Historic Monticello church dates back to 1865
Of all the things that were founded in the Monticello Township in western Shawnee, few have been as enduring as the Monticello United Methodist Church.
While some buildings that were constructed in the township's early days still survive, one survivor is much more than a building -- it is a living tradition. It was the community's center for a majority of western Shawnee's history since the late 1800's, despite the Methodist label.
"Everybody sort of puts a name on things now, but then, it was just where everybody went to church," said Charlene Frakes, whose grandfather helped build the church's first and second buildings.
The town of Monticello was founded in 1857 just southeast of what is today Kansas Highway 7 and Shawnee Mission Parkway, with goals of becoming the county seat. The towns of Holliday, Wilder, and Zarah popped up to the north and east, and the area that now is known as western Shawnee was dubbed the Monticello Township.
By 1865, a church, then called the Monticello Methodist Episcopal Church, had formed that would become the community's lifeblood and outlast the township itself. The church will celebrate its 140th anniversary next year.
A historical narrative
The church's early history is only known thanks to a church history written in 1982, compiled largely by then-pastor Michael Gardner and Dena Rae McLaughlin, a church member since 1939.
McLaughlin, who now lives in Lenexa, said the idea came about because Gardner was taking a class about writing church histories through the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
"He said 'Wouldn't it be nice to get a history of this church -- we would just need to find someone to write it,' and I said 'I suppose I could write it,'" McLaughlin said.
But the task of writing the church's history was not so easy, since the church had not kept much documentation and the researchers had little to go on.
"We had a lot of things by word of mouth and a few things written," McLaughlin said.
The church used to belong to a circuit of Methodist churches, so many early church documents were stored at Baker University in Baldwin City, the "Mecca for Kansas Methodists" in the late 1800s. Most of the research was done in the archives of Baker, but some documents were found in other ways -- such as a deed for the sale of the land for the church itself.
"We found the documentation for the building in a lamp casing in a house that was being remodeled," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin also took advantage of the family stories of those who were second- or third-generation members.
"I just interviewed everybody that had something to say about it," McLaughlin said.
The research culminated in The Monticello United Methodist Church: A Historical Narrative.
The church's roots are found in the meetings in the early homes and schools of the Monticello Township.
When Nutter and Nancy Murphy arrived in Monticello in 1859, the only Methodist church available was in Olathe -- a Methodist Church South group.
"The Murphy family was too strongly abolitionist to thoroughly enjoy meeting with southern sympathizers," the church history records.
So Nutter rode 30 miles to Baldwin City to request a minister, and arrangements were made for two Saturday services every two weeks. Meetings were held in the Murphy home, with other early settlers like the Corliss and MacDouglas families in attendance.
In 1865, it was decided that Monticello needed a "real" church, and meetings were held regularly in the Virginia School on 71st Street. The Reitz family Bible records the Mize, Dubois, Hegler, Murphy, and Trembly families as the official founders, though it would be hard to pin the founders down to just a few of all the families in Monticello.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they all had a hand in it," Frakes said.
In 1872, the 37-member church moved to the Lone Elm School, located on 79th Street. Soon the German and American Methodist groups combined and decided to build a church. An acre of land at the corner of 75th Street and Gleason Road was purchased for $50 on Jan. 5, 1880, from the Hegler family -- a deed later found in 1948, in a lamp casing in the home of Otha Johnson.
A clause was included in the land deed that it only could be held by the church so long as the church could use the land, and it then would revert back to the Heglers.
"This phrase proved to be better insurance than anyone could foresee, for no matter how tough the days and years became for the small congregation, history shows that they hung on tenaciously," the church history states.
The original church was built for $2,000, but it was totally destroyed by fire during an electrical storm in 1894. The Board of Trustees decided to raise money for a new building, and $1,250 was raised to build the new building in the same spot.
The building stands today, next to the church's new fellowship hall and sanctuary, built in 1973 and 1990, respectively.
Heart of the community
The church continued to grow with its own building and reported 92 members in 1912.
Though the church experienced periods of growth or stagnation, and even loss of members due to difference of opinion, it remained the glue that held the community together after the town of Monticello died out in the early 1900s.
Lorie Corbin, of Eudora, remembers growing up in the area and everyone driving to church in their Model T or Model A Fords in the late 1920s to mid-1930s. She remembers pastor John Green and his wife often would come to their house for lunch between morning and evening services.
Bill Barth, of Lenexa, remembers traveling to the church in an old box wagon filled with straw to keep the cold out in the winters of the 1920s. Patricia Blamberg, of Overland Park, one of Barth's five daughters, remembers the church as remaining the community center into the 1950s and 60s.
"It was a community church and really not a Methodist church," Blamberg said.
Cindy Ashby, president of the Monticello Community Historical Society, has a special bond with the church. Her great-grandfather, Frederick Kueker, was on the Board of Trustees when the church land was purchased and donated land for the cemetery.
Seven generations of the family have belonged to the church since arriving in the area in 1874, and a family reunion in 1998 was held at the church.
Ashby said the traditions of the church not only have been church traditions, but have become community and family traditions over the year. Church events routinely attract family members from out of town.
"We've participated in activities and events at that church, and it was a religious celebration but it was also a chance to socialize," Ashby said. "It just wouldn't be a Christmas holiday without two or three generations attending the candlelight service at that church."
The township of Monticello is now legally gone, with some portions annexed into De Soto, Lenexa and Bonner Springs. A road, a few neighborhoods, and even the post office carry the Monticello name, but the church is one of a few things that will carry on the community of Monticello.
The church continues to bring the community together today with a membership of about 250. The newer building houses the Monticello Christian Children's Center, a thriving private daycare and preschool/kindergarten.
The sanctuary built in 1894 is still used almost constantly for Bible study groups, Sunday school, confirmation classes, and youth group meetings and services.
The church also is taking steps to keep its history and traditions alive.
Pat Lavery leads the recently reformed history group for the church. She and the other five members go through the church's memory books on the first Tuesday of every month, saving the historic memorabilia from the worn-out books and placing them in new acid-free bindings.
"Some of them are just so old they are disintegrating," Lavery said.
Others are looking to continue the history of the church by continuing the traditions of its community.
"Right now, when I go to church, there's my mother, myself, my daughter, and my granddaughter," Ashby said. "I'm trying to give my daughter and my granddaughter that feeling of roots and connectedness."