Virginia Ford, daughter Jean Ford, and Bernice Fisher, from left, have worshipped at Bethany for a combined 106 years.
Bethany United Methodist Church, the oldest church in eastern Lucas County, will hold its final service on June 23 before merging with Unity United Methodist Church on July 1.
“It's going to be sad,” said Virginia Ford, 75, who has been a member of Bethany for more than 70 years. “But it was inevitable because of the size and the health of our congregation.”
Bethany has experienced a steady decline in membership over the last four decades, with Sunday morning attendance dropping from about 200 in the early 1960s to between 14 and 18 this year, Mrs. Ford said.
“This has been coming on for a good five years but you have to wait until everybody else gets on board,” she said.
The congregation was organized in 1844 when worshippers met at the Gardner School on Pickle Road. Members erected their first church building in 1852 on Woodville Road and it was known as the Oregon Methodist Episcopal Church. The name was changed to Bethany in 1879 and the congregation moved across the street into its current brick facility at 1411 Bethany Ave. in 1917.
In the recent past, there has been no music at the church and no children at the services, Mrs. Ford said, and the church has had a part-time pastor, the Rev. Lindy Maurice-Saum.
When Bethany members attended a recent service at Unity, “it reminded me of what our church used to be back in 1970, when we had a choir and music and children,” Mrs. Ford said.
“It's not easy ministry, it's really hard,” the Rev. Larry Keeler, pastor of Unity UM, said of mergers.
Unity UM was formed in a merger of Oakdale and Euclid United Methodist churches that took effect Jan. 1. Members of Bethany and Unity approved the merger of their congregations, effective July 1, in separate, unanimous votes Wednesday night.
“These churches have existed for more than 100 years and these people have poured their lives into them, they really have,” Mr. Keeler said.
A few years ago there were five United Methodist churches in the same East Toledo area, Mr. Keeler said, “and this neighborhood becomes a little harder to live in every year.”
He lauded the members of Oakdale, Euclid, and Bethany for going ahead with the mergers.
“Most Christians in America won't be called on in their lifetimes to make those kinds of sacrifices that these people have made,” Mr. Keeler said. “I think these people have immense amounts of courage.”
The Rev. Margaret Mallory, Toledo district superintendent for the denomination, also praised members of Bethany for initiating the action rather than waiting for church officials to intervene.
“I just really celebrate what they are doing and I celebrate mostly the spirit in which they are doing it,” Ms. Mallory said. “No one asked them to do it. No one forced them to do it. They did it out of honor and respect for their church ancestors, for those who went before them.”
By merging rather than closing, Bethany's legacy continues, at least on paper. The congregation also retains ownership of the church property. If it were forced to close, the real estate would be turned over to the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Unity, which meets at the former Oakdale UM Church, has an average Sunday morning attendance of about 116, Mr. Keeler said. The newly combined congregation voted Wednesday night to form a building committee, which will explore options toward achieving a long-range goal of building a new church.
Meanwhile, members are trying to find appropriate uses for the buildings that are no longer being used because of the mergers.
“We can't continue to support all these empty buildings,” Mr. Keeler said. “We're going to have to sell some of them or find some use for them. We want them in ministry if we can do that.”
The closing service at Bethany UM Church will be at 11 a.m. June 23, followed by a luncheon. The congregation will join Unity UM Church, 441 Oakdale Ave., for its 10 a.m. worship service June 30.