Building where ‘Old Rugged Cross’ first sung has interesting history

Published 1:37 pm Thursday, April 14, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
Ideas for celebrating "The Old Rugged Cross" centennial in eight years have been as fantastic as the $2 million price tag on restoring the Pokagon Township church where the Rev. George Bennard's beloved hymn was first sung in public in January 1913.
Franklin Graham, Christian singer Sandi Patti, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - Southwestern Michigan College's Robert Briggs who had been an assistant director - and Oprah Winfrey have been bandied about in wish-list fashion.
More than 500 converged on Stella Cooper Tabernacle at Crystal Springs United Methodist Church Camp southwest of Dowagiac for a parade of flags from 15 nations, a Berrien Springs-based West African musical ministry known as The Ambassadors, made up of seven ordained ministers from Lagos, Nigeria, who sang in Swahili and a mass choir singing "There's a Light on the Cross," the last hymn composed by the Rev. Bennard in 1956 after seeing the lighted cross monument erected in his honor in Reed City. He died in 1957.
Flags represented included the United States, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Guyana in South America, Guinea in West Africa, Barbados, India, Russia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ukraine and Korea.
A Salvation Army band ensemble from Grand Rapids played, signifying the Salvation Army revival the itinerant pastor attended at 15 in Lucas, Iowa, after the death of his father, where he made a personal commitment to Christ.
Born Feb. 4, 1873, in Youngstown, Ohio, the Rev. Bennard grew up in Iowa, where his parents moved when he was quite young.
At 16 he began working in coal mines, as his father had, to support his mother and four sisters until 1897, when he married his first wife and began a Salvation Army ministry.
He served, along with his first wife, as a Salvation Army officer for eight years, traveling throughout the Midwest and New York.
In 1910, after leaving the Salvation Army, he became an ordained Methodist evangelist.
He made $50 from the sale of the song.
India's Dr. Melchizedek Ponniah, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, is a Christian today because of the hymn. His grandfather, son of a Hindu priest, heard it and was moved to convert his religion.
Old Rugged Cross Memorial Park was designed by Stan Beikman, professor of urban landscape design at Andrews University in Berrien Springs and class members Pete Potryfka, Traci Newkirk, Cary Kittleson, Jan Michael Henning, Penni Casper and Matt Carlson.
Beikman's meandering garden path represents the "river of life."
Just as Christians often struggle around life's obstacles before finally coming to the cross, the path wanders around the park before allowing full view of the cross.
A stone wall is adorned with daffodils in the spring, an altar and an eight-foot grassy mound (the "hill"), a 12-foot by nine-foot hand-hewn oak cross erected Sept. 10, 1998, with beams from the old Van Lue farm barn on Barron Lake Road.
A fountain and Jesus statue have been added to their blueprints.
On Nov. 21, 1934, the John Phillips estate sold the property to Nina Phillips Lake for a $1 consideration. On Dec. 27, 1984, her estate sold it to Steven E. Phelps (Nina's niece Ruth Phelps' son) for $1,500.
On July 31, 1998, Steve Phelps sold the property for $10,000 to township Trustee Robert Shaffer and his wife, Molly, after negotiations that also involved Grif Cook and Dr. Fred L. Mathews.
Bob and Molly gave the property to Pokagon United Methodist Church the same day via quit-claim deed.
The Shaffers - Molly is treasurer of an interdenominational foundation which incorporated - have been working ever since to raise money to restore the church as a museum. More than $250,000 has been raised.
They've staged dinners, rummage sales, bake sales and sell a variety of memorabilia, including songbooks, calendars, wooden plaques and more than $14,000 from crosses made from wood lathe removed from the kitchen and sanctuary walls and applied for grants.
The foundation also receives monthly income from shopper reward programs sponsored by Meijer and Gordon Food Service.
In addition to their faith, they also have a feasibility study which concludes the project is "do-able."