Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Fishers recently celebrated its 175th birthday. The church was founded by pioneers in 1844. “It’s very exciting to be part of a house of worship that has lasted this long,” says Pat Johnston, administrative board chair. “Our congregation is the oldest continuing worship community in Hamilton County housed in a frame. The church was built in 1851 and added on to, and refreshed over the years, but it’s the oldest religious building still in use.”
Johnston loves the church.
“My husband Dave and I were drawn here from the church where we raised our kids, a mega United Methodist congregation, where we were active for 40 years or so when we moved to the lake on retirement,” Johnston says. “We had passed the pretty little building and admired it while visiting our grandkids in the area and wondered what it was like inside. We were hooked on our first visit!”
There are several things that stand out to Pat about the history of the church.
“Well, we started in the Crook family’s log barn at 136th and Prairie Baptist Rd as a ‘class’ of the United Brethren church,” Johnston says. “Over several mergers between denominations, we (later) ultimately became a United Methodist Church. Our second building was a log church just a bit south of where we are now located, but that was quickly replaced in 1851 by the frame church with a cemetery at the current location. In 1912, we expanded by moving the building forward several feet, digging a basement, and hauling the building onto its new foundation (using horses).”
The church’s founding families (with the last names Crook, Patterson, Steffy, Cahil, Carverick, Wertz, Allen, Kinnaman, and Wyant) still have descendants in Hamilton County, and Wyant descendants still worship there.
“Our historic cemetery (we recently had an open house, talk, and tour there) includes several Civil War vets, and even from right around the time of the Revolutionary War,” Johnston says. “It’s amazing to think that we are still using the walnut pews made from huge logs donated from a founding member’s farm. And to think, we were here long before an interstate, Avalon and Saxony, and the Hamilton Southeastern Schools, and Hamilton Town Center joined us in our corner of the world!”
Bethlehem United Methodist Church has members from Fishers, Geist, and Lawrence Township.
“Our missions over the years have included raising money for a number of local charities,” Johnston says. “For several years we ran an after-school homework help program in a nearby lower-income apartment complex. We support Man 4 Man Ministries, The Good Samaritan Network, The Indiana UM Children’s Home in Lebanon, UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief), Damar, The Boys and Girls Club Noblesville, and The Thorpe Creek School Library. We’ve also sent supplies to tornado victims, generators to a mission in Central America, and more. Quarterly, we provide lunch at Ronald McDonald House at Riley for families of patients there.”
Bethlehem United Methodist Church raises that charity money primarily by having participated in what is now Fishers Spark (started as Fishers Fest), since it began over 10 years ago.
“We are the source for the ‘heavenly corndogs,’ there, and most of the congregation serves shifts cooking dogs and selling soft drinks,” Johnston says. “And of course, we have generous congregants, too.”
Johnston noted that every church has its ebb and flow of congregational size.
“As children grow and move away from the area, we lose some, so the average age of a congregation tends to rise and fall, (and then rise and fall again) over 175 years,” Johnston says. “While there can be some comfort in being all ‘of an age,’ we know that won’t keep us going. In recent years, we’ve worked on not becoming only a congregation of retirees.
“We’ve drawn in younger members, and there are really probably two reasons for that,” Johnston says. “The first is that we have a young, energetic pastor, the Rev. Angela Gafford-Asmus, who keeps us open to new ideas and gives a little shove now and then to move outside the box. The second is that we are well known for being among the friendliest congregations around. We are small enough to recognize a visitor, and almost all of us enjoy welcoming those, urging them to come back. And most do!”
Because they are not a megachurch, (and don’t want to be), members can keep things personal.
“We have dinners together, either pitch-ins at the church or ‘on the road,’ at an area restaurant, nearly every month of the year,” Johnston says. “Our youth group is small right now, but we keep our kids busy. For example, as part of one of the 175th birthday events, they will participate in giving out 175 free Bibles to all comers on a Saturday afternoon before taking off for a hike and a picnic at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park.”
Bethlehem United Methodist Church is located at 13550 Olio Road. For more information about the church, such as events or services, visit bethlehemumc-fishersin.org.