As far as birthdays go, 2019 is a big year for McKendree Chapel. Missouri’s only Heritage Landmark of the United Methodist Church is celebrating its 200th birthday.
Several other churches in the Missouri Conference can trace their origins back 200 years, but McKendree is unique in that it now has 200 years in the same building, making it the oldest protestant church still standing west of the Mississippi River. The church has not had regular worship services in more than 120 years, but faithful Methodists in the community have kept the historic site well-preserved and are continuing to make improvements to make the entire campus a better destination for people interesting in learning more about Methodist heritage in Missouri.
“It’s a sacred, holy place, and we’re working to keep it that way,” board member Stephen Limbaugh said.
Settlers started coming to the area near McKendree around 1803. By 1809 they were having camp meetings at McKendree, which continued for about 10 years before the chapel was built in 1819.
“The Bishop encouraged the construction of the chapel,” Limbaugh said. “It was probably the finest building in Southeast Missouri at the time. It was the epicenter of Methodism for about a 100-mile radius.”
Despite their fervent passion for religion and revival, the Methodists of McKendree were not of one mind. Some believed that owning people was permissible and were confident they could back their stance up with scripture. Others felt that slavery was sinful to the core and needed to be abolished outright. They could not reconcile their differences, and it came to a vote. The majority of the congregation voted to stay with the Methodist and their abolitionists ideology, so McKendree remained in the fold. But some prominent families couldn’t abide by the anti-slavery stance and left for a new Methodist Episcopal South church in Jackson and Cape Girardeau. This marked the beginning of the decline of McKendree Chapel. It persevered through the Civil War but closed in 1890.
Since then it has remained an important place to Methodists, even without the presence of its own congregation or a regular worship service. The St. Louis Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, met there twice, in 1910 and 1916, for special sessions. During the 1920s, however, the Chapel had aged to such an extent that leaks in the roof and broken windows led to detoriation in the structure. Rev. William Stewart, appointed in 1926 as pastor at New McKendree in Jackson, spear headed an effort to restore and preserve the building. The project was completed in 1933.
Many of the board members have ties that go way back that far or farther. Limbaugh’s grandfather’s name is on the plaque commemorating the 1933 restoration. Mary Harriet is chair of the board. Her parents and her grandmother were on the board. They don’t go back to the beginning, though. Board member Betty Poe Henry can trace her family line back to the Williams, who were part of the original founding families.
Adelaide Parsons grew up at New McKendree UMC in Jackson, and every third Sunday in September she would be at the annual service at Old McKendree with her mother and aunt.
“Even when I was living off in other places, I would try to make it back for the third Sunday in September,” Parsons said.
The people who comprise the board come are part of several different Methodist churches in the area, including New McKendree, Centenary in Cape Girardeau and Grace in Cape Girardeau.
The chapel now has 15 acres of property, and the board is happy to have every inch of it. A new high-density housing development is currently being constructed on one side, and shopping center is planned for the other. The board has been working with a landscape architect out of St. Louis to develop a master plan for the grounds. Long-term plans call for encircling the property with a nature trail, and constructing a visitor’s center.
History is highly regarded in the Cape Girardeau area. The county archives has records of marriages in the area back to 1798. The archives building cost $500,000 dollars to build when it was constructed in 2000. Lyle Johnson, a retired United Methodist minister from the Desert Southwest Conference, started volunteering there in 2014 and was hired full-time in 2016.
“My hobby was indexing, and now I get paid for it,” he said.
The county archives has a church minutes book for McKendree Chapel that goes back to 1848. Back then McKendree Chapel was three miles east of Jackson, but now it is incorporated into Jackson.
The board members of McKendree’s Chapel greatest hope is that more Missouri Methodists recognize the chapel as a treasure in their midst and visit to learn more about their Methodist heritage.
“A lot of our Methodists don’t know this place exists,” Board Member Rev. Jimmie Dace said. “We would like to see more United Methodists using this – for meetings, vacation Bible schools or camp activities. It would be a great place to have camp meetings.”
For more information on McKendree Chapel, go to www.oldmckendree.org.