This past Sunday, Millville United Methodist Church on Atlantic Avenue celebrated a century of worship. The church was established in 1907, and its members reflected upon times of poverty, when support from congregation was essential. Over the years, dedication and commitment from the members have united the church to reclaim its role as a historic religious staple in the area.
The congregation’s longest-running living member, Ruley Banks Jr., recalled the rough times that the church experienced. “We went through some very difficult times,” he said.
A teenager through the start of World War II and the Great Depression, he reflected on the dependence of the community among one another, when faith was the sole support for many.
“During that time, there was little else to do,” said Banks. “People didn’t have money for gas, or anything to do. The churches would be full every Sunday.”
Banks began attending the Christian Church of Millville, its location now an antique shop, when only 4 years old. His family became regulars at Millville United shortly after, and Banks joined as a member of the congregation around 1943.
In the early 1950’s, the church attendance began a rapid decline.
“People had other things to do,” he said. “Local churches couldn’t carry the weight. They couldn’t come up with the money they needed to function.” Worship services saw a fierce reduction in attendances, sometimes with only a handful sitting in the pews. By the 1960’s, Millville United came close to closing all together.
“The district superintendent told us we needed to get more people coming to church or he’d close it down,” said Banks. “He gave us several chances to get membership up, so we did what we needed to do.”
He and his brother Ralph became active in spreading the word of the potential closing. “We visited people and sent out notices,” Banks recalled.
Before long, the attendance was back up and Millville United Methodist Church was once again a successful establishment.
Ellen Hitchens, a member since the early 1980s, has enjoyed welcoming congregations filled with friendship and sincerity. “Everyone is so willing,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have a membership like we do.” Both Hitchens and Banks served as members of the church’s 90th Anniversary Committee in 1997.
The church’s history has drawn recognition from surrounding communities, and then some. Although only a member of Millville United Methodist for several years, Marilyn Ferry has been fascinated with the historical reputation.
“This church was really unique when I came here three years ago,” she said. She became a chief organizer of the 100-year celebration. “I was looking for a place I could help. I wanted to find a church where, someway, I would make a difference; and I found it. The turnout was really incredible.”
During her time at the church, Ferry has been amazed by the commitment and loyalty of the members.
“It’s a very loving and caring congregation,” she added. “There’s a lot of prayer, a lot of faith, and a lot of hard work. This celebration was able to pull a lot of support from the community. It gives people that connection.”
In July, the Rev. Donald Schell stepped in after the retirement of the Rev. Ted Elser, just in time for the century celebration. “I’m very blessed, because we have a great group of people,” said Schell. “I kind of just fell right into it. These people have a very good vision.”
He noted that he’s never been part of a celebration quite as noteworthy as this one, and is pleased to have been there for the observance.
“This celebration was coordinated very well,” he added. “This area, and the way it’s growing — these people really reached out to do whatever they can. [Since I’ve been here] more people have come to church and worked together.”
“The people of the church have been really dedicated and great to work with,” said Banks. “It took a lot of people to bring everything back together.”