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El Dorado church marks 177th anniversary

by Frank E. Lockwood | March 11, 2023 at 3:53 a.m.
In honor of the congregation’s 177th anniversary, El Dorado Mayor Paul Choate has designated today and Sunday as First Presbyterian Church Weekend. Earlier in the week, he hand delivered his official proclamation, reading it on the church steps as Esther Byrd, chair of the church’s anniversary committee, joined him. (News-Times/Caitlan Butler)

It's two years late, but members of El Dorado's First Presbyterian Church are finally gathering to celebrate the congregation's 175th anniversary.

It wasn't possible, with covid-19 raging, to properly celebrate the milestone birthday in 2021, so the churchgoers have decided to do it this weekend instead.

Current and former members will gather from 1-3 p.m. today for a welcoming reception. A 9 a.m. celebratory breakfast Sunday will precede the 10 a.m. worship service. A final reception will follow.

The sermon is being delivered John Byerly, who pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Snellville, Ga., after being the El Dorado congregation's youth minister.

The mayor, Paul Choate, has issued a formal proclamation to mark the anniversary.

"We've got a lot of people from out of town coming. We sent invitations to over 400 people ... and so far we've got a pretty good response," said Esther Byrd, chair of the congregation's anniversary committee.

The 97-year-old brick building, topped by an 85-foot-tall carillon tower, will look familiar to anyone returning for the homecoming.

It has towered over East Main Street for as long as anyone can remember. Since 1991, the Collegiate Gothic-style building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building cost $140,000 to build, with $20,000 of that paying for construction and installation of a new pipe organ.

A press report at the time claimed the building could hold 1,000 people.

At its peak, hundreds of worshippers flocked to First Presbyterian Church each Sunday.

Today, attendance averages 50 or 60, according to transitional interim pastor Janice West.

"They are a delightful congregation that asks good questions about faith," she said.

During the anniversary celebration, "They're looking backwards at where they've been but [also] looking forward," she said. "They really are just a great group of people."

A new church history, released in conjunction with the anniversary celebration, tells the congregation's story.

First Presbyterian Church was founded in March 1846. Presbyterians were relative late-comers, arriving in Union County after the Baptists and the Methodists had already put down roots.

A storm destroyed the original building in 1862 and the Civil War scattered the congregation. No longer able to meet, the congregation donated its church bell to the confederate cause, its metal transformed into cannon balls, the church history states.

The church reorganized in 1868, and a new wooden structure was built in 1872, with a larger building erected in 1897.

Early members were suspicious of worldly amusements and considered it a sin to work -- or do much of anything else -- on Sundays.

"Worldly conformity does not persist in our congregation to any great extent, yet some of our members will persist in getting the mail and reading secular papers on the Sabbath," a 1908 church report noted.

In 1919, three of its members helped organize what they called an "anti-carnival committee," the church history states.

After the turn of the 20th century, the congregation remained relatively small and poor.

But the oil boom of 1921 changed that.

Like so much else in El Dorado, First Presbyterian Church experienced exponential growth due to the discovery of major oil and natural gas deposits.

In a single decade, the town's population jumped from 3,887 to 16,421.

With church attendance spiking and wealth flowing into the area, the congregation built a new meeting place in 1926, big enough to host the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States the following year.

Hundreds of lay and elected delegates from 17 southern and southwestern states traveled to El Dorado for the gathering.

The congregation remained robust for most of the 20th century.

Four decades ago, "We had a consistent 200 average [attendance] on Sunday," Byrd said.

Attendance has dropped as children have grown up, gone off to college and moved out of town, she said.

These days, the average age of the congregants is probably 60, she said.

She said she hopes the anniversary celebration will not only rekindle old memories but also help revive the congregation.

  photo  In 2021, First Presbyterian Church in El Dorado postponed its 175th anniversary celebration due to covid-19 concerns. This weekend, it is finally marking the milestone, just in time for its 177th anniversary. (File photo)

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