On Your Corner: Church draws on pandemic history a century later

On Your Corner

THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WOOD) — On a random Tuesday afternoon, Joanne Vosburg had tears in her eyes as the bell high atop the First United Methodist Church in Three Rivers rang. She says it was the first time she had heard it in 20 years.

The church means a lot to her and her family. Her dad has been a member since he moved the family to Three Rivers in the 1970s. She has been in the pews since she was born in 1986.

“I am the chair of the NOW Committee, which is Nurture Outreach and Witness,” Vosburg said about the new committee. “We are trying to expand to try to get the younger generation in here.”

Generations are a common theme for the church. It’s 158 years old, the oldest in Three Rivers, with some of the original brick, wood and windows still holding strong. But those generations of people are weakening.

“This place used to be just full of people, and that is kind of minimal,” Vosburg said there are about 100 members and only 30 who really practice. “The root of this church is our congregation. And you hear the older members talk about the history of the church and the ‘back when I was young,’ really not a whole lot has changed, which is good for the history. Cause you don’t want to lose that.”

Its history is service, according to Pastor Heather McDougall-Walsh. She’s been there for almost a year and a half. But she is well versed in the commitment to making the world their parish, following the teachings of John Wesley.

“They know their history really well here,” McDougall-Walsh said about her members. “My role as their pastor is helping to get them in tune with the amazing ways this church has served the community in the past.”

Those reminders of the past are under lock and key in a well-kept archive room. Shoes from a bride and a groom, cherish communion chalices, bibles so old some are afraid to touch them. But perhaps the biggest reminder of their roots are the pillars that steady the sanctuary and the stretchers stored away in the attic rafters.

“The pandemic with the influenza back in 1918, we were using this place as a hospital in the fellowship hall directly below us,” Vosburg said from the pew in the church. “They used those pillars to put a curtain in there for privacy — for the nurses and the doctors to take care of their patients. We have cots that we used. To transport a person from one place to another. There’s a very, very strong, rich history that no other church in the city has.”

A photo of a cot used during the 1918 pandemic in the First United Methodist Church in Three Rivers.  (Dec. 16, 2020) 
A photo of an item used during the 1918 pandemic in the First United Methodist Church in Three Rivers.  (Dec. 16, 2020) 

In October 1918, as millions across the world died from the Spanish flu — the Red Cross and First United Methodist approached the city commission to turn the church’s bellows into a hospital. The local hospital was overflowing, and the community was in desperate need. According to church documents from the archives, the commission approved the request. On Oct. 25, 1918, the church was converted to a hospital.

It was already closed at the time, much like it is in today’s pandemic, as were schools and businesses. Nurses from Detroit came in to help. For three weeks, the make-shift hospital cared for the community. McDougall-Walsh says almost 50 patients were in their care at that time – 23 of them died.

“I think it’s to remind us who we are and who we need to be in the community,” McDougall-Walsh said about holding on to the old Civil War-era stretchers. “I think it’s part of our history and our heritage, and it’s the continual reminder to be in service to this community, that it’s just not about worship on Sunday morning here.”

It is a moment of great pride for the church. They say some of the 23 who died are names that still are tied to members of the church.

“It’s just a rich history of where things have changed, but they haven’t changed,” Vosburg said of that struggle now between old and new. “We just don’t want to ever forget that.”

As the church works its way through another pandemic, it is still helping in the ways it can. They provide food, clothes, and school supplies to families in need. Sometimes even taking specific orders from families to help.

“The needs are different than a hundred years ago of this community. And so, meeting the needs of the community in different ways,” McDougall-Walsh said. “This congregation has a huge heart for feeding people.”

They hope their strong foundation, deep roots, and rich history will help them through the COVID-19 months. And a younger generation will find the need and belonging in the sanctuary that has impacted so many lives.

“People don’t come to church here on Sunday morning because their lives are all together, or they have it all figured out,” McDougall-Walsh said. “We put it on sometimes, this facade that we have everything together when we really don’t. The congregation here knows that we can be broken here, and it can be beautiful, and we can be encouraged and inspired.”

Just moments before the bell rang for the first time in decades, McDougall-Walsh got to see for the first time a view that Vosburg has fallen in love with. The top of the steeple, 145 feet in the air, a breathtaking, 360-degree view of what all that history represents — community.

“This is where Sunday morning you come to get fed and renewed and restored in order to fight the good fight out there,” McDougall-Walsh said.

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