By Kara Witherow, Editor
In the “Hostess City of the South,” Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church has carved out a niche by being a warm, welcoming, historic, traditional church in the heart of downtown Savannah.
The church, a Neo-Gothic beauty with historic stained glass windows, was dedicated in 1890. Situated on Abercorn Street across from Calhoun Square, it has been a fixture in the city’s Historic District since 1868. On Sunday, Jan. 19 Wesley Monumental UMC celebrated its 150th anniversary.
“Wesley’s been fortunate to be able to carve this niche out and maintain it,” said Dr. Ben Martin, senior pastor of Wesley Monumental UMC.
Well-known for its strong music program and traditional, sacred worship, Wesley Monumental UMC was begun in 1868 by 54 members of Trinity United Methodist Church. It’s now a vibrant congregation of about 1,100 members, with more than 500 in worship each week.
Nearly 400 new members have come into the church family in the last four years or so, Dr. Martin said, many drawn by Eli’s Place, the church’s child development center. Young families, many who drive from Hinesville, Effingham County, Richmond Hill, and Pooler, pass dozens of other churches on their drive into downtown Savannah. Church leaders don’t take that lightly, he said.
“Our child development center is making a big impact on young families,” Dr. Martin said. “A lot of them are drawn to church through that.”
The church’s growing demographic is young families, he said, and that sets them apart from many of the other older, traditional, historic churches in downtown Savannah.
While the congregation may be filled with young families, the church is multi-generational and worship has remained traditional.
“There’s still a place for very traditional music and worship, in a very traditional space for young adults, which goes against the grain and the thought that everything has to have lights and smoke and a rock-and-roll band,” Dr. Martin said. “We decided that if we can do traditional worship well, there’s a place for it, and a place that’s still meaningful to a lot of people. Our goal was to do that really well and to be a warm and welcoming church that offers a very sacred space and very sacred, traditional music and biblical, relevant teaching and preaching that speaks to young families.”
Ellene Anderson is a life-long member of Wesley Monumental UMC and also serves as the church historian.
“We’re a staple in historic Savannah,” she said, agreeing that Eli’s Place and the traditional music and atmosphere attract worshippers. “It’s been truly amazing to watch the growth.”
Anderson fondly remembers when the church wasn’t air conditioned and had to be cooled by opening the sanctuary’s second-floor windows. Cool breezes would blow through the congregation and the pastor would occasionally have to stop preaching because of the ambient noise.
“The streets in downtown Savannah were paved with brick and you could hear the cars go wobbling by,” she said. “Ambulances would drive by on their way to Candler Hospital and the minister would stop preaching until they went by and then pick right back up where he was. But we got a wonderful breeze in that big, high-domed sanctuary.”
A monument to the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, the church has undergone $10 million in renovations over the past four years. The congregation built a playground, renovated the education building, and redid the fellowship hall. Oliver Hall, a large house next to the church that provides office space, classrooms, and meeting rooms, underwent a $4.5 million renovation and restoration.
Looking toward the future, one of the congregation’s main goals is to expand their mission involvement.
They began the year with 150 days of prayer, praying for the city, it’s leadership, and the concerns of the people.
Already a strong supporter of local, regional, and international ministries, the congregation wants to do even more to help others. Once a month, members serve breakfast to those in the community who are homeless, they provide a meal and clothing to Savannah’s refugee community, and this year they are heavily involved in Chatham/Savannah Authority for the Homeless’ Tiny House Project, helping fund and build homes for homeless veterans.
The church has limited parking, very little green space, and no family life center, but it continues to grow and thrive 150 years after being planted by faithful followers of Christ.
“We have defied everything that says you are not supposed to be growing,” Anderson said, “and we just attest that when the Holy Spirit is a part of what you are doing the accoutrements that you are supposed to have to be a thriving church don’t apply.”