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The First United Methodist Church building has been a landmark in downtown Salt Lake City for 100 years.
Excited Methodists gathered together Sept. 24, 1905, to break ground for their new church in downtown Salt Lake City.
Methodists had been in Utah since the 1860s when the Rev. A.N. Fisher arrived and preached the first sermon ever given by a non-Mormon in the LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square. There were enough of them by 1870 to form the first congregation, known as the First Methodist Episcopal Church. They met in a hay loft above a livery stable at 38 E. 200 South with the Rev. Gustavus Marshall Pierce as pastor. Within five years, the congregation built its first church at 33 E. 300 South.
But by the turn of the century, the thriving First Methodist had outgrown its church. It purchased land at 203 E. 200 South. The new church was Methodism's flagship in Utah, a visible symbol of diversity in Mormon country.
"The magnificent house of God," as it was described, stood alone, its towering crucifix stark against the cityscape.
During the past hundred years, the church has been renewed and renovated several times. It has seen pastors come and go and congregations rise and fall. It has been dwarfed by the glass and steel of commercial buildings.
But it remains a symbol of faith.
"I've seen a lot of rejuvenation," says the Rev. Brian Hare-Diggs, pastor at what is now known as First United Methodist Church, due to the 1968 merger between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren.
"When I first got here, we had an average weekly attendance of 75, now it's between 130 and 140," says Hare-Diggs, who arrived in 1998. "It was known as a place for older members, now our strongest group is in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And people come from as far away as Stansbury Park, Sandy, Park City and Fruit Heights."
On Sept. 24, First United Methodist will celebrate its centennial with a Hawaiian luau at the church.
The church was once a homogenous place, dominated by white Americans - J.C. Penney's wife, Berta, was a famous member - but now there are members from Holland, Norway and Nigeria, Samoa and Tonga as well as a tiny group of Pakistanis who have their own worship service in Urdu.
"We see ourselves as a mother church who gave birth to many other congregations" - including the Tongan Methodist congregation, Hare-Diggs says.
Commitment to social causes and activism were built into Methodism by church founder John Wesley, who members say exemplified the importance of living the Christian gospel, not just preaching it.
In the 1960s, members at First Methodist championed civil rights; in the 1970s, it was women's liberation, says Bob Runnells, a member since the 1950s. "There were strong sermons on both."
In those years, the Rev. George Davis was known as the "Voice of Protestantism" in the downtown area, according to a church history written by Robert Kelm in 1970.
Davis was on the board of directors of the Community Services Council, the Campus Christian Center, The Crossroads Urban Center, and the Religious Community Committee on Aging, Kelm wrote.
That kind of urban ministry is still crucial, Hare-Diggs says.
The church building has served many other purposes than worship. It has been used for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Weight Watchers and the American Heart Association, and Interfaith Hospitality, which houses the homeless.
The television show "Touched by an Angel" filmed several segments in the church. In one, the show filmed members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir entering the main sanctuary.
"We have one of the few remaining historic churches in Salt Lake City," Runnells says. "And we still have a glorious pipe organ."
Hare-Diggs loves his downtown pulpit, he says. "I would be devastated if the bishop tried to get me out of here."
First United Methodist Church of Salt Lake City is hosting a Centennial Luau Celebration on Sept. 24 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Building tours will begin at 4 p.m.; traditional Polynesian dinner will be served at 5 p.m. Entertainment will include dancing by various church members and professionals. For tickets, call 801-328-8726 or visit http://www.firstmethodistslc.org.