Friday, April 24, 1903, was a chilly day, and the sexton built a big fire in the furnace of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, on Main Street, in anticipation of the evening meeting.
He left the building without noticing that the fire had traveled through a defective flue to the attic, where it was quietly smoldering.
Half an hour later, a passerby saw smoke coming from the rear of the building and ran across the street to the fire station to sound the alarm. The fire, according to the Melrose Reporter, "spread with great rapidity until the whole building was one mass of seething flames."
"The general alarm was quickly sounded, and streams of water poured upon the structure in all directions, the firemen gallantly striving at the risk of their own lives to quench the flames, but to no avail," according to the Melrose Free Press. "The sections of the falling roof were followed by the organ pipes, and the belfry remained until the last."
"Let it burn," said the pastor, Rev. Charles Stackpole, who watched the fire from the porch of the parsonage.
Perhaps Stackpole was worried about the safety of the firemen. Perhaps he knew that the church was well insured, and his congregation was already making plans for a new church. Or perhaps he understood that faith is stronger than wooden beams or even bricks and mortar.
Perhaps, he believed in divine intervention.
The fire destroyed a building that was already obsolete and allowed the Methodist congregation to build a new one, gracing Melrose's Main Street with one of its most enduring landmarks. This week, the congregation, now the First United Methodist Church, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its church building. Bishop Susan Hassinger will preach at the worship service, and District Superintendent Aida Irizarry Fernandez and the Reverend Edward Grant, the current pastor, will officiate.
The stone church, designed by architect J.W. Beal, has an air of permanence befitting a congregation that is almost 200 years old. The Mission-style bell tower, topped with a hipped roof, dominates the building and radiates both power and grace. Its most prominent window, the Ascension window, is lit from behind at night, gracing the street with a gentle glow that is not only an icon of this church but also a beacon of hope for passers-by trudging down Main Street at the end of a busy day.
The congregation was already 90 years old in 1903, and it included some of Melrose's most prominent citizens - the Lyndes, the Uphams, the Emersons - among its members. At the time the old church burned, the congregation had already been planning to build a new one and had raised $25,000 towards that goal.
"They had a vision, and the time they were in permitted that vision to occur," said Bert Whittier, who is researching the history of the Melrose church.
The Melrose Methodist congregation was founded in 1813, 37 years before Melrose was incorporated as a town. A visiting preacher at the Malden Center Orthodox (Congregational) Church gave a political sermon that offended some members from what was then North Malden. At the time, the United States and the British were fighting the War of 1812, sparked by the British commandeering American sailors off U.S. ships to serve on British warships. "I'm sure he was favoring the British over the Americans," said Beatrice Wadland, a lifelong member of the church and a chronicler of its history. "They were already upset by the war."
They were also tired of the long trip into Malden center, so they asked Rev. Timothy Merritt, a Massachusetts legislator, to come preach in an old wooden schoolhouse on what is now Lebanon Street, just south of Upham.
"They called a Methodist preacher because the Methodists preach good and they preach cheap," Wadland said. Indeed, one of the early preachers, Rev. Ephraim Wiley, was paid $2 per week for his services. Consequently, he continued his trade as a shoemaker, sometimes preparing his sermon as he worked, a book spread open before him on the bench. Wiley was not destined for poverty, however; he married one of the Emersons, a wealthy Melrose family who were benefactors of the church, and went on to a successful career in ministry.
The early years of the Melrose congregation coincided with a religious revival in New England that brought many new members to the Methodist church. In 1818, the congregation bought a plot of land on the site where the Robinson Funeral Home now stands and built a simple wooden church with straight sides, a pitched roof, and arched windows. In a departure with the usual tradition, the church did not charge a pew fee for all its pews.
Throughout the 19th century, the church prospered and grew. In 1857, the congregation had outgrown its simple wooden church and had built a larger, more ornate one on Main Street. The old church was sold to George Boardman, who moved it to the corner of Main and Essex streets and used it as a concert hall; it burned down in 1875. Pews were still free in the new church, although the 1885 financial statement pointed out, "It is reasonable and proper that those regularly occupying choice seats in the church should contribute liberally toward the payment of expenses."
The Methodist church was founded on a tradition of itinerant ministers, and throughout the 19th century, the church had a different pastor almost every year. Toward the end of the century, the church loosened the "iron law of itinerancy," and the terms grew longer. Many of the pastors who passed through Melrose went on to become prominent in the denomination; among then were Rev. Leroy Sunderland, who was the pastor in 1828 and later presided over the Methodist Anti-Slavery Society in New York; Rev. John C. Ingalls, who tended to sick and wounded soldiers at Emory Hospital in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War; and Rev. William Butler, a missionary who traveled to two continents and brought back tales of his experiences in India.
Classes and small groups were an essential part of Methodist life. "John Wesley's whole idea was that people should have a group," Wadland said. "Each group was responsible to each other. They would check on each other during the week and help each other out. It was a support group."
The church also sent out missionaries to foreign lands, including Maria Brown, who went to China in 1871, one of the first two women sent there, and Pearl and Stanley Thoburn, who spent 35 years in India.
By the late 1800s, the congregation had once again outgrown its church, and the building was aging badly; in 1897, the steeple was condemned and removed. The congregation began collecting money and reviewing designs for a new church, so by the time of the fire, they were in a position to move quickly. When the church burned, the congregation had about $30,000 in cash and pledges, and the insurance on the building was reported to be another $10,000. Within two weeks the trustees had settled on a design, and the cornerstone of the new church was laid in September, 1903.
The building opened on Sunday, June 12, 1904, with Bishop Willard F. Mallalieu officiating at the opening service. The weeklong celebration included religious services, concerts, and speeches by Mayor Sidney Buttrick, Senator W. DeHaven Jones, and suffragist Mary Livermore. One afternoon was set aside for the elderly and shut-ins, who were brought to the church in carriages. The dedication banquet, held on June 17, featured boiled salmon, cold turkey and ham, fritters, strawberries, seven kinds of cake and five kinds of ice cream. The celebration wound up the following Sunday with a dedication service by Bishop Edward G. Andrews.
The congregation continued to grow in its new home, reaching a peak in 1948, when it numbered 1,700, according to Whittier. Today, the number is closer to 500, and there are no more classes, but members still meet in "circles," or small groups. "It's not as busy as it used to be, and it's not as busy as we would like it to be," Wadland said. Still, she said, "We have a dedicated core group."
In the end, that may be more important even than the beautiful building.
"Church is not size or wealth or prestige," said Rev. Oscar A. Guinn in 1987, speaking about his missionary experiences in China. "The Church of Faith is about how you carry on in the most difficult of circumstances. And until you face those circumstances and come together with God, you don't really understand what faith is."