In the Lafayette area Methodist meetings were held from about 1825, and the first church was built in 1830. Soon after informal “class” meetings were held on the west side of the river, a first in private homes. Later the class met in a school building, probably the one room frame structure situated at North and Salisbury. This building was subsequently moved and remodeled and now exists as a major part of the residence at 219 Wiggins Street.
Still later the group met at Castor’s wood shop at the northwest corner of Main (now Chauncey) and South, i.e. in the courtyard of 1969 church building. 1869 was a year of ferment and interest. The first transcontinental railroad was completed; Mendeleev published his periodic table of the elements; Purdue-University and Lafayette Savings Bank were founded; the Cincinnati Reds became the first professional baseball team; Gen. George Armstrong Custer reported that the Indian wars were over.
In Lafayette one Baptist, one Presbyterian, and two Methodist churches were being constructed. In West Lafayette, the yeast was also at work. Deciding that times were ripe for a new congregation on the west bank of the river, on April 6,1869 the Presiding Elder of the Lafayette District, William Graham, appointed a board of trustees consisting of himself, John Opp, Nelson Littleton, William Hawkins, and Benoni Swearengen. Our congregation was now duly constituted.
At a cost of $500 the board purchased a lot at the southwest corner of Columbia and Littleton upon which to erect the new congregation’s first church building. Mr. W.H. Brown, architect of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church then under construction, designed a one floor frame building thirty-five feet wide and sixty feet long, featuring a steeply pitched roof twenty-eight feet high.
Costing $3200, the new Chauncey Methodist Episcopal Church was dedicated in impressive ceremonies on January 23, 1870. In salutary contrast to modern tradition, the construction was paid for and our congregation started out free of debt. Too small to support a full time minister, until 1885 the Chauncey church was combined in a charge with Congress Street Methodist Episcopal Church, to the satisfaction of neither congregation.
With the growth of West Lafayette to 2,300 inhabitants, by the 1890’s a larger building became necessary. At a cost of $26,000 a new church was built on the site of the old Castor wood shop at the corner of Chauncey and South streets. It was dedicated January 23,1898, just 28 years after the first church was occupied. The nave of the new church could seat 1,400 people, although the congregation had less than 500 members. A large bronze bell and a pipe organ were installed; both survive at least in part.
The abandoned 1869 church (widely known as “the Rookery”) was remodeled into an apartment building and may still be seen in that form at the southwest corner of Littleton and Columbia.
Known in 1870 as the Chauncey Methodist Episcopal Church, the congregation was referred to on the 1898 dedicatory corner stone as the “West Side M.E. Church.” By the 1920’s it was called the “The First Methodist Church.” The phrase “West Lafayette” seems not to have been officially used in the church name until about the time of World War II.
The ambitious size of the new church proved justified. By the mid-1930’s there were more than 1000 members, with a Sunday school enrollment of 700 and an average Sunday attendance in excess of 550. By the end of World War the membership was more than 1600 people. By the late 1960’s, it was necessary to conduct three services each Sunday.
The growth of the congregation and changes in its composition led to changes in the church building. In 1908 a parsonage was built next to the church on South Street. In 1937 the organ was enlarged and raised from just behind the pulpit to an attic space 30 feet higher; and a choir loft was built in the vacated space. In 1949 a new parsonage was built at 831 Vine Street, costing $23,500 exclusive of the lot. An education wing was completed in 1957, costing $155,000. A new entrance was built at the west end of the church building as the first part of a remodeling plan but by 1960 it was apparent that a new structure would be necessary. Planning started in 1961, fund raising in 1963, and construction in 1967.
The new church was completed and dedicated March 17, 1968. The total cost was $1,049,708 and the membership was about 1275. Except for the nave much of the 1898 church structure, the 1957 education wing, and the organ were incorporated into the new building.
The plans were but partially accomplished with this new building. Also contemplated were a new organ, an elevator, a bell tower, a chapel, and enclosure of the court yard. In 1985 a new organ was built, using pipes from the previous organs. This work is not yet complete: as funds are accumulated new stops are installed — the clarion was installed in August, 1994; and three stops with five ranks of pipes are still to be done. Planning and funding for the elevator continued and in 1994 a contract was let for its construction at a cost of $130,000.
The activities of the congregation have not been restricted to building alterations. The church’s original membership of 24 grew slowly, reflecting the pace of West Lafayette settlement. In 1879 there were 100 members, about 500 at the turn of the century, and about 1000 by its 75th birthday in 1944. A contemporary study of the Lafayette District churches by the District Superintendent notes: “First Church, West Lafayette… a stranger oriented church … has the third highest attendance in the conference but 45% are nonmembers. It ministers… to the university community.” Since then the membership has waxed and waned between 900 and 1600. The founding of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Federated Church, and others in the West Lafayette area attracted congregants who might have joined First Church. By the Methodist-Evangelical and United Brethren merger in 1968, St. Andrews EUB church became available to West Lafayette Methodists and there were some membership shifts.
Thirty years passed and the 1968/1898 building became a maintenance nightmare. This and changing demographics in the West Lafayette/Purdue communities mandated yet another change of venue.
Through the generosity of a Church Member a prime building site became available west of the Purdue campus at 1700 State Road 26 West. A new building with a administrative, educational wing and a Christian Life Center was constructed on part of the 22 acres donated. Sunday Worship Services are now held in the Christian Life Center. With God’s help a sanctuary will be built at some future date at the same site.
Additional material is available at the Church library. And items of historical interest are on display near the entrance to the Administrative Offices.