Once-grand Monmouth church fell victim to wrecking ball
MONMOUTH, Ill. — June 1, 2022, will mark the 50th anniversary of the end of one of the saddest architectural declines in Monmouth history. After standing vacant for eight years, a magnificent Gothic church complex — which formerly housed Grace United Presbyterian Church — finally met the wrecking ball in 1972.
Built in 1882 by First Presbyterian Church — a congregation that dated to 1837 — the house of worship initially occupied the southwest corner of East 1st Avenue and South 3rd Street. Later, a spacious chapel was erected to the west, and in 1903 a manse was constructed on South 2nd Street, extending the complex to half a city block.
Prior to 1964, the stately church seemed destined for a continued long life. At the time, it was Monmouth’s largest United Presbyterian congregation with 512 members, but it fell victim to a merger, which was probably inevitable, considering that Monmouth was then supporting five Presbyterian congregations.
Talk of mergers had first surfaced in 1925, when First U.P. Church — a block north of Grace — proposed a union with Second U.P. Church, near Monmouth College. The session of Second U.P. declined, and did so again in both 1927 and 1943.
The church that would become known as Grace was originally First Presbyterian and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).
That changed in 1958, when (PCUSA) merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) to form the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There couldn’t be two First Presbyterian churches in Monmouth, so the former First Presbyterian voted to change its name to Grace United Presbyterian.
Monmouth College philosophy professor Samuel Thompson, a member of Second Church who in 1958 helped write the statement of faith that allowed the national merger, was a longtime advocate of the local Presbyterian churches merging. He found an ally in two dynamic young ministers, the Rev. Donald Weems of Grace Church and the Rev. James Phillippe of Second Church.
At a meeting of the session of Grace Church on May 3, 1961, a proposal was presented by Weems to consider initiating conversations with the other Presbyterian congregations in Monmouth to see if there was enough interest in consolidation. The pastor and the clerk were instructed to draw up a letter which could be forwarded to the sessions of First, Second, Ninth Avenue and West Side churches.
In response to the letter, each of the five sessions appointed members to an exploratory committee, which studied each church’s demographics, finances and buildings. A uniting committee, composed of five members from each church, was established at the end of 1962.
On Oct. 27, 1963, at noon, the members of each congregation voted by secret ballot whether or not to consolidate. When the voting was tabulated, only West Side Presbyterian declined to unite. According to the Galesburg Register-Mail, the decision to unite the four churches was understood to be the largest merger of local churches of the same denomination in the nation’s history.
The first congregational meeting of the new Faith United Presbyterian Church was held in January 1964. Worship services were combined in the spring of that year and Sunday Schools were combined in the fall. A structure committee studied the existing buildings and determined that Second Church, with its proximity to the college, offered the best physical plant for future expansion, including the building of a modern new sanctuary.
In 1967, schematic plans for a new sanctuary to be erected on the site of the former manse were approved by the congregation. The chancel woodwork from old Grace Church, including an ornately carved reredos (altarpiece) installed during a 1949 remodeling, was transferred to the new sanctuary, which was completed in 1969.
Meanwhile, the old Grace Church property was purchased by the Warren County YMCA for $15,000. The “Y” at the time was located one block directly west, so it eyed the real estate as a potential site for future expansion. However, expansion never occurred, and the abandoned church became both an eyesore and a hazardous temptation for young explorers.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 40 years.