Forrest Hill United Methodist Church had its beginning in the year 1851 when a group of German immigrants came to Peoria from Cincinnati, OH with letters of transfer from their church, and found there was no German-speaking Methodist church in the area.
The families of Mathias Oeschle, William Venneman, Jacob Buehner, and Carl Buehner requested the St. Louis German Methodist Conference to send a pastor. The Conference responded by sending the Rev. Henry F. Koeneke, who arrived in September of 1851 to form a German Methodist Mission in Peoria.
Sunday services were first held at Hinman School, located on the west side of Monson St south of Fifth St. They called themselves the First German Society of the City of Peoria. On August 2, 1852 these four men, together with Rev. Koeneke (now a District Superintendent) and Christian Koeller (the new pastor), met at the home of William Venneman to form a quarterly conference. At this meeting, Mathias Oeschle was named Chairman of the group. Jacob Buehner was to be the Superintendent of the Sunday School. There were 16 members and 12 students to begin the Sunday School. Jocob Buehner, Mathias Oeschle, and William Venneman, together with Peter Shelby and Daniel Brestel of First Methodist Church, were name Trustees. The official founding date of the church is considered to be August 2, 1852.
Membership increased rapidly, and the school was soon outgrown. In only two years, the first church building was erected at the corner of Fifth and Monson Streets (now Kumpf Blvd), just west of where the Civic Center is today.
Many German immigrants continued to arrive in Peoria. In 1866, the German mission purchased property with a 74 foot frontage on South Adams St and 127 foot frontage on Chestnut St (now State St). While the new two-story frame church was being built, the congregation rented the Cumberland Presbyterian Church building on Monson St. This building still stands, having twice been moved short distances to accommodate changes in the street. For many years it was known as Musicians Hall and after many modernizations, First Capital Bank.
To comply with an Illinois law that required religious societies to be incorporated, in November 1882, the First German Society incorporated themselves as the Methodist Episcopal Church, First German Society of the City of Peoria.
In the early 1880's, a mission chapel was built at the head of Cedar Street in the area that is now the intersection of MacArthur and Brotherson Streets. Sunday School and preaching services were held there for several years, in addition to regular services at the church. This property was later sold and a new mission was started at the corner of Sanger Street and South Jefferson. This mission became the Sanger Street Methodist Episcopal Church in 1889. It was disbanded in 1921, and the membership merged with St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church.
Increasing numbers of German immigrants continued to arrive in Peoria, and the church again outgrew its building. In 1890, lots were purchased at the corner of Fifth and Sanford Streets; a bring building was erected at a cost of $20,000. The parsonage was next door to the church. Fifth Street is no Romeo B. Garrett Street, and Sanford Street no longer exists.
During the first week of May in 1903, the 50th anniversary of the church was celebrated along with the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley. Services on one of the evenings of that week were devoted to the memories of the twelve oldest members of the church, who told of their experiences when the church was young and the changes that had taken place since it was founded. Those members were: George Friedrich, Joseph Oeschle, Heinrich Hoops, Catherine Doering, Fredericka Goller, Casper Westmeyer, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Ehlen, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Albrecht, Elizabeth Godel, and Henriette Venneman.
At the April 1918 meeting of the Official Board, the question was raised as to whether or not the name of the church should be changed to comply with the request of the National War Council - that all businesses, churches, and clubs remove all German words from their names to avoid friction and vandalism from anti-German groups caused by the war. It was suggested that services in the German language might be continued so long as they were conducted discreetly.
Several names were suggested; St. John's was the most favored. By unanimous vote, the name of the church was changed to St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church. A committee was named to remove the name of First German Episcopal Church from the cornerstone and inscribe the new name.
The church now had an English name, and the church records were now written in English, but the services were still held in German. Several months later the young women's class, the Gleaners, petitioned the Official Board to change the morning worship service from German to English, because most of the young people did not understand the German language. The board agreed to put the question to the membership by secret ballot. By a vote of 55 to 51, the ballots denied the petition. Finally, in the spring of 1920, over serious objections of older members, permission was given to conduct services in German the first and third Sundays of every month, and the remaining Sundays entirely in English. This arrangement continued until September 1922 when all German language services were discontinued. The German and English-speaking conferences merged in 1925.
As the church continued to grow, some discussion arose about moving again. The situation was resolved by acquiring the adjacent property along Fifth Street, removing the house on it, and building a large addition, which contained a kitchen and dining room in the basement, with an assembly room and Sunday School space on the first floor.
During the next 25 years the church building began to need numerous expensive repairs. The steeple was removed from the tower in 1922, because it became a safety hazard due to falling tiles. The surrounding neighborhood had deteriorated, and many members had moved to bluff residences and farther north as the city grew northward, causing membership to decline. As early as 1944, even before the end of World War II, some discussion took place as to the possibility of selling the building to Ward Chapel. Talks with representatives of Ward Chapel produced no results.
In 1945, a survey was conducted by a field worker from Garrett Biblical Institute on behalf of the Methodist Churches of Peoria to determine whether there was a need for additional Methodist churches, and where in the city the need was greatest. The survey indicated a need for new churches in the area of Von Steuben School.
A congregational meeting was held in March 1946 to give special consideration to four alternatives for the future of St John's:
1. Remain at the present location with possible revised program.
2. Disband, which would mean to abandon our organization, lose all equity in our church building, and the membership scatter as they would.
3. Merge with some other Methodist church.
A resolution was made that we move from the location at Fifth and Sanford. As to what direction we should take, the possibilities were to merge with Hale Memorial Methodist Church on Main Street or University Avenue Methodist Church, or investigate relocating and building on our own. The planning committee felt it would cost approximately $50,000 to build on our own, and did not think we could underwrite this amount. The result of the vote on this issue was that we might be willing to merge with the University Avenue Church. The church building at Hale Memorial was too small to accommodate the increase in membership, and the location offered no space to enlarge the building.
After talks with University Avenue representatives the congregation met again to consider a merger. The vote was Yes - 19, No - 41. It was moved that some definite action be started and that a committee be appointed consisting of a member from each organized group in the church, whose duty would be to select a building site based on the result of the church survey and the general location of the present membership. At the same time, another committee should be formed to work out a plan of financing our purchase and building.
At a Quarterly Conference held February 15, 1947, the decision was made to sell the St. John's building at Fifth and Sanford Streets to Bethel Methodist Church for the sum of $25,000. Active membership at that time was 262, Sunday School enrollment was 155, and average attendance was 66.
The site committee was named as follows: Jack Smith - Youth Fellowship, Harriet Schweitzer - Older Youth, Henry Kehl - Young Adults, Joseph Smith - Men's Fellowship, Maxine Greeness - Women's Society, Dr. Wilbur Weinkauff - Official Board, Reverend Charles E. Withrow - Pastor, John Rankin - Chairman. During the summer of 1947, the site committee considered several available properties in the vicinity of Von Steuben School. The Forrest Hill and Indiana site was submitted to the District Planning committee of the Methodist Church for approval in September. Later that month the Quarterly Conference authorized the Trustees to purchase the lots at Forrest Hill and Indiana, consisting of 256 feet on East Forrest Hill and 141 feet on Indiana Avenue at a cost of $4,500.
The building at Fifth and Sanford was vacated at the end of June 1948. The first Sunday in July, the congregation met in the Von Steuben School auditorium to acquaint themselves with the arrangements, before services were opened to the general public. Flyers were passed out in the surrounding neighborhood to invite everyone to join us the following Sunday, July 11, 1948.
The architectural firm of Jamison and Harrison of Peoria was awarded a contract to design the first unit. According to plans submitted by the architects, the cost was estimated to be $130,000. Methodist Discipline at that time required half the amount to be on hand before construction could begin. The balance in the building fund was $29,660.69. This included cost of the lots and the architect's fee having been paid to date.
The Board of Missions of the Methodist Church would commit no specified amount, although it was believed some money would be given. The Finance committee began investigating the possibility of a loan from some local source. The construction committee directed the architect to revamp the plans in order to build a skeleton church building without furnishings to be covered by the amount of $55,000.
During this time the question arose as to whether or not it would be advisable to change the name of the church to reflect its new location. At a congregational meeting December 11, 1949, members over 18 voted as follows: 45 for Forrest Hill Methodist Church, 10 for St John's Methodist Church, 2 for Forrest Hill Avenue Methodist Church.
The contract for construction of the new building was awarded to A. R. Lang, who submitted the lowest bid in the amount of $64,383. A committee was empowered to secure a loan for $25,000 at 4% interest for a period of 12 years at $250 per month. The remainder was to come from pledges. A groundbreaking ceremony was held February 4, 1950.
After construction had begun, there was some discussion about restoring the tower to the plan, which had been left off due to lack of funds. It was thought that the tower would greatly improve the appearance of the building. It was estimated the tower would add $4,709 to the cost. Authorization to add the tower was given, contingent on receiving an additional loan. Cornerstone-laying services were held May 14, 1950 at which time long-time members of the church were honored.
The exterior work on the building was completed by the contractor. Much of the interior work was done by members, many of whom were skilled in the construction trades. This work was done evenings and Saturdays, with both men and women working. Outside help also came. Caterpillar
contributed grading around the building. St. Paul's Episcopal Church was in the midst of a building program of its own, but contributed the pews from its old building on Main Street. Our volunteers took the pews apart, repaired any that needed it, made new ends and refinished them. The Memorial Committee reported that the new pulpit and communion table had been donated. A gift of $5,000 came from the Board of Home Missions of the Methodist Church.
On Palm Sunday, March 18,1951, the congregation moved into the new building and services were held in the basement, while work continued on the sanctuary and the rest of the building. Services were held for the first time in the new sanctuary on December 9, 1951. With the additions to the original contract, total cost of construction was $79,700.66.
It soon became apparent that our members had chosen the new location well, as the local survey had indicated. Even before the formal opening of the new sanctuary, Sunday School classrooms were being rearranged to relieve their overcrowded conditions. By the time of the Quarterly Conference of 1952, membership had increased to 383 and Sunday School enrollment to 391. Sliding partitions were installed in the large room of the basement to divide space into classrooms.
In June 1953, a lot at the rear of the church adjacent to the parking lot became available at a cost of $550. This lot was 39x126 feet and would make a welcome addition to the size of the parking lot. Approval was given to purchase the lot with a down payment of $250 and the balance to be paid at the rate of $100 per year or more.
Three proposals for increasing classroom space were made at the September 1953 board
1. Build a basement for church school classroom space on the west side of the building.
2. Construct a frame building on the recently purchased lot in back of the church.
3. Construct a parsonage on the new lot and use the basement for the primary department.
The Trustees were directed to investigate plans to enlarge the building or purchase an available property across the street. Sunday School enrollment had grown to 433 and membership to 391.
The Secretary of the Board of Trustees presented the plan for expansion of the building at the February 1954 board meeting:
1. Construct a dormer and outside stairs from the second floor room used by the Primary Department to provide an emergency exit. It had a glass wall overlooking the sanctuary and was also used as a cry room for parents with young children during worship services.
2. Extend the basement 38' x 68' on the west side of the building as in the original plans.
3. Add another boiler room as in the original plans to be used for storage. Later the existing boiler room could be used for kitchen expansion. (Note: the kitchen originally was half the size it is now.) Estimated cost for these additions was $16,825.
That same month an expansion project was initiated by a vote of 62 for and 16 against to extend the basement on the west side to provide Sunday School rooms. Our volunteers went into action again to do a lot of the interior work, building partitions and whatever else was needed.
The parsonage located at 100 Ayres was an inconvenient distance from the church. The church needed housing for the minister in the area near the church. A lot at 213 East Forrest Hill was purchased for future construction of a parsonage.
By April 1956 the sanctuary was so overcrowded, folding chairs were being put up at the ends of the pews and across the back wall. The fire department inspectors told us this was against fire code, so a new schedule of services was begun: 8:15- 9:15 - First worship, 9:30 - 10:30 - Sunday School, 11:00 - 12:00 - Second worship and children's Sunday School.
A proposal was made in the fall of 1957 to purchase a house at 1119 East Forrest Hill for use as a parsonage. The existing parsonage at 100 Ayres and the church-owned lot at 213 East Forrest Hill would be sold and the remainder of the cost would be financed by pledges and a loan. This proposal was approved.
Membership reached 575 in 1958, with a Sunday School enrollment of 710. Membership continued to grow, reaching 687 by 1960. Work began on plans for the second addition to the building. A new sanctuary would be constructed above the basement extension. A second floor would be constructed above the original sanctuary to provide additional classroom space. The chancel area would become a fellowship room, the back wall moved to enlarge the entry hall and make a larger office space across the hall. The side door entry would be relocated and enlarged, making possible a pastor's office more than twice the size of the original. The basement on the east side of the building would be extended to enlarge the meeting room on that level.
October 1961 it was decided that members of the church who were building contractors would
build the expansion. E. G. Hoffman was the general superintendent. The contractors were: E.G. Hoffman & Sons, Ray E. Hoffman, Karl Keyster, Kenneth Taylor, Fred Howell, Robert Sutton, Leo Mowry. Other contractors were Stam Erwin Electric and Peoria Industrial Pipe Co.
One of the most eye-catching features of the new sanctuary was the windows, which are the creation of artist William J. Donaldson. Each of the eight windows is made of 16 blocks of white concrete with colored Plexiglas inserts. Each block weighs 250 pounds. They were cast in molds at Mr. Donaldson's home in Edelstein and when completed were transported by truck to Peoria and put in place by bricklayers. Each of the top center blocks in the eight windows embodies a different religious symbol. The windows are smooth on the outside but have a white rock chip appearance on the inside. It took nine months to complete the windows.
The beautiful memorial prayer window was removed from the former sanctuary and enlarged from 44 inches to 84 inches in diameter to be more in scale in the larger room. Surrounding the window on the west wall another unique feature of the sanctuary is the reredos of wooden angels. These were purchased from the Ossit Company of Janesville, Wisconsin. The angels caused some heated discussions because of their expense, which was $3,332, but most people now would agree they were a worthwhile addition. The first service in the new sanctuary was held November 7, 1962. The consecration service was held January 6, 1963. The stained glass windows in Memorial Hall were installed in 1967 and dedicated the Sunday before Memorial Day in memory of Lucian M. Schweitzer.
When the United Brethren and Methodist churches merged in 1968; it became necessary to change the church name to Forrest Hill United Methodist. This was confirmed by vote of the Official Board in December of that year.
The need for a staff person to be director of youth work resulted in the recommendation from the Seminary Intern Program that we hire a third-year seminary student who would be ordained as a deacon but not as an elder. The program was approved and began in June 1973. This program continued for five years, with internships served. To provide housing for the interns, the three-room house at 612 East Forrest Hill was purchased from the estate of a member, Mrs. Jane McCarty. With the ending of our participation in the intern program in 1978 and the arrival of a full-time associate, this house was sold.
Over a period of several years, properties adjacent to the church became available for sale. Two houses on Indiana, and one at the end of Buerkin Court, in addition to several empty lots were purchased for possible parking lot expansion. The houses were rented to pay the mortgages on them until there was enough money to pay for the parking lot. Several generous bequests from the estates of members made possible a large parking lot expansion in 1989. The houses at 718 Buerkin Court and 3028 Indiana were demolished and the enlarged parking lot blacktopped. Any additional money was reserved for future building improvements. The house at 3020 North Indiana
was retained for possible use as a future parking lot exit. It was sold in 2000.
It had long been a wish to have a pipe organ for our sanctuary. When Mr. Jack Becker, a professional organ builder, learned about a used organ for sale, the decision was made to purchase it for our new sanctuary. When our pick up team arrived at the former Saybrook, Illinois EUB church, they discovered the organ was in pieces stored all over the building. They had been stored long enough to accumulate many layers of dust and cobwebs.
Two church schoolrooms and Memorial Hall became organ-building workshops. The pipes had to be washed, dried and refinished. Wind chests had to be rebuilt and new ones constructed. All leathers and valves were re-treated. Six months later more wind chests and pipes were discovered at a Christian Science Church in Peoria. With the original organ doubled in size a new console was needed. A used Hinners console was acquired from Wesley United Methodist Church in Canton. It was carefully refinished to match our chancel furniture.
Over the next two years dozens of volunteers under the direction of one organ builder put together over a thousand pipes from four inches long to sixteen feet long. The finished organ was dedicated October 8, 1978, in honor of Emma Ehlen, who retired in 1978 after 41 years as organist.
A long-awaited day arrived in the fall of 1983. The church mortgage was finally paid. Formal dedication services and mortgage burning were held November 27, 1983.
Time was taking its toll on our parsonage and church building. A list of possible new projects was presented to the Trustees in the spring of 1990. These included an elevator, a covered entry for the parking lot door, purchase of two houses on Indiana adjoining the parking lot for future expansion, a new organ. Some of these were first mentioned at goal-setting meetings several years earlier. The new organ purchase was deferred for the time being. The elevator and new entry remained under discussion.
APACE Architects were hired in 1998 to make plans for an elevator, covered entry, new bathrooms on the main floor, and needed repairs to the bell tower louvers. On the completion of these renovations, a dedication ceremony was held for the building improvements November 7, 1999.
During the spring of 2000 we purchased a Rodgers digital organ. Our pipe organ needed extensive repairs and it cost less to replace it than to repair it. At the same time we also purchased a Yamaha grand piano to enhance the music program.
Forrest Hill is blessed to have a beautiful building in which to worship. An even greater
blessing is the people, who are friendly, loving, and caring. They willingly teach classes, cook meals, paint walls, mow grass, whatever needs doing. In the 1950's we were a neighborhood church. The children who crowded our classrooms grew up and moved away from this neighborhood. Today our membership comes not only from the surrounding area, but from all the surrounding communities, East Peoria, Washington, Dunlap, Morton, and Pekin. We have members whose families have been members for many generations, even back to the German church.