From Our History
Well over 100 years have gone by since those who were the first members of this church lived and raised their families in this area. It was in the winter of 1879 that Elder D.T. Bordeau held evangelistic meetings in Kewanee, Wisconsin. As a result of that effort, several families accepted the Adventist message. This group of believers were so enthusiastic and in earnest that they didn’t want to wait until spring to be baptized. There were no baptistries inside warm churches then, but they were not to be deterred. An opening was made through the ice in the river, and they were baptized. Among those who were baptized were the families of Ferdinand Routheaux, Tom DeGrave, Joe Wery, Peter Wery, and Mrs. Theophil Duca. In time, this group moved to Gourley Township in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There was a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Stephenson, which they joined.
Travel was by horse and buggy, 25 miles, making regular attendance difficult especially in the winter. To make things easier, they decided to meet from home to home as a branch of the Stephenson church. Even this was hard because their homes were far apart, and there was a river to cross. Several families lived on one side of the Big Cedar River, several on the other, and there was no bridge on which to cross. In the winter they could cross on the ice, but in summer they crossed on felled trees. The children that were old enough walked with their parents; babies were carried in their mothers’ aprons. They often ate dinner together (which in rural communities is the mid-day meal) before starting back to their homes. Brothers Silvan Everard and Florman DePas from
Stephenson would occasionally come and have services with them. For the Lord’s Supper and baptisms, they all went to Stephenson by horse and buggy or on bicycles. Typically, this was a Friday to Sunday excursion.
By1889 there were 15 adults plus children who were meeting for services. The new adult members who joined the group were: Mr. and Mrs. Emil Baurain, Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Vanderville, Mr. and Mrs. Desire Wery As new members were added, it was necessary to have larger quarters in which to hold their services, and arrangements were made to meet in the public school which had been built in 1890, and was located on the west side of the road in what was then Joe Wery’s field.
In 1902 Elder Marshal Enok held meetings here which resulted in more baptisms and the Wilson church was formally organized. The new members added at this time were Martin Duca, Joe Baurain, Mr. and Mrs. John Lanaville, Mr. and Mrs. Antone Lanaville, Mrs. Desire Routheaux Jarden, and Esther Lanaville. These new members brought the total membership to 24. Emil Baurain (great-grandfather of Russell Berger, Sr.) was appointed First Elder and continued in that office for many years. Joe Wery was chosen to be First Deacon.
Most of the members of this new church were of French descent, so services were held in French, and they sang from French hymnals. As the children grew up, and English-speaking converts were added, English gradually came into use. For several years one or two French hymns were used in the services, and there was a Sabbath School class for French speakers. Finally, when most of older members had died French was discontinued entirely.
Many of the early converts in this church came from Catholicism, and there are interesting stories handed down about the struggles that came when the Sabbath question was presented to them. A few years before Gabriel Vanderville passed away, he told about his conversion. When he moved here, he lived in a house near the junction of CR 374 and CR 551. Mr. Baurain went to give him Bible studies. He and his wife were both interested until they came to the study about the Sabbath and its observance. He wife was furious and said she would never accept it. On his way home on a dark, rainy night, Mr. Baurain knelt under a tree across from the recently vacated Gourley Hall, and prayed earnestly that the Holy Spirit would help them make the right decision. Three weeks later both Gabriel and his wife went to Stephenson to be baptized.
Seventh-day Adventist history is heavily layered with stories of its commitment to education, Christian education. The Wilson church’s history mirrors that commitment. In 1907 a school was conducted in the home of Ferdinand Routheaux, who lived on what is now the Gurosh farm, about four miles North of the site of the current church campus. The teacher, Charles West, boarded at Joshua Wery’s (just South of the current location) and walked to and from school every day. There were 12 children attending from the homes of Desire Wery, Peter Wery, and Ferdinand Routheaux. Elder Bellows’ daughter Pluma also attended. All except Desire Wery’s children boarded at the Routheaux home during the week. By this time, 1906, Francis DePas’s family had moved here from Wisconsin, and they had children of school age. They too wanted their children in church school. The next year school was held in the home of Joshua Wery and the following year in Peter Wery’s home. These homes were more centrally located and so removed the need for any students to board out, making room for more to attend. The children from the DePas, Baurain, and Vanderville families were enrolled.
The need to have a building for church and school began to be keenly felt by 1908. Plans were formulated and work began on land given by Joe Wery. This remains the site of the church. Most of the labor was done by church members, and some of the neighbors and merchants donated money.
The church was barely useable when one of the first members, Mrs. Joe Wery, passed away. Hers was the first funeral held in the new church building. About this time Esther LaCount and her son George joined the church, along with Wolf Rhode, who took a great interest in helping complete the building. By 1911 the church was finished and dedicated with Brother J.J. Irwin, the conference president, and Elder Bellows officiating.
As the years went by, church members began to think it would be nice to have a bell to ring on Sabbath morning, and to toll for funerals. Accordingly, a steeple was built in 1912. The bell for the steeple was a gift from Henry Lanaville, which he purchased from the Sears, Roebuck & Company for $39.00. The next big question was how to get the bell up into the steeple. First, they tried to pull it up with Peter Wery’s horse, but the horse was too small and wasn’t up to the task. Then Joshua Wery’s big horse was hitched unto it, and up it went. John Lanaville was the bell ringer for a time, then others took over the duty. The bell was rung one-half hour before Sabbath School calling worshipers to services. Its mellow tone could be heard for miles around. Some of the school children considered the belfry a good hiding place when they played hide and seek, or when they just wanted to keep out of sight.
One beautiful occasion to be celebrated in this new church was the wedding of Mary Baurain and Frank DePas on March 12, 1913.
About this time Wolf Rhode built a shed for the horses on the North side of the church yard. Horse and buggy being the primary mode of transportation in those days, shelter from the elements was needed for the animals. The school children made good use of this building, too. When winter snow was deep, it was a lot of fun to climb on top of the shed and jump off in the snow bank below.
When plans were made for that first church in 1908 members did not forget about Christian education. A room was partitioned off at the back of the auditorium to be used for church school. Many boys and girls went in and out of that little school room during the 26 years that followed. Then in 1937, with an increasing church membership, it was decided to enlarge the sanctuary space by removing the partition that separated the school room from the main space. That meant the suspension of the church school. While heartened by the growing group of believers, members felt ambivalent about the loss of the school.
Four years went by and again this fast-growing congregation needed more room. This time the church building was raised, and a full basement was added. This space was divided into Sabbath School rooms for junior, primary, and kindergarten boys and girls. Two rooms were added onto the front of the building, one on each side of the belfry. The entrance to the basement was through the room on the South and the other space was used as cloakroom. The completion of this part of the building process was solemnized by the wedding of Beatrice DePas and Clayton Soper on July 9, 1942.
As noted above, the need for Christian education was not forgotten. Public schools were being consolidated during this time, and this left many one-room school buildings vacant, including one in Ford River Township, which the congregation purchased and moved to a piece of land across the road from the church. This land was donated by Frank Messersmith, grandfather of Gailyn and Les Messersmith, of the current (2019) church leadership team. By September of the following year, 1948, the congregation’s children were again receiving a Christian education.
With plenty of room now for services, and the children again in church school, things seemed to be moving along smoothly. And although there was now a school building, the heating system was still under development, and not yet functioning reliably when the weather turned nippy in October. That was the impetus for moving the school operation to the basement of the church temporarily. One day the furnace overheated, causing a chimney fire which was noticed by a passer-by who stopped and raised the alarm. In those days there were no phones or fire department in the community, and the only way to summons help was by ringing the bell. There was a bell in the new school and the one in the church, as described, and the bigger boys rang them and rang them. All of the children and teacher got out without mishap, but virtually none of the contents was salvaged. By sunset on October 20, 1948, the work of years was a heap of ashes. The bell that had so many times rung the call to worship lay in the ashes, cracked and of no more use.
Loss of the church was a devasting blow, but faithful members were not defeated. Gathering new courage, they set out to plan for a new building. That very night a board meeting was held, followed the next night by a business meeting in the old Gourley Hall at which time definite plans were laid. Those plans included an auditorium 48’x80’, which would have a baptistry, choir loft, and a balcony, and be able to seat 500 people. There would be a full basement, which would have rooms for the children’s Sabbath School divisions, and a furnace room. The entrance to the church was to be 12’x34’ and contain a cloakroom, mother’s room, and restrooms. The estimated cost of this building was $55,000. A woods project was decided on to get materials and cash. The timber on several state forties was made available, and all who were able went to the woods to work every Sunday.
That winter a cook stove was taken to the woods and dinners were served. The woods rang with the sound of voices, shouts of “Timber,” and buzzed with the sound of chain saws, axes, tractors, and trucks. The pastor at the time was A.R. Mohr, who donned his overalls, and with men, women, and children, went to work to undertake this big project. The Carney school was one of the newly consolidated schools at that time, and the congregation was grateful to the school board which allowed them to use the gymnasium and two classrooms for services for a couple of months.
By Christmas time the basement of the new church was ready for use; when warm weather came again the rest of the building began to take shape. The walls were up, rafters on, and half the roof was sheeted when on the night of June 20, 1949, a windstorm of tornado strength swept through the neighborhood, and reduced the building-in-process to a pile of pick-up sticks. While some of the rafters and beams were salvaged, more timber and money were needed, so the woods work resumed.
Even though the building was not entirely finished, services began to be held in August. Camp meeting was held there for three days with 400 people present at the opening meeting. Michigan conference president, Elder G.E. Hutches, Lake Union president, Elder L.E. Lenheim, were speakers, along with Elder Kreitsky who had a history in the U.P. and who had spent three years behind the “Iron Curtain.” The children’s Sabbath Schools were held in the school building across the road. Visitors were housed in eight tents on the church grounds and in private homes. Plate lunches were served during the day in the school building. The weekend was a spiritual high.
On November 19, 1949, members of the North Daggett Church joined the Wilson group bringing the membership to 144.
In 1950 the public school building was moved across the road and placed beside the one from Ford River making a two room school in which classes were held for 14 years. A couple of years later the school was sided and a new roof put on. (An interesting side note is that many of the pieces of playground equipment that were moved with the one-room school buildings are still in use in 2019.) Also, in 1950 an acre of land was purchased from Mrs. Earl Nestle to enlarge the cemetery. Ignes DePas was appointed sexton to look after it, and, in order to meet operating expenses, it was decided to charge $10 per cemetery plot. Now, along with everything else, the price has risen, until today a plot costs $50 for members, and $150 for non-members.
By 1953 the new church was finished. The woods projects had brought in $3,000; the Dorcas Society had raised $1,500 for the stained-glass windows. The actual construction work had been done entirely by the members of the church with two exceptions: the exterior Perma-Stone finish, and the interior plastering parts of the project were done by contractors. The work projects and gifts of members meant the church was debt free and ready to be dedicated. Elder G.E. Hutches, still president of the Michigan conference, gave the dedicatory address one Sabbath in October, 1953.
Shortly after the dedication of the church to which he had given so much time in personal energy and leadership, Elder Mohr was moved down state. In the next few years the Wilson Church had several pastors who each served a brief term reinforcing and expanding the meaning of “Advent Movement.”
In the mid ‘60’s Elder J.H. Turner was sent to pastor the Wilson Church and was actually here for four years. During his tenure another project was instituted to supplement the church budget offerings, the bean project. For two summers string beans were planted on the Ignes DePas farm, and the third summer at Florian Berger’s. At harvest time the fields were filled with adults and children picking, weighing, and loading beans to be hauled to the Norway Canning Factory. Part of the time a picking machine was hired, but there was still plenty of work for pickers. The net income from this project was $1,984.
Homes for ministers and teachers were hard to find in this rural setting, so a parsonage was built by the Michigan Conference. This home is two miles North of the church and was first occupied by Elder Turner in 1961. A year later a home in Menominee was given to the Wilson church by the conference, and moved by George DeGrave to the waiting basement and foundation on the corner of the church property, handy for teachers across the road from the school.
As membership grew and school age children became more numerous, it became obvious that the two-room school was no longer adequate for their educational needs. A committee was appointed in 1963 to study the feasibility of building a new school. A plan was presented to the church in business session in February of the next year; the proposal to build a Butler building with three classrooms and a gymnasium was approved. Elder William Hubert came from Lansing to direct an “Every Member Canvass” to raise the necessary funds. This was expected to be a three -year project, but church members were so anxious to have the new school that several went to their bank and borrowed the money to pay their three-year commitment early so that work could start at once.
The Butler building arrived May 8, 1964, and anxious for it to be ready for school in the fall, members set to work. Many put in long hours, working on the project after their day jobs. Gary Berger remembers his Dad specifying this was how his summer would go. Their diligent work was rewarded when school opened on September 8 with 59 students in grades 1 to 10 utilizing three classrooms. It was another two years before the gymnasium was finished and the building was ready to be dedicated. Ted Mabie was the school board chairman and a builder, which gave him an opening to call for a roofing bee that raised some of the money to reach that goal.
On dedication day, January 22, 1966, about 300 people gathered for an afternoon program that featured local people who had been instrumental in this project –- Pastor Lee Huff, Ray Berger, Ralph Berger, a choir of school children –- as well as some Michigan Conference leaders, and some from the Lake Union Conference. The estimated worth of the school at the time was $90,000. Cash investment was $75,000, the difference attributed to donated labor.
Periodically over the years other projects were undertaken: carpeting the sanctuary level, and the basement, buying an electric organ were some of the smaller improvement. A bigger one addressed the need for the Dorcas Society, or Community Services, as it is now called, to have more space. For years the small cabin by Mack’s store was used, but it was at times very cramped. After discussing several options, someone suggested utilizing space in the basement of the church building. That prompted Howard Berger to go to the basement one day where he did a lot of thinking. He visualized a plan which was presented to church in business meeting, and accepted as the best solution to the problem. Slips of paper were passed out on which those present were to put the amount of money they thought they could give toward the remodeling. The total was enough to do the remodeling and a vote to approve was taken.
Over the next five months Howard Berger, Ted Mabie, and Elmer Turnquist directed an extensive remodel to both the basement and the sanctuary space. Some exterior improvements were also made. A ramped entrance to a side door was built with money given in memory of Kathy Kellogg. (The date of the addition is uncertain.) Services were held in the school while all of this was going on.
A recurring theme in this history recital is membership growth, investment in education, members volunteering to do necessary work to improve and accommodate changing needs. Church fellowship not only involved work bees to do the updating and upkeep of the physical plant, it included developing friendships of a social nature. When it was time to nominate officers for the various functions of the church, a social committee was chosen. Especially in the years before telephones and television were common, church social events were an important part of members’ lives. Many remember fondly the sledding parties on Bergers’ hill, skating parties on the river, home-made ice cream, lots of popcorn. The old Gourley hall often housed gatherings that included such games as Jump the Bean Bag, Prince of Paris Lost His Hat, Under the Blanket (aka The Deceitful Brother), even a box social now and then. (Young people: ask your grandparents what that was.)
In the years after the major renovations recounted above, the cycle of pastors coming and going every two to five years continued; the tenure of teachers followed a similar pattern. At some point, (this writer has not found anyone who remembers exactly when or why) the formal building committee seemed to disappear. Deacons saw to the most obvious needs of upkeep. Deaconesses organized members to deal with routine cleaning chores. It wasn’t until early 2017 that the need to have the building committee reconstituted was seen. Plans were being made to do some updating of the school, when on the night of July 25, 2017, the church into which so many had invested so much was struck by lightning and burned beyond saving. Now the newly activated building committee really had a big project to attend to.
While planning for a new church building required many meetings of the church board, the building committee, the church in business session, negotiations with the insurance company, and on and on, as of mid- March, 2019, the project is ready to begin.
In the meantime, adjustments were made to the school building to accommodate weekend worship services. This required setting up the gym for those services, and taking down for school.
The task of setting up has been done faithfully by the students, and the taking down by attendees at Sabbath evening vespers. A doublewide mobile building was obtained to house the children’s Sabbath School divisions, and parked temporarily just South of the school.
The Wilson Church continues to thrive and grow largely because of its commitment to the school, which is supported by the Combined Budget program. The plan, instituted in 1964 (despite skepticism of the conference) recommends that above the tithe members contribute eight percent of their income to support the education program of the school in addition to the needs of the church. It means that after a registration fee payable at the beginning of the school term, families are able to enroll their elementary school children without a monthly tuition fee. There is a relatively small tuition charge for students in the ninth and tenth grades. It is expected that those families will contribute as much as they are able to the combined budget. There is also a worthy student fund. The result is noticeable during worship services when a large group of children (35 and more) present for the weekly children’s story.
The Wilson, Michigan, Seventh-day Adventist church is one of the largest rural churches in the North American Division with membership maintaining at about 250. In 2018 the total of the tithe given by this congregation was $346,307 for a monthly average of $28,857. Combined Budget contribution for that year was $208,476, with the monthly average being $17372.
It is hoped that the new structure will clearly demonstrate that here is a people who look eagerly for the day when Jesus comes. The cemetery will be a ‘happening place’ on that day, and “we are who alive and remain” look forward to being “caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”
Original history written by Gladys DePas, with updates and revisions by Charlotte Moon