The history of the First Presbyterian Church of Miami, Oklahoma is the story of two buildings, at two different locations, but the story of one people. Long-term members of the congregation speak of the church “before the fire” and the church “after the fire,” for on July 3, 1999, the beloved structure located at the corner of Central Avenue and B Street Southwest burned to the ground as the result of an electrical fire. In 2002, the congregation celebrated the dedication of their brand-new facility at 1410 N.E. Veterans Blvd.
The following information is taken directly from a document prepared by the 1998 Heritage Committee of the church. The entire document is available upon request in the church office.
The town of Miami, Oklahoma, Indian Territory, was created by special act of Congress on March 2, 1891. Eight years later, on March 29, 1899, twenty-seven residents of Miami met at the Friends Meeting House at the corner of what is now A Street and First Avenue Northeast to organize the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Miami. The church was in Cherokee Presbytery, which included all of the territory known as the Cherokee Nation. Two days later, they appointed a committee to find a suitable lot for a church building. The committee found two lots at the corner of Central Avenue and B Street Southwest and purchased them for two hundred dollars. By late summer of 1901, the “little white church” was being used.
The physical structure of this first building was very simple. There was a pulpit and a small organ. There were no pews, only wooden “stool chairs,” which were moved to the lawn, as was the organ, for services during the hot summer months. The Cooper Funeral Home provided cardboard fans so that members of the congregation could fan themselves, both to stay cool and to keep the flies off.
The years 1906-1907 brought changes for the young church. In May of 1906, the national Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America united. The August 21, 1906 minutes of the session reported that the Miami church joined the PCUSA. In 1907, Indian Territory was united with the Oklahoma Territory and the combined region was admitted to the United States as the state of Oklahoma. In 1911, the church records make note of a “grand change”—the installation of electric lights!
During the early years, funds were limited. For example, Mr. E.F. Lohmann did the church cleaning as part of his service to the church. In cold weather, he would rise early on Sunday mornings to go to the church to build a fire so that the Sunday school rooms would be warm for the children. There seemed to be no place for the junior high school boys’ class to meet. The pastor told the boys that they could meet in the little coal shed behind the church if they would make it presentable. The boys scoured and painted it and thereafter enjoyed meeting in their “private building.” No girls were allowed!
By 1922, church membership had reached 180, and the congregation was outgrowing “the little white church.” On March 26, 1926, the congregation laid the cornerstone for a new building. The cornerstone contained a copy of the current week’s bulletin with a list of the complete membership of the church, as well as lists of the membership of the Ladies’ Aid, the Men’s Brotherhood, and the Mission Society. The cornerstone also held one door knob from the original building, a short history of the congregation, a copy of the Miami Daily News Record for the day, and a list of contributors to the new building. Architect for the new building was J.C. Parr of the Oklahoma City firm and Hawk & Parr. The construction contract was awarded to Homer Russell of Baxter Springs, Kansas. The Gothic style building was completed at a cost of $50,000.
Two exquisite stained-glass windows adorned the sanctuary. One, the “Light of the World,” was taken from a painting by William Holman Hunt, a British artist. The other, “Christ among the Doctors,” was from a painting by Heinrich Hofmann, a German artist. Italian artisans crafted these two large windows and shipped them across the ocean to be installed. The cost at the time for both was $650.
In 1940, as the United States was about to enter World War II, one of the ways that the country assisted the country of England was to allow the training of English pilots on American soil. A training center for the “British flyers” was established in Miami, and it remained in operation for the duration of the war. Many of the cadets attended Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church, and members of the congregation welcomed the young men into their homes for Sunday dinner.
In February, 1967, the church committed to participate in the Fifty Million Dollar Fund of the PCUSA General Assembly. This fund was to be used to replace or rebuild churches in Europe that has been destroyed during World War II. The congregation pledged $15,300, paid over a three-year period. In the latter part of 1968, the church decided to sponsor a housing project to provide subsidized housing for low-income families. Curtis Plaza, located at Veterans Boulevard and A Street Northwest, came into being. It was completed in 1970 and was recognized as one of the top projects of its kind in the Southwest. In 1977, delivering Christmas food baskets to needy families became an annual project of the deacons; this project continues to this day. During the years, many organizations have used the facilities. The American Red Cross has housed flood victims and held blood drives here. Many civic groups have held benefit activities here or used the building as a meeting place. In 2003, the deacons of the church began a “shoe ministry;” each school year, the deacons purchase in excess of 50 pairs of shoes for needy school students in Ottawa County public schools. In 2004, Child’s Day Out, a mission to offer pre-school age children a “morning out” was begun; this ministry continues today.
The current facility includes a beautiful sanctuary, with brilliantly colored stained-glass windows, a parlor, classrooms, a nursery, offices, a fully-equipped kitchen, and a Fellowship Hall.
Since the original twenty-seven people organized the church in 1899, over 2,000 names have been added to its rolls. Each member has added to its development. Each has benefited from its teachings, each has received comfort during times of sadness, each has inspiration from the sermons delivered from the pulpit by its ministers. All have memories of cherished friendships formed through the years.
Following is a list of the ministers who have served the church since its beginning, with the exception of interim pastors:
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
The Reverend J.S. Lish, 1899-1903
The Reverend J.W. Henderson, 1903-1904
The Reverend R.W. Reynolds, 1905
no minister, 1906-1907
First Presbyterian Church
The Reverend James McGee Burdge, 1908-1909
The Reverend George Washington Snodgrass, 1909-1911
The Reverend John C. Linton, 1912-1923
The Reverend Harry W. Curtis, 1924-1959
The Reverend J. Donald Kruithof, 1959-1974
The Reverend Patrick Hurley, 1974-1977
The Reverend William Butts, 1977-1992
The Reverend John P. Wilson, 1994-2004
The Reverend Helen Hutchison, 2005-2013
The Reverend Raymond VandeGiessen, 2016-current
Thanks to Nancy Gee, Chairperson of the Heritage Committee, for her assistance is compiling the content of this article.