A Downtown Church with a Global Mission
Union United Methodist Church acquired its name from the union of two downtown churches in 1950, but its heritage extends back to 1819. Dissatisfied with the state of Methodism in Belleville in 1950, the congregations of First Methodist Church and Jackson Street Methodist Church “both located within sight of the public square” resolved to unite to create a larger organization that would more effectively serve the community.The decision to merge was not lightly undertaken because both churches were venerable institutions, each over a century old.
Early Days and Formation of the Two Churches
The lineage of the First Methodist Church extended back to 1819 “just five years after the founding of Belleville” when circuit rider Reverend Jesse Haile preached in town. A society of English-speaking Methodists soon formed, gathering first in people’s homes.
How long this group met is unknown, but certainly a continuing Methodist community existed by 1825-1826. These Methodists ultimately erected a sanctuary in 1832 at the northeast corner of West Washington and South Third Streets. Circuit-riding ministers attended to the spiritual needs of this group until 1836, when Reverend Joseph Edmondson became the resident pastor of the newly established Belleville Station, as First Methodist Church was then known. In 1849 First erected a church at 10 East Washington Street and occupied that building for a hundred years. Nearby another Methodist Church arose to meet the spiritual needs of the growing number of German-speaking residents in the area. The Illinois Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Belleville German Mission in 1841, a circuit that included Belleville, Mascoutah, Red Bud, and other locations. By 1845, the Belleville congregation had the wherewithal to fund its own operations and traced its independence from the circuit to this year. It, however, did not receive a resident pastor until the arrival of Reverend Heinrich F. Koeneke in 1848.
The German Methodists added a steeple to the church they purchased in 1864 to give the Jackson Street Methodist Church the appearance the photographer captured about 1900. The church looks virtually the same today. Two years later the German Methodist Church moved into the sanctuary that First Methodist had recently departed when it moved to Washington Street.
In 1864 the German Methodist Episcopal Church at Belleville purchased a church at 213 South Jackson Street that would be its home for nearly 90 years. For this congregation the most traumatic event occurred in 1918, when anti-German sentiment generated during World War I compelled the congregation to end use of the German language and rename the congregation the Jackson Street Methodist Episcopal Church.
Decision to Become “Union”
As the ethnic distinctions between Jackson Street and First diminished, the need for separate congregations barely three blocks apart dwindled. Combining the churches was the logical decision.
Winfield L. Hanbaum was the first pastor of the new Union Methodist Church. To encourage a sense of parity among members of the former congregations and to accommodate a larger congregation, the leaders of Union sought to build a new sanctuary. They sought a location near the downtown and settled on a location at 721 East Main Street, the site of historic Kronthal Castle. Symbolic of the planners intent, the site was visible from the public square.
The Union congregation envisioned a two-stage construction plan with the sanctuary being built first and the education wing being added later. J. Miles Gilbert’s architectural drawing of 1952 depicted the entire facility. The sanctuary opened for worship in 1955. To fulfill the promise to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation, an educational wing opened in 1960. In 1968 new signs at the church displayed a new name to reflect a change in the national church; The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church had merged to form the United Methodist Church, and the local church became Union United Methodist Church.
Periodically the congregation reevaluated the health and direction of the church. Some members believed that the church should move from the city’s core, a decision reached by many other churches. In 1997, however, the congregation resolved to stay put: its mission was to serve the downtown. To that end the parishioners launched a building program.
During 2001 Union completed a new entry on Main Street that offered a fresh face to the community. The church also opened a new administrative addition “with space allocated for a food pantry and a resale shop operated by the Women’s Crisis Center”. This annex was projected to be the first stage of a family life center, but then disaster struck, or so it seemed. An arsonist in 2002 ignited a fire that destroyed the addition and forced evacuation of the entire church for several weeks.
Although the loss was devastating, the congregation used the disaster as an opportunity to fulfill its commitment to build the family center. That goal was achieved in 2004 with the opening of the McKinley Christian Center. In addition to administrative offices, chapel, classrooms, and space used by a childcare facility, the new building featured a multipurpose fellowship hall that could be configured for a dining facility, auditorium, or gym.
Missions & Ministries
Though located downtown and serving that community, the vision of the church is broader.
In 1951, one of its first mission projects was the “boys at Scott” Air Force Base. The church sponsored devotional and recreational opportunities for airmen at the church and other locations. Union has sponsored missionaries around the world.
Since 1993, church youth have traveled annually on mission trips to destitute communities to rehabilitate houses and perform other community projects, mitigating dire circumstances and lifting spirits. By 2009, youth had made mission trips to 14 states and Puerto Rico.
In 2007, it entered into an arrangement with the small United Methodist Church in New Athens, Illinois, that made the resources of the Belleville church available to a congregation in a small town. The same year Union began satellite church services in Freeburg to reestablish a United Methodist presence in that area of St. Clair County.
In 2008, Union funded part of the construction of New Hope United Methodist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, as well as purchase of land for future expansion.
Union United Methodist Church is a downtown church whose message of hope and vision of service are not bound by geographical limits.