“From the Corner of St. Johns and Emerson to Barber Street: 100 Years of the Ithaca Church of God, 1918-2018” Part I: The Birth of a Church, 1918-1920

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Above: Announcement for the Revival Meetings held in Ithaca in July, 1918; George H. Clingenpeel, Evangelist of the meetings; Reverend George W. Lewis, taken in 1943; a very young George W. Lewis taken in 1905.

Author’s note: This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Ithaca Church of God in Ithaca, Michigan. The following is the first in a series of articles about the history of this church, its pastors, events and  some of the people who were used by God to bring this church through its first 100 years.

          It was a time of change and challenges. Ithaca, Michigan in the summer of 1918 was, like other communities across the United States, at war. The United States had been at war against Germany for nearly a year and news of those young men from the area who died in service to their country started to reach Ithaca. That fall, the Flu Epidemic hit the United States and many in Gratiot County became seriously sick and also died. There was also heavy pressure to show one’s patriotism and to support the country during World War I. A postwar recession in 1919 would hit the area that made times tough for people. These were some of the things happening in Ithaca when a small congregation was born that eventually became known as the Ithaca Church of God.
On July 4, 1918 a notice appeared that a revivalist was holding services one block north and one east of the Methodist Church. The first meeting was held in the Revival Tent under the direction of George H. Clingenpeel, a Church of God evangelist from Wheeler Township, who had held similar meetings in Alma. These meetings took place for approximately two weeks. At end of one of the advertisements for the meetings was an almost prophetic phrase that would be one of the legacies of the church through its history in Ithaca: “Everybody Welcome.” The Gratiot County Herald reported, “The Revival meeting in the Gospel tent, is a grand success from the beginning. The crowds are filling the tent each night and are very much interested…Clingenpeel …is a plain speaker, and has something interesting for everyone.” The meetings were so successful in Ithaca that the Herald noted that people even came and listened to the meetings from their automobiles.
Two key events took place after the meetings concluded: land was donated and the first pastor of the church was called. First, William Kennett, a well known resident who was born in England and who lived in Lafayette Township and in Ithaca for most of his life, agreed with his wife to purchase a lot at the corner of St. Johns and Emerson Streets (where the tent meetings had been held). He then donated it to the church. This would be the location of the Ithaca Church of God until 1963.
The second important event dealt with the calling of the first pastor, Reverend George W. Lewis. Lewis was from New Haven Township and his grandfather was instrumental in the creation of the Lewis School, located in Newark Township. Born in 1882, George W. Lewis was converted at age 17 and began active gospel work less than a year later with the Crusaders, a group of evangelistic workers who visited area schools and Sunday schools. In 1905, he became officially ordained in the Church of God ministry and he led the church in the teachings of the Church of God Reformation Movement. Lewis met his future wife, Effie, at the Burlingame School in New Haven Township and they married in 1903. Together they had six children. On November 5, 1919 the family moved to Ithaca and purchased the Frank Shaver property on Shaver Street. He officially became the church’s pastor in 1920. Lewis supported his family by working as an interior decorator, as well as serving as minister for 23 years.
The earliest meetings of the church were held in the homes of Pastor Lewis and Mrs. Chriss Lehner. Others who were drawn to the church also hosted meetings. For example, notices appeared in the newspaper that a group of ladies “were in Newark Tuesday evening to attend a Church of God prayer service at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Bosley.”
In 1920, the first building was built on the corner of Emerson and St. Johns Streets. The building was simply known to many in Ithaca as “The Chapel.” It is also important to note that the young church was almost on the edge of Ithaca at that time, only a few blocks from the city limits. On top of this, the main line churches in Ithaca had been in existence for decades. This was truly going to be a new church. If one wanted to know where the Ithaca church was at that time they were usually told to look for “The Chapel.” As the church started its journey, Reverend Lewis continued to work, raise a family, and to pastor a church. “The Chapel,” as it was originally built, would continue until late into the Great Depression.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

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