HARRISON – Back in 1894, the Meredith/Skeels area, with its logging camps and sawmill – and all the Saturday night steam-blowing that accompanied it – was a bit tougher/rowdier area than it is today. One might say it was just the sort of spot where a church needed planting.
That’s exactly what happened those 125 years ago when the Isaac Smallwood, a Civil War veteran, first organized a Baptist Sunday School in a log house approximately one-half mile east of Skeels. One year later, a piece of farmland was deeded for $1 by Simon B. Skeels for the church’s first building – a frame building erected by the congregation at 5512 Renas Road.
The church was officially named the First Freewill Baptist Church of Sherman Township, later shortened to Sherman Baptist Church. At an April 25, 1925 business meeting it began being referred to as Skeels Baptist Church.
That original wood construction was dismantled in 1913 and rebuilt on a proper foundation and sported an exterior faced with local stone. These were just the first of many construction projects the church has undertaken over the years. In the mid-1920s, the Rev. Ezra Hill built a new parsonage west of the church [at a cost of $1,474.91], and in the early 1940s the Revs. Clare Olin and Alfred Anderson oversaw additions to the church with capacities for 200-250 people.
The church has seen many clergy come and go over the years, but the longest serving among them by far was the Rev. Carl Briggs whose tenure ran from 1952 to 1985. Briggs oversaw extensive remodeling of the church in 1958, but continuing congregation growth led to the need for a new building. He placed its cornerstone in 1968 and the first service in the new church was held Aug. 31, 1969, with a dedication service Oct. 26 of that year. The new church also coincided with the church’s 75th year Diamond Jubilee.
Over the years, the church grew to offer not only church and Sunday School activities, but also to build and operate a Christian elementary school which ran two school buses. It also sponsored a weekly radio broadcast worship hour. In 1975, the church averaged a Sunday School attendance of 250. The Skeels Northern Christian School started in the church basement in 1975, and it continued to grow with the elementary wing completed in 1978 and the high school wing and gym completed in 2000.
Congregations ebb and flow, and the current church – which changed its name to Grace Fellowship Church in 2003 – has diminished considerably in size. Donna Ashby is a congregant who has taken it upon herself to gather all the bits and pieces of photos, paperwork and random notes found tucked away at the church, and she has been working to compile a complete timeline-biographic history of the church. In so-doing, she has learned a great deal about the early years of Skeels, from lumbering, to the nuts and bolts of who ran the store, to who the midwife was [“Old Mrs. Lydia Tressler” according to a note on the back of a photo of the “Men of the Church” dated December 1939]. Ashby attributes the wane in church attendance, in part, to a period when the church had no designated leadership and speakers were guests or church members. She said that many of the members migrated over to Round Lake Baptist Church, taking with them the young people who are so necessary to maintaining church longevity. Ashby said some younger people with children have made their way back to the church, but that the church truly needs and welcomes lots more just like them.
Ashby said many dignitaries from the church’s history will be in attendance at the on Sunday, Sept. 15 service celebrating the church’s 125 years, and that all are welcome to join in this remarkable event. The church is located at 4031 Adams Road and the service will begin at 9 a.m., with a picnic afterward on the church grounds.
For more information, call the church’s newly installed pastor, the Rev. Rick Tarter at 989-246-0811.