119-year-old congregation in Shelley says farewell to church that’s closing this month
SHELLEY — A longtime church building in Shelley will soon be fading into history as it permanently closes later this month.
Beverly Peeler, a member of the Shelley Community United Methodist Church at 190 Holmes Avenue, tells EastIdahoNews.com the church will cease operation on Wednesday, June 30.
“We’re closing because we just don’t have the membership to keep it going anymore,” Peeler says. “We were down to about seven or eight members a week.”
The total membership for the congregation is 19, but there are only seven or eight that regularly attend.
Lack of funding due to sparse numbers of people in the pews on Sunday is the main cause of the closure, but Peeler says the COVID-19 pandemic was also a contributing factor that sped up the process.
“COVID hit and they closed all the churches. I don’t think there’s a Methodist church today anywhere in the United States that is back open,” says Peeler.
Another contributing factor was the death of the church’s pastor, Davey Lefler. He died in December 2019 from colon cancer. Lefler had served as the church’s pastor since 2006 and Peeler says he was loved and respected by members of the congregation.
“He (served as pastor) at four churches. He was kind of like the old-fashioned circuit riders, only he went on a motorbike,” Peeler says.
In the old days, Peeler says some pastors were called circuit riders because they would travel on horseback from town to town to conduct Sunday services.
“(Circuit rider) was our nickname for him because there are very few pastors (nowadays) that do that,” she says. “He’d do that in the summertime when he was healthy. He did our church, Chubbuck, American Falls and Aberdeen every Sunday. He started (doing) that sometime in late 2007. When he passed away, they did not replace the pastor for Shelley.”
Lefler’s passing left it up to visiting clergymen and church members to play a more prominent role in Sunday worship services. Guest pastors were brought in at the beginning of 2020 and the church was getting by with members filling in as needed. During this time, the administrative board began searching for a new pastor.
Then in early March, churches across the country started shutting down.
The last time anyone gathered for worship services at the Shelley Community United Methodist Church was on March 8, 2020. No one had any idea at the time it would be the last worship service ever held in that building.
“We aren’t happy about it,” says Peeler, who has been attending the church since 1958. “But that’s the reality of life.”
Establishing a church in Shelley
The current building on the corner of Holmes and East Pine Street dates back to 1968 but the church’s history goes back much farther. A historical record of the church indicates it was first organized on Aug. 3, 1902. Five people gathered to establish the Methodist Episcopal Church of Shelley, including the Presiding Elder Reverend W.W. Van Dusen and the Pastor, Reverend H.E. Carter. It was discontinued a short time later.
Eight years later, Reverend John Williams of the Kentucky Conference came to Shelley “to again organize a Methodist Episcopal Church.”
“The first preaching services were held on (April 3, 1910) and by April 17, fourteen persons had been received into the church by letter or on confession of faith,” the record says.
The growing congregation began raising funds for a church building several months after the church was organized. The corner lot where the current building now sits was purchased later that year, but Peeler says the church’s construction wasn’t complete until about 1925.
The church that members worked hard to acquire was demolished many years later and a new one was built in its place. The groundbreaking for the current building happened in 1968. Today, the North Bingham County Community Food Bank is right next door, which the church has operated since its formation in 1990.
Despite the shutdown of the church last year, Peeler says the food bank continued to operate. While food banks in neighboring communities saw an increase in the number of people needing food last year, Peeler says it did not. Its numbers have continued to dwindle over the years.
The closure of the church means the food bank will lose its longtime status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and Peeler says church members will no longer be able to run it.
“When some of the people in town heard about that, there was a group that got together and they formed a new 501(c)3 tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. It is called Heart 2 Hand Bingham Food Pantry,” says Peeler. “They are going to continue the food bank under their name and they are … going through the process with the fathers-that-be to purchase the property.”
Peeler says the nonprofit taking over the food bank is also planning to turn the church into a Community Center for concerts, recitals, wedding receptions, parties and other gatherings.
As a longtime member of the church, Peeler has many fond memories of attending services and other functions in the building over the years.
“We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and renewed our vows here. All the dinners and the worshipping and the craft fairs — everything that we did, there’s just a lot of memories,” she says.
Though she’s sad to see 119 years of history come to an end, she says closing it is the right thing to do.
“I was the last holdout. I didn’t want to see us doing that, but you have to come to the realization that this is what has to be done,” Peeler explains.
As she’s taken on the task of liquidating the church’s assets, she’s acquired a new perspective.
“Where we’ve been closed since last March, it really isn’t a church. It’s not a church unless you’re in the church worshipping and doing God’s work,” she says.
Regarding where the few remaining members will go to worship, Peeler simply says, “Wherever they want.”
Peeler and her husband, Leon, don’t know where they’ll be attending church from now on, but she says they’re moving around a lot and trying to figure it out.
Closing the church doors for the last time comes with mixed emotions for Peeler, but she’s grateful for those who will continue to make the building a gathering place for the community. She hopes the faith and vision of those early church members will continue to have an impact on future generations.