History to Build Upon
In 1836, Grand Rapids was a struggling frontier settlement of 200 people huddled around what we know as the Campau Square area. Twenty-two of those pioneers founded what became, in 1839, the First Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, one of the first three Protestant churches in the growing town. For awhile, they depended on circuit-riding preachers and on each other for their worship services. By the time they finally organized as a Congregational Church, they were able to call the Reverend James Ballard as their minister and to look for a permanent place to worship. Not until 1867 was the current building constructed on the corner of Park Place and Library Street.
Under the leadership of J. Morgan Smith, its pastor for 20 years, the congregation had grown to almost 500 after the Civil War, mirroring the growth that the city of Grand Rapids was experiencing. During the next 100 years, Park Church stood for progress and good works.
By 1940, church membership numbered 3,000, and Park Church had become known as a warm and welcoming downtown congregation and a local, state, and national leader in the denomination for mission support, Christian education, and music. Park Church continued to birth new churches. A total of 11 in Grand Rapids call Park their “mother church”.
In 1958, the pending merger of the Congregational Christian Church and Evangelical and Reformed Church led to serious disagreement within the Park Church congregation. The conflict led to a painful separation, resulting in 600 members leaving to form Mayflower Congregational Church and the resignations of Dr. Carl Martenson and his colleagues. In 1961, entering an era of new challenges and social changes occurring all around the country, Park Church’s remaining members voted to join the brand new United Church of Christ.
In the turbulent 1960’s, Park Church was served by Dr. Ned Burr McKenney, who inspired the church’s outreach at a previously unprecedented level. Extensive urban renewal in the core city prompted the congregation to discuss whether or not they should continue downtown or relocate toward the suburbs. The church decided to stay put and get involved. Staff additions and mission zeal in cooperation with other downtown churches created the Grand Rapids Youth Ministry, the Community Counseling Center, and the Bridge for Runaways. Park Church also helped with Freedom Homes Foundation and Dwelling Place to improve housing in the area. Ecumenical activity led to holding joint service with St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a Grand Rapids “first”.
Music and education continued to be central to the church’s mission. All ages, from childhood through high school and into adulthood, participated in choirs that enriched the worship services and helped both children and adults learn about music and worship. Educational opportunities abounded with adult studies and children’s church school from toddler-aged through 12th grade. Confirmation classes became a two-year program, and the youth were actively involved in the church life. When Dr. McKenney left in 1971, Dr. Carl Martenson returned for an interim “healing” year.
Dr. William F. Allinder’s pastorate, from 1972 to 1990, was a period of renewal and growth as well as tragedy. Park Church celebrated its 150th birthday in 1986. An arson fire to the building in 1988, however, reminded the congregation that no one is impervious to sudden tragedy. The church rallied, repaired and updated the building, and the metropolitan ministry continued its history of success.
Dr. Allinder accepted a call to a church in Nebraska in 1990, and after a two-year interim pastorate, Park called the Reverend Dale Nelson, who left for retirement in 1996. During his ministry at Park, church members put an increased emphasis on education, mission and fellowship, and featured a new UCC curriculum, parenting classes, involvement with Habitat for Humanity, ethnic dinners, and adult education workshops. Park added a Columbarium on the main floor.
The Reverend Dr. Phillip E. Johnson became Senior Pastor on January 1, 1998. The Reverend Ron Skidmore joined the staff to become Minister of Spiritual Development. Adult education programs included in-depth Bible study that brought increased Bible literacy to members and non-members alike.
After Dr. Johnson’s resignation in 1999, interim pastors helped guide a new search committee. During that search process, the Reverend Maurice Fetty began what became a four-year venture as Interim Senior Minister. The Reverend Fetty introduced a popular lecture series, attracting people of all ages from the area. He also brought a calming presence to the congregation, preparing the members for their next minister.
During this time, Park Church was given the option to purchase the old Purple East building, which stood on the corner of Fulton and Ransom. The church leadership happily bought the building and then razed it. Now, the long-time dream of opening up the rest of the block for parking and for potential building growth had materialized.
The Reverend Todd A. Petty was called to be Park Church’s Senior Minister in September 2005. He brings a commitment to meaningful worship, a passion for mission outreach, a sincere interest in pastoral care, and continued support for Christian Education for all ages.
First (Park) Congregational United Church of Christ still stands solidly in downtown Grand Rapids, reaching out to those in need, teaching the faith, and serving the Lord. Park Church continues to be a church where God is still speaking and all are welcome.