Downtown DuBois’ Bethany Evangelical Covenant Church has two histories — the history of the congregation and the history of the building, according to member Denny Shaffner.
“I think that’s interesting because we’re tearing up and fixing up,” said Shaffner, noting there are renovations currently underway.
It was chartered in 1904 as the Swedish Congregational Mission Church but services began in 1894 and were held in Swedish in a home at the corner of Main Street and Long Avenue.
In 1900, the congregation purchased a site on Quarry Avenue and built the Quarry Avenue Church in 1903, said Shaffner.
In 1924, the language used was changed from Swedish to English.
“So up until 1924, the services were held in Swedish. And all of our old records are written in Swedish,” said Shaffner.
In 1935, the Congregational affiliation was changed to the Covenant Church and the congregation named themselves Bethany Covenant Church, he said.
In 1972, Bethany moved to its current location at 26 E. Long Ave., which had previously been the First Baptist Church as well as the Fuller Opera House.
The building, said Shaffner, was built for the Baptists by a man named Sidney Fuller; the cornerstone was laid in 1894.
“He held the mortgage to it. He was a lumberman, and he made his money in lumber,” said Shaffner.
In 1895, Fuller repossessed the building, which was known as the Fuller Opera House, which was run by Mr. A.P. Way, who started the Avenue Theater. The building seated 800 people, with opera chair seating and a balcony — the newspaper called it, “Peanut Heaven.”
“It had five dressing rooms. It had its own set of props for the plays. The stage was 50 feet by 50 feet, so it was the width of the thing, and deep,” said Shaffner. “People played here from John Phillips Sousa, Shakespeare plays, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They came in on the railroad. They got off there, and paraded through town to come to the opera house, which was a big deal.”
In 1901, upon Fuller’s death, his wife married a Baptist minister and sold the building back to the Baptists.
“But the stage was not part of what we call the sanctuary,” said Shaffner. “It was all the way back. And then, the building actually had shed roofs that went back to the alley. So this parking area out here was under roof. That’s where sets were kept, we think, and that sort of thing. But before we began our renovation here, and we used as many years as a church, this area of the building was cobbled all up. It had steps going everywhere. They were skinny, little, narrow steps, and skinny little rooms on different levels. So what we’ve tried to do is make that sort of thing all go away, and make the room more into a modern usable space.”
Today, Bethany Covenant has approximately 80 members.
“But there are so many people that come to this church that are part of our family and friends and I don’t know if we really ask if they joined the church officially,” said Shaffner. “If they come here, we sort of think they’re members of our church. And so that whole concept of standing in front of the church and saying, ‘I’d like to join you.’ It’s part of our church experience, but it’s more of a family here. So when people come we say, ‘We’re happy you’re here.’”
Bethany Pastor Jesse Slimak said the very first sermon that was preached when the Covenant was formed was the line from Psalm 119:62 which is “I am a friend to all who fear you.”
“I feel like in many ways, that pretty much describes our church,” he said.
“What attracted me here after coming from college, and my wife and I came back here to this area was the simplicity,” said Slimak. “Some churches have doctrinal statements. I just like it that we say, show me in the Bible why you believe that. There’s no other books.”
Slimak said that Bethany Covenant is a very grace-filled church.
“I’m sure a lot of churches would say that about themselves, but it really is. I think it’s a place ... a lot of vulnerability, a place where people really want to know Jesus and grow, a place where we’re a friend to all who fear him,” said Slimak.
Bethany Covenant strongly believes that God is leading the congregation to be a community church, said Slimak and Shaffner.
“That’s been kind of the driving force behind the remodeling,” said Shaffner. “That it’s not about us. That’s for the community. So right now, we’re in a process of discernment too, how to best utilize that and do more outreach.”
The reason the congregation came to this church was because the high-rise was built across the street, said Shaffner, noting it has changed over the years.
“The original idea about the elderly kind of went away,” said Shaffner. “We’ve done coffeehouses over the years. We participated with the Methodist church in providing a weekly meal. So there have been lots of different things over the years that the church has done, but I’d say with Jesse coming, our church ... the reason we’re renovating the church ... we’re spending a huge amount of money for the size of the congregation that we are, to get this building ... to keep its integrity architecturally. We want to keep the building up as part of the historic register, but the question would be, do you bag it and build a new church out in the country?”
Instead, the church members decided to invest in this building, which is huge, and try to continue to do ministry downtown.
“So the renovation the people have been seeing over the years, it hasn’t happened fast, because we didn’t hire a contractor. So much of the work has been done by men in the church, which is always true. If you look back in the history of the church, to try to do it frugally and cost effectively,” said Shaffner. “So, it’s taken us some time. We’re still working on it. But it’s all directed towards downtown ministry.”
“It’s for the others. For those that haven’t joined us, yet,” said Slimak.
For more information, visit the church website at bethanydubois.com.