Guardians of history

Published 12:34 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2007

By By ERIKA PICKLES / Niles Daily Star
NILES – On the corner of M-140 and Crystal Springs Road sits a little white church with green shutters.
Many drive by this church everyday, but few know the history that lies behind its doors. The cemetery that surrounds the church has expanded four times since the late 1800s and a lot of well-known names to the area rest on its grounds.
Union Church is one of only two Union churches left in the state of Michigan. While services haven't been held since 1915, the church has been well maintained and its story has lived on through the years thanks to a special group of women involved in the Ladies Aid Society.
"The ladies have guarded this church for many years. It's been maintained by the society and we have taken care of it as we would if it was on our own property," Jeanette Young, President of the society and member since 1953, said Monday morning.
In 1857, Protestants of different denominations established the church and the cemetery on property purchased from Zera and Eliza Wright. They dedicated the Greek Revival-style church on July 4, 1858, marking this year as its 150th anniversary.
The denominations held services at the church on alternating Sundays until 1915, when services stopped. Sunday school was held until 1919.
"It had a lot to do with people purchasing automobiles. The would drive to different churches and the people would stop coming here," Young explained.
Though the church closed its doors, the Ladies Aid, which was formed in 1891, still continued to take care of it.
Young said that the society once had 50 members involved, but as years have passed, many have moved away or simply passed on. Today, there are three members remaining – Young, Doris Kissinger and Ruth Ann Gorski.
"I would like to keep this going as long as we can. We don't have any younger people who want to join, so we just work with what we have," Young said.
While those three make up the Ladies Aid Society, there are a few others involved in the Union Church Historical and Preservation Society. They include Young, Gorski, Trudy Mackey, JoAnn Hoover and J.B. Garrett.
The Society will be hosting an Open House on Wednesday, July 4 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the church.
Old fashioned refreshments, including original lemonade and cookies, will be served.
At 3 p.m., Young, who is the author of Union Church, a book registered in the state and national registry written about its history, will give a speech about the church.
"The open house will give people a chance to learn about the church and see the painting we've done to the outside and what we plan to do on the inside," Young said.
In 2002, Young made mention that she would like to fix a few things around the church, but she had no idea it would turn into a big painting project.
"We know the foundation is in good shape. We had an architect look at it and he said if everything can be repaired, this church will last another 150 years. So I asked the township for help with materials, but I knew they would say no. So we made mention about needing donations and the amount of support we've had has been unreal."
Young continued, saying the donations they've received have well exceeded $20,000 and with that, the members have been able to complete the outside preservation, including painting the tool shed and the outhouse, as well as the outside of the church.
"We had donations coming from all over. People who have family buried here, people who have family members who went to the church. They would just send a check and we were so thankful. NCP (Niles Chemical Paint) donated all the paint, so we had a lot of help," Young said.
Now the group is hoping the can raise more funds to fix the inside of the church.
'It's not going to be an easy, or an inexpensive job. These walls are about 20 feet high and there are cracks in them. Plus, we have to find someone who knows how to work with the older plasterings, and there's not too many people who do," Young added.
Inside the church still sit many of its original items, including an old light fixture, chairs, tables and offering baskets. The group knows of three pews which are original, but all others came from the First Presbyterian Church in Niles in 1916. The carpet, which was laid in 1911, features sewn seams and was brought in by horse and carriage. The price was $105.35. The basement also features the original round oak wood burner.
"As far as we know, everything in here is original. We want to keep this church around and in good shape for as long as we can. They say beauty is skin deep. This place looks beautiful on the outside, but needs work on the inside and we hope we can bring her back to the way she used to be," Young added.