Central's Place in History



Two histories are now available on this page. Mark Scott's article that appeared in The Courier appears first, followed by the official church history.  (1)   (2)

By Mark Scott
Copyright 2000, The (Russellville) Courier
Used with permission

Her life has passed through two world wars, the Great Depression and 19 different U.S. presidents. Her walls have hosted thousands of humble worshipers, pristine weddings and tear-filled funerals.

Sunlight subtly enters through her windows as the day begins. Scarlet cushions cover her hardwood pews, constructed in a Gothic style.

Her chimes ring proudly just before 11 a.m. each Sunday. Donned in bright crimson robes, choir members sit in the choir loft, backdropped by a powerful pipe organ and colorful stained glass depicting the open-armed Jesus Christ.

She has seen her share of joy and sadness. She has lived past raging fires and financial troubles while celebrating special events like the baptizing of babies.

Located in the heart of Russellville, Central Presbyterian Church provides a religious presence along the city's Main Street. A church applicable in today's society, a glance at the church also causes a throwback to the early 20th century when churches were even more of an essential, central part of each community.

Last week, the church received a plaque recognizing it on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior. Its history and presence will now be preserved forever, along with 60 other historic buildings in the city.

Old-time members recall others before them who helped shape the church. Like the older members, newer members appreciate the church's appearance and understand the church's place in the community. All agree the role of a church in a community is ever-changing, and a church to survive should serve the needs of its family and its community.

"A church is like a piece of canvas," said Julia Henry Granger, a member of the church for 48 years. "Something beautiful is always being added to it."

And when it's all finished, it becomes a holy canvas.

"Every person has their place in the church," she continued. "Their gifts are given back to their community and to better the church as a whole. This church has a wonderful tradition for serving the community. I think it's very important we carry on the same traditions that have been carried on in this church for years."

Tradition. Invitation. Unity. Friendship. A church is more than walls and decorations. Like a family, church members work through difficult and challenging times, along with the prosperous ones, and Central has not been immune to several generations of growth. Through challenges, triumphs and failures, the church has continued to survive and succeed.

Perhaps one of the most challenging times came when the church began a 5-year effort in the 1980s to purchase a $175,000 pipe organ, now a prominent fixture in the church. It was a time when opinions differed and challenges were made.

A story is told of a tense committee meeting at the church concerning the purchase of the new pipe organ. At that time, church members were struggling to find the funds needed to replace their old worn-out organ.  Other various expensive repairs, including the replacement of a leaky roof, were also facing the church.

The late C.R. Turner, a former insurance agent, citizen of the year in Russellville and long time member of the church, asked to speak, drawing the attention and respect of other committee members. His message was simple - "The Lord will provide."

The organ was completely financed when it was installed.

Turner was able to hear the organ's beautiful sounds from the time it was installed in 1988 until he died in 1991. But his legacy and the legacy of other church members like him continue at the church, where its central themes are service and education while professing belief in Jesus Christ.

"I think C.R. Turner was the most respected member Central Presbyterian Church has ever had," said Jeanice Falls, a member of the church for more than 50 years who served on the organ committee with Turner. "He was very spiritual, and he was very practical. He would always say, 'If there is a need, our congregation will respond.' He always had a calming effect, and he was a very, very generous man."

The late Dr. Arnold Henry, a 72-year member of the church, used to begin his Sunday mornings listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford hymns on a record player before going to church. Co-founder of Millard Henry Clinic in Russellville, Henry had a uniquely friendly attitude accompanying his peaceful nature, his wife said.

Like Turner, Henry often provided personal donations and community service, along with his giving to the church. He served on the Russellville School Board during a critical transition in administrative leadership and population growth, and was always available for medical advice or even friendship.

Known for his exceptional memory and his keen interest in heritage, Henry was always the historian available when information was needed. He would have been a key resource for a historical story about his church if he were still alive.

Henry died in 1995 at age 82.

"The church is where we would come for fun," said his wife, Julia, who is now married to Ed Granger, a retired Presbyterian minister. "Of course, we came to worship the Lord, but the fellowship is an important part of any church. It was important to us."

Others have created tools to remember historical aspects of the church. Former pastors of the church are pictured in the church's fellowship hall, along with photos documenting changes in the church since 1871. Jim Bell, a retired teacher and longtime church member, thoroughly researched the history of the church, creating a 3-page document describing important historical changes in the church. Although retired, Bell continues to anchor the bass section of the church's choir.

Central Presbyterian was organized Jan. 29, 1871, as a Cumberland Presbyterian Church with 13 charter members. It is now affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and has 480 members.

The original church was built on what is now the 600 block of West Main Street and pastored by the Rev. Collins J. Bradley Sr. Minutes of a Dec. 30, 1872,  meeting of church elders indicated the church was attempting to "raise funds and superintend the construction of a house of worship."

In 1899 Central's present site, encompassing most of the block at Main Street, North El Paso Avenue, Denver Avenue and B Street, was acquired and a brick building was erected there. The first services were in late July of 1900, and church membership was 114.

On Jan. 1, 1908, a fire that was believed to have started in the adjacent Central or Buck Hotel spread to Central Presbyterian, which had been erected during the pastorate of the Rev. J.H. Curry at the cost of about $10,000. The church building was destroyed but was covered by a $4,000 insurance policy, according to historical accounts.

The elders of the church met immediately and appointed a building committee and a soliciting committee to rebuild on the same site with virtually the same building plan. The Washburn Memorial Presbyterian Church was without a minister at the time and invited Central members to use their facility. Central members accepted the invitation and used the facility apparently until Central was rebuilt.

The sanctuary of the church was completed in 1925 and stands today much like it was constructed then. Only minor enlargements and alterations have changed in the sanctuary, where services continue to take place at the church.

Another fire on March 22, 1952, during the pastorate of David P. Thompson, caused extensive water and smoke damage to the church school section. The elders met that night and began plans for repairing the damage, which required significant repair to the classroom area.

In early December of 1962 elders purchased the building north of the church and used it for high school and junior high school classes.

The Rev. James E. Westbrook was the longest-serving pastor in the church's history, beginning in 1962 and retiring in 1981. He oversaw many important transitions in the church's history, and his wife, Madie, was active in many aspects of the community, beginning one of the first kindergartens in Russellville.

Both have remained a part of Central Presbyterian since Rev. Westbrook's retirement.

In the centennial year of the church in 1971, Westbrook presided over a special vesper service, a hymn service and a potluck dinner on Wednesday, June 9. A special service also took place on Sunday, June 13, 1971.

In the recent history the church has received a new roof, a new heating and air conditioning unit and the organ. Church members are discussing possible plans for expansion.

On a recent Sunday evening Falls smiled proudly as three children baked communion bread following her instruction. Falls, who volunteers at a local hospital and is an avid Arkansas Tech University sports fan, enjoys spending time with the children and young adults of the church, annually having the church's two youth groups to her house for her special flaming peach dessert.

Children baking communion bread - bread to be used for a monthly holy sacrament at the church in tradition with the Last Supper - would not have been allowed for much of the church's history as it is today.

Always a supporter of youth programs and activities, Falls has special memories of her more than 50 years at the church.

"The youth has always been and continues to be a major part of this church," she said. "It's just so wonderful to see.

"I have seen this church grow in fellowship, and the spiritual life of the church continues to grow," she added. "I don't think our church is a stagnant church."

Current Pastor Kenyon Kalvesmaki understood the history of the church when he became pastor in August. But the present and future remains the most important focuses for the church, he said.

"I would hope that a church would not live on the past but plan on the future," said the man known as Pastor Ken. "We want to make sure the purpose is to always proclaim Jesus Christ. That purpose never changes, although the vision of a church can change. We want to make sure Christ is always our purpose."

"I see us building with the times but holding with tradition," Mrs. Granger added. "Times change, and if you don't change with them, they will pass you by. We have a great future ahead of us, and we've had a great past."


History of Central Presbyterian Church

Central Presbyterian Church of Russellville, Arkansas, was organized January 29, 1871 as a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation by Reverend Collins J. Bradley, Sr. Charter members were: John L. Torrence, Thomas H. Hamilton, George W. Walker, Thomas J. Russell, Alva Russell, Eliza Walker, Susan M. Russell, Mary Ann Russell, Ann Russell, Mary Pruitt, Martha A. Hamilton, Mary F. Hamilton, and Malissa D. Hamilton. Mary A. Russell donated the site for the first building at what is now 600 West Main Street.

December 30, 1872 minutes of the session show that a building committee was appointed to "raise funds and superintend the construction of a house of worship." The next reference to the building is in the minutes of the session for August 11, 1874 which says "The Session met in the church house."

The first reference to number in the minutes of the Session is for the meeting of December 17, 1885, at which time church membership was 100.

In 1899 the present site of Central Presbyterian Church was acquired and a brick building was erected there. The first services were held in the late July of 1900. Church membership at that time was 114.

May 24, 1906 the General Assembly, meeting at Decatur, Illinois, declared a union and reunion with the Presbyterian Church USA. October 2, 1906 the session adopted a resolution to abide by the ruling of the highest church court. Some members and some churches did not agree to this action and remained Cumberland. October 1, 1907, 18 non-unionists names were dropped from the church roll.

January 1, 1908 fire starting in the Central or Buck Hotel spread to the Central Presbyterian Church which had been erected during the pastorate of Rev. J. H. Curry at a cost of about $10,000. The church building which was destroyed, was covered by $4,000 insurance with $1,000 on fixtures. Many of the fixtures were saved although the organ was damaged by rough handling. The session met immediately and appointed a building committee and a soliciting committee to rebuild on the same site and virtually the same plan. Services were held in the Opera House at first. April 16, 1908 Washburn Memorial Presbyterian Church, a U.S. Church (Southern Church) which was without a minister invited Central Church to hold its services at Washburn Church. This invitation was accepted and apparently the arrangement lasted until the church was rebuilt. The Courier Democrat for December 24, 1908 announced that Christmas Eve services would be held in the new building and the December 28 meeting of the session was held there. This meeting of the session authorized the Nominating Committee to put the names of all members on committees. There were 116 names on this list. Rev. M. G. Millagan, Jr. was pastor while all this took place.

The Courier Democrat for October 12, 1911 announced that the Washburn Presbytery (U.S.) and the Fort Smith Presbytery (U.S.A.), which had the same boundaries, had decided that in many towns which had both churches, the churches would unite and belong to the presbytery of the stronger church. At that time Church had 190 members and Washburn Presbyterian Church had 54 members. Washburn Church, which had no pastor, held a congregational meeting and voted to join the Fort Smith Presbytery with one dissenting vote. Presbytery action was taken in the third week in October. In a follow-up article, October 19, 1911, the Courier Democrat said that the two churches will meet as one next Sunday with the Washburn property to be disposed of and the money used to build a manse for the combined churches. The same article announced that next Tuesday a reception would be held to welcome "the brethren of the other church." T. B. Hartman was pastor of Central Presbyterian Church at this time.

Late in 1924, it was decided to build an addition to the church. At this time, the membership of Central Church was 373 and William R. Hodgson was pastor. The first service was held in the new church auditorium November 29, 1925. The sanctuary completed at that time, with some alterations and enlargements was as it is today.

September 26, 1929, the Methodist Episcopal Church, commonly called the North Methodists, voted to disband. Since Central Presbyterian Church was without a pastor, Judge J. T. Bullock, as moderator protem, appeared before the Methodist Church meeting and invited them to Central Church. Many of them accepted this invitation. On October 24, Rev. C. F. Green, former pastor of the Methodist Episcopal in Russellville was admitted to the Presbytery of Fort Smith at a special meeting held in Clarksville. Reverend Green, according to the Courier Democrat, was appointed by the board of elders to serve as a supply pastor for Central Presbyterian Church. As of December the church had 421 members.

March 22, 1952 a fire caused extensive water and smoke damage to the church school section. That night the session met to begin plans for repairing the damage. Since a great deal of repair was needed, fairly extensive repair work was done to the church school area. This accrued during the pastorate of David P. Thompson.

Early in December of 1962, the session purchased the building north of the church. This was immediately put to use by the high school and junior high school classes of the church school. Rev. James E. Westbrook had become pastor in 1962 and church membership was 360.

Since the church still needed classroom space, alterations and additions were planned. March 20, 1966 dedication services were held for the facilities that had been altered or added during the preceding year. These changes included, lengthening the main sanctuary and putting pews in the addition and in the balcony; changing the old pastor's study into a library and adding an office, study and increasing the size of the choir room; complete remodeling of the educational building for better classroom service; the addition of a new children's department to the north side of the building, covering the walk to the annex and air-conditioning the main building. In 1970, the annex was air-conditioned. January 1, 1966, the church had 453 members.

After this remodeling was planned, the northwest part of the block on which the church is located was offered for sale. Looking to future needs Central Church purchased this property which was occupied by five rent houses. Gradually, these houses have been removed and the lot blacktopped for parking.

Since 1971 was the Centennial year of Central Presbyterian Church, special services were held. These included the church service of June 6, 1971 with the Rev. James E. Westbrook preaching, an evening vesper service, a special hymn service, with a potluck dinner on Wednesday, June 9, and on Sunday morning, June 13, a worship service with Dr. Hugh Nelson, Synod Executive of the Synod of Arkansas/Oklahoma, bringing the message, followed by an open house at two o'clock. Centennial year membership was 471.

In July, 1981, Rev. James E. Westbrook retired after nearly 20 years of service, and the church was led by the Associate Pastor, Rev. Debra Shevlin, while a search was made for a new senior pastor. This search was culminated by the issue of a call to W. Richard Neelly who became the pastor in August of 1982, church membership, January 1, 1981 was 519.

On June 10, 1983 the General Assembly in Atlanta, Georgia voted to unite United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America with the Presbyterian Church of the United States to form the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.

Later that month, June 19, Rev. L. Howell Martin was ordained and installed as the associate pastor of Central Presbyterian Church. On May 19, 1985 the congregation voted to buy the southwest corner of the block, occupied by the church, for future expansion. As a result of the deteriorating condition of our organ and to improve the music for worship services the congregation contracted to buy a new pipe organ on the 16th of February, 1986.

Upon receiving a call to a church in Texas, Howell Martin left in June, 1988 and The Reverend Rachel McCullough Matthews was called as associate pastor and ordained on June 18, 1989. Rachel resigned as associate pastor September 30, 1991. Cynthia Maunder was called by the Session of Central Presbyterian Church to serve as Director of Christian Education on June 21, 1992.