Photo by Rachel Anne Seymour/Bigheart Times
Janetta Forbes wipes tears during the last sermon at Barnsdall UMC by Paul Overholt. "I don’t do change well," she said.
By Louise Red Corn
The Bigheart Times
For 105 years, Barnsdall’s first church quietly served the town in ways both small and large. With a tiny membership in recent years, it operated the only community food bank to feed the hungry, rustled up school supplies and Christmas gifts for poor children, filled Thanksgiving baskets for the needy, and regularly opened its doors to community groups.
The United Methodist Church was a beacon of good, but the congregation on Sept. 29 sadly bid its church home goodbye. With eight in attendance, they held its last service.
Janetta Forbes extinguished the candles after the die-hard attendees loudly sang, "Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give." Then Joe Cook rang the church bell, and folks stood about, not sure what to do.
"We’re just wondering who’s going to go first," said Joy Campbell, who attended the church for decades.
"Hundreds have come before us," said her husband, Jim, trying to express his love and memories of the church he has attended for 70 years.
"I can’t talk," he went on, tearing up. "It’s like a funeral."
And so it was. The church at the corner of Seventh and Cedar quietly passed away, in part a victim of changing times and, perhaps, a casualty of a town with 10 other churches, one for every 110 residents.
Even its guestbook speaks to the church’s dwindling visitorship. The last entry: Scott Cook, Salt Lake City, Utah, July 19, 2012.
The church was the first in Barnsdall (then Bigheart), started by a group of 25 souls who met in the railway depot in 1908. The flock was tended by missionary preachers who rode the train to Barnsdall each Sunday. Because Rev. Mauldin, a Methodist, was the only preacher who always made the trip, it became First Methodist Episcopal Church in 1909. Then property was bought and, in 1913, in what lore says was akin to a barn-raising, Mauldin and his congregation built the church.
The church thrived until recent years. Even in their final actions, the members continued to give themselves away for God’s Kingdom. On that last Sunday, they started services with a vote and bit of altruistic business.
Unanimously, they agreed to give all the furnishings or anything else useful to Okay United Methodist Church, which burned to the ground in August.
Barnsdall UMC had decided on Sept. 8 to shut down. Right after that, the church bequeathed the community food bank to FreeWill Baptist Church. And Nelda Branstetter will continue to operate the Christmas Angel Tree program, coordinating with American Heritage Bank.
Otherwise, the fate of the buildings is up in the air. "They will belong to the Bartlesville District of the Methodist Church," said Pastor Paul Overholt, who has led the church since 2002.
"Thank You for our church and its history," Rev. Overholt prayed that last Sunday. "While we are in transition, we pray for blessing on the people of this church."
The church also prayed for others, including high school student Ethan McGill, who broke his leg during the Sept. 27 football game. Jokingly, Forbes also suggested the church pray for Notre Dame, whose Fighting Irish lost to the University of Oklahoma Sooners in football on Sept. 28.
During his sermon, Overholt was pressed for words.
"What do you preach at a time like this?" he asked, then turned to verses in Acts.
"We will not meet again at this place for worship, but there will be other places.
"There are other Methodist churches in Avant, Pawhuska, Dewey, and Ochelata, and 10 other churches in Barnsdall. Surely there will be one that satisfies your needs. Visit several and see what you can do for your church."
Barnsdall’s United Methodists recalled Campbell’s dad, Charlie, toting mail for at least 15 elderly members of the church. He committed 15 post-office-box combinations to memory, and braved blizzards and sleet to perform the kindness.
For Overholt, the fondest memory will be the tiny flock that did so much for Barnsdall. "A loving congregation, always willing to do things to help others," he said. "It’s sad, but we’ve accomplished a lot along the way."
Reprinted with permission, The Bigheart Times, Oct. 1, 2013
In October, Bartlesville District United Methodist Men gathered at Barnsdall and loaded a truck with pews and other items to deliver for Okay UMC, according to District Superintendent George Warren. Muskogee District United Methodist Men met the truck and unloaded its contents, storing them until Okay UMC rebuilds.