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Allen Memorial celebrates its 100th anniversary

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

The year was 1910.

Halley's Comet had just flashed across the horizon, making its first visit since 1759.

King George V ascended to the British throne and William Howard Taft became the first president to throw out the first ball in a baseball game.

Down South, construction of Allen Memorial Church in Oxford had just been completed and worshippers attended a dedication led by Bishop Warren A. Candler.

At that time, the now-historic church had just opened its doors to a flourishing Methodist community growing up around Emory College, which is now Oxford College and part of Emory University.

The church is still owned by the college and is the site of the school's assemblies, lectures and concerts on a regular basis.

Allen Memorial United Methodist Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of its sanctuary last week with a homecoming service and a covered-dish luncheon.

Michael Watson, bishop of the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, was the guest preacher, and Dr. Steven Bowen, dean of Oxford College, also took part in the special service marking the sanctuary's centennial.

"We realize that a building is not the church," Allen Memorial UMC's the Rev. Brian Dale said.

"People make the church. But for us, this is not just a building; it is our home. Over the years, the sanctuary has been the center of worship life for many Newton County residents and Oxford College students. In fact, students often return here to reminisce or even to get married in the church."

While its sanctuary is 100 years old, the Methodist church in Oxford was established in 1838. At that time, the congregation filled the pews at what is now called Old Church on Wesley Street.

When it moved to its new building on Whatcoat Street in 1910, the church was named after Young J. Allen, the first Methodist missionary to China.

Allen graduated from Emory College in 1858 and led a revival on the college campus which was said to have led to the founding of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society, now UMC Women.

After graduation, he left for China and worked as a missionary until his death in 1907.

The relationship between the church and the adjacent college has always remained strong, and up until 1985, the minister of the church served the dual role as church pastor and chaplain of the college.

"Some people in town see it as a college church and some people at the college view it as a community church," Dale said. "But in fact, we serve both communities and both the students and the local residents enjoy the interaction."

During last week's celebration, lifelong member Virgil Eady, who is lay leader of the church, presented to the visiting bishop a book, "Cornerstone and Grove," by Erik Oliver, which is about the history of buildings in the area, including the 100-year-old sanctuary.

Eady's wife, Louise, who is the church historian and has been a member of Allen UMC since 1963, said worshiping in the Allen UMC sanctuary is special to her because it makes her think about all the people who have worshiped there for the past 100 years.

"It's a very large building for such a small town," Louise Eady said.

"The stained glass windows, balcony and stained glass in the dome give it a really special feeling and appeal ... The architecture inside is relatively simple with its 100-year-old pews. There haven't been many changes other than the occasional painting. Outside there are elements of neoclassical and other periods."

Virgil Eady recalls how a former bishop used to say that Allen Memorial Church was the Westminster (referring to the famous Westminster Abbey in London) of Georgia Methodism.

Deborah Lee, 2008 Oxford College graduate, said the church played an important role in her life.

"The sanctuary at Allen Memorial is not only an aesthetically beautiful place, but it has been a place of serenity, love and spiritual power for me," Lee said.

Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Snellville. If you have a story idea, e-mail Karen Rohr, features editor, at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.