St. Mark's United Methodist Church: 125 years of service

By SAMMY WAY
Posted 9/30/18

Reflections joins in celebrating the 125th anniversary of St. Mark's United Methodist Church. The Rev. Gobe Smith once described the building of a church as "hard work, faith and confidence in the worthiness of the cause." Members of St. Mark's …

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St. Mark's United Methodist Church: 125 years of service

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Reflections joins in celebrating the 125th anniversary of St. Mark's United Methodist Church. The Rev. Gobe Smith once described the building of a church as "hard work, faith and confidence in the worthiness of the cause." Members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church have certainly made those directions articulated by Rev. Smith into a reality. Information used to prepare the ensuing article was found in The Sumter Item archives and the writings of Cassie Nicholes with photos provided.

In December of 1893, "Bishop Hargrove, at the meeting of the South Carolina Methodist Conference, organized the Sumter City Mission." The next year saw this group of members build a small chapel. In 1900, the group constructed "an attractive frame church on the corner of Magnolia and Kendrick streets" which became known as the Magnolia Methodist Church. In 1908, the congregation decided to purchase land on the corner of Church and Broad streets where the Green T filling station was once located. The building constructed at this site was a small chapel designed for immediate use. By 1910, they finished construction on a brick sanctuary which became known as Broad Street Methodist Church. As the membership grew, the building proved to be small and unsatisfactory. The Texaco Oil Co. desired the corner lot and offered to buy the property which the church members were delighted to sell. The congregation focused their attention on the Shaw property across the street and later purchased the house in 1926 with the intention of building a church on this site.

Several years passed before construction began. "There was always talk of building, but times were hard, and the debts were piled high. Meanwhile the handsome home rapidly grew less attractive; however, the former Shaw house continued to serve as a meeting place for the congregation." By Easter of 1941, money for the bricks and building materials were raised by this determined congregation. Architect J. Whitney Cunningham was selected to draw the plans for the new facility. The design of the structure was not considered elaborate. "It would be of colonial architecture with simple lines, but large enough to seat between four and five hundred persons. There would be a large recreation hall with kitchen and pantry adjoining in the basement."

"A steam shovel was necessary for digging the basement; however, one was not obtainable. Once more the men of the congregation considered their problem. 'If we can't get a shovel from outside sources,' they decided, 'we'll dig it ourselves.' The work began on April 25, 1941, with the church members using tractors, dirt pans and scoops, working only in evenings to begin the task of removing 400 square yards of dirt, completing the work in six weeks. The Industrial Equipment Co. and Johnny Morris' junk yard provided the tools used to dig the basement. When the basement was complete the carpenters began building window frames, setting the floor joists and completing the framework of the sanctuary. The only part of the construction members were unable to complete was the masonry work. Masons were hired and supervised by a select committee from the church. To meet the problem of money, the church sponsored a dollar-a-plate chicken dinner and sold over 1,000 dinners. This was the largest fundraiser of this type the city of Sumter had seen to date.

"Construction of the church took longer than anticipated and was being completed in a pay-as-you-go fashion. Plumbing was done by the Belvin Plumbing Co., which was owned by church member Mrs. Belvin. When the church was complete it was considered one of the loveliest structures in the city. The building measured 40 feet by 78 feet, featuring white pillars and large ecclesiastical windows; the old mansion was bricked on the outside and remodeled, making it one of the nicest Sunday school facilities in the city. A cabin in the back yard, once a part of Sumter's first school, was redone and designed to serve as the minister's study." The sanctuary featured box pews constructed and upholstered by the membership. When complete the church was valued at between $6,000 and $7,000. This was well below the estimated cost of approximately $22,000.

Rev. Smith took no credit for the building of this impressive edifice; rather he told a friend, "This church will be a monument to the fine spirit of cooperation, not only of the members of the congregation of the Broad Street Methodist Church, but of the people of Sumter, whose goodwill has helped make it possible." In October of 1942, the auditorium of what was often called the "Miracle Church" was opened for several services just preceding the Annual Conference session in Bishopville. According to the writings of Cassie Nicholes "at the first Quarterly Conference after the completion of the church building, Harold L. McCoy made a motion that the name of the church be changed to St. Mark's United Methodist Church, and on Sept. 1, 1946, the new church was dedicated by Bishop Claire Purcell."

"The history of a church is not measured by what it is at a given time, but rather by what has been accomplished, the obstacles surmounted, victories won, and the faith of those who have finished the course coupled with that of those who have gathered up the mantle to press on toward the high calling in God in Jesus Christ." Cassie Nicholes notes in Historical Sketches of Sumter County Volume II, "Since its small beginning more than a century ago, St. Mark's has had a rich history. The dedication of many ministers, ministers' wives and lay members of the church has left an enduring influence on the life of Sumter."