Sherman related a conversation with Ora Koch that he and his father George removed the spire from another church and installed it here. This seems plausible as the material of the spire is not the same as the church itself. It would, however, have been a daunting task beset with great danger! The thirty foot spire is made up of eight 2x4 structural members which were attached to the belfry with a total of only sixteen wrought iron nails; two nails per 2x4! Amazingly these sixteen nails were strong enough to withstand the gusting prairie winds as they held the spire on for many decades.
The building was dedicated on August 14th, 1874. In the early records all residences are listed with their distance from Mt. Vernon (i.e. Allen, Joseph, M married, 2 miles south of Mt. Vernon; Allen, Mrs. Henry and family, Mt. Vernon, 2 miles SE). The first wedding held in the church was on November 7, 1877 between John H. Crouch & Harriet French with Pastor Rev. Joseph Long officiating. The first baptism records are for adults Ahi Nelson, Mary Ann Baker and Benjamin McCoy in July, 1880.
Mr. and Mrs. D.A. Phillippe presented the church with its first organ; the cost was over $700. Mrs. Phillippe played the pump organ for many years. The original kerosene lights were replaced by overhead acetylene lamps. Revival meetings were held and lasted for weeks. Sunday School conventions were held. The Ladies Aid women’s group organized in 1904. The Epworth League was organized - it was the only place in the community where young people could gather. This included children of both the local farmers and their hired help.
Electricity was installed in 1936, and a typical electric bill then was $8.41. Church leaders debated the practicality of adding a basement under the building; several thought it could not be done because of the low lying property posing such a drainage problem. Pastor Rev. Richard Muhleman appointed committees who studied the challenges and in 1939 a basement was added. The men of the church all worked hard to complete this project. During construction, the north sanctuary entrance was closed and women would now use the south entrance with the men! The old stove in the back of the sanctuary was discarded and a coal furnace was installed in the basement. The acetylene lights were replaced with electric lights since rural electrification was now available.
During the time of basement construction, services were held in the Hensley Town Hall one mile south of the church. Today that town hall building has been converted to be a historical one-room schoolhouse and stands in the botanical gardens at the Museum of the Grand Prairie, in Mahomet.
The current bell is not original to the church. In 1941, due to water damage, it was debated to remove the belfry and spire. Eventually it was decided “without the spire it would not be Mt. Vernon” and repairs were made, including to the steeple. At this time a bell was purchased from Centerville Methodist Church and that bell is currently still in use. The bell is a 34” cast iron church bell manufactured by the O.S. Bell Company of Hillsboro, Ohio. John Ehler headed up the installation project which was another challenge as it is estimated to weigh 750 pounds. The bell was hoisted with a block and tackle secured to a large hedge post spanning the top of the belfry. That hedge post is still in place today and viewable to anyone who climbs into the belfry and looks up.
In 1949, while preparations were being made for the 75th anniversary, a polio epidemic hit. From July 31st to September 25th in lieu of in-person worship and meetings, a church paper including a sermon was sent to each family. The 75th anniversary celebration was postponed to October where there were 289 present for the event. At least one in attendance was alive when the church was originally dedicated in 1874.
In the mid-1900s an oil furnace replaced the coal furnace in the west end of the basement and the former coal bin was converted to the church’s first indoor restroom!
The next major improvement to the property was in 1955 when a parsonage was built. The seed money for this project came from the Thomasboro Methodist church which had burned and the insurance was paid to Mt. Vernon. This legacy continues to bring members to Mt. Vernon who live in Thomasboro. In 1956 a deeper well for water was needed, and while drilling, a pocket of natural gas was discovered. The natural gas was used as supplemental heating in both the church and parsonage for about a year. 1956 also saw the organization of a men’s group who still hold monthly breakfast meetings. In the winter of 1959-1960 the ceiling in the sanctuary was lowered.
1964 Newspaper Ad. Mt. Vernon UMC Archives.
The 1970’s saw the addition of paneling in the basement, a P.A. system installed and the sanctuary was freshened up in preparation of the 100th anniversary celebration in 1974 where over 240 attended. WCIA TV Channel 3 aired highlights of the event on multiple newscasts. In 1975 air conditioning was installed in the church and it has been a summertime blessing ever since. In 1976, for the U.S. bi-centennial, Mt. Vernon church was designated as a Champaign county historical site.
In 1990 the look of the front of the church was dramatically changed when a Narthex was added. This project was more than tenfold the cost to build the original building in 1874. Later, a handicap accessible restroom and children’s nursery was added. In 2011 the church underwent another major renovation after a windstorm had damaged the exterior siding. Along with removing two layers of old siding, the exterior was totally replaced. The belfry and steeple were also renovated; lights and windows were added to the belfry, making the bell visible from outside. The church was determined to be level and plum, and the project ensured the exterior of the church to be protected for generations to come.
To put the age of the church into perspective Mt. Vernon was constructed only seven years after the oldest church in Champaign County- First Presbyterian Church (1867). The oldest building on the U of I campus is the Mumford House (1870), which was built 4 years before this building, however, Mumford house sits vacant and has been unusable for several years. This church building (except for a few weeks due to a polio epidemic and later the COVID-19 outbreak) has been in continuous use for the purpose it was built since 1874. The church and its congregation will be celebrating their 150th anniversary in August 2024.
If you would like to contribute a guest column for our history blog like Dan Sherman did please reach out to us via our website or via social media. All submitted manuscripts must pass through an editorial review and publication is not guaranteed. We also accept suggestions for history talks on local historical subjects of note.