David Foster may have founded Kokomo. But it was his wife, Elizabeth, who founded the city’s very first church.
It was 1842 when the area’s first white settlers started congregating in the Fosters’ cabin along the Wildcat Creek for a church service. At the time, the unincorporated area was a backwater of the state with Indian trails connecting it to nearby towns.
Two years later in 1844, Elizabeth Foster arranged for a Methodist circuit rider to come and establish and organize the first official church in what would later officially become the City of Kokomo in 1855.
Fast forward to today, and the church is still here.
It’s Kokomo Grace United Methodist Church, and this year it’s celebrating 175 years as the city’s oldest congregation.
Since its founding, the church has played a pivotal role in Kokomo’s history. The first cabin church built in 1844 in what is now Foster Park served as the area’s first school house. The church later built at the corner of Washington and Mulberry streets was the hub for pro-Union support during the Civil War.
And on Friday, the church celebrated all that history during a special open house during the downtown First Friday event to allow people a firsthand look at its past – and a chance to ring the 126-year-old bell in the church’s tower.
Ann Winger, a member of the church since the 1970s, said it’s easy to forget how much history is housed at Kokomo Grace, but it’s on anniversaries like this that it’s important to look back at the church’s roots.
“It’s not the building,” she said. “It’s the people inside. But those people inside have taken care of this building so that it can live on. We have that history here that needs preserved.”
Today, there are dozens of churches located all over the city. But when that first cabin church was constructed in 1844, it was the only one around, and it didn’t take long for the membership to outgrow the small building.
In 1851, the cabin was sold for $75 and Kokomo Grace purchased the east half lot at the corner where the church is currently located. The next year, a small frame church was erected on the spot.
It was that church that served as the central recruitment spot for the Union Army during the Civil War. Mass meetings were held inside to sign up young men to send to the battlefront. On one occasion, a cannon was brought in to the church yard and fired over and over to arouse patriotic enthusiasm as a fife and drum played along.
The frame church also housed the congregation’s first choir, which was also the first one in town.
But just 12 years after its construction, the frame church was torn down and a larger, brick building was erected in the same spot to serve the expanding membership. Elizabeth Foster was still active in the congregation and gave the first $200 to build the church.
In 1891, the congregation built an additional lean-to on the side of the church, which doubled its capacity. But even so, the congregation quickly outgrew the space and discussion soon started about constructing a new church that would be the largest gathering place in the growing city.
In 1896, construction on what would lay the groundwork for the current church finished up. The new building was designed in the shape of a cross and had two prominent bell towers. The building stretched 120 feet, north to south, and 100 feet, east to west, and cost $33,900.
Church member Winger said at the time the ornately crafted sanctuary and stained glass windows throughout the building made the church one of the most grand and impressive buildings in the city. It quickly became the go-to spot for major community events.
“People at the time said how perfect the acoustics were inside the sanctuary and were really impressed by the grand scale of the architecture,” she said.
But continued growth pushed the congregation to launch a huge remodeling project that created the church that sits today at 219 W. Mulberry St.
The renovation finished up in 1957 and added a large education wing while removing the smaller bell tower. Even so, parts of the 1896 building remained in tact, including many of the stained glass windows and the massive wooden pews in the balcony of the sanctuary.
Over the next decades, the interior of the building would change to meet the needs of the congregation, but the exterior has remained the same for the last 62 years.
Winger said since then, the Kokomo Grace building has served the congregation well as they continue to offer new outreaches and ministries and adapt to a changing membership.
But, she said, it’s the history that was a major reason she decided to become a member in the 1970s.
“I think we don’t appreciate this history enough,” Winger said. “We take it for granted. But for me, I just felt comfortable in this church. I’m fascinated by the symbolism and the oldness that’s here.”
And the fact that Grace Untied Methodist is still active and serving the community after 175 years since its founding is something to celebrate, Winger said.
“We have grown. We have ministered. We have endured,” she said.