‘It’s home’: Original pump organ returns to The Old Rugged Cross Church

Published 12:43 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023

POKAGON TOWNSHIP — A historic church received the Christmas gift of a lifetime Friday afternoon.

Members of Pokagon Bible Church, 61041 Vermont St., Dowagiac, and the Old Rugged Cross Foundation gathered Friday to see the original organ from the Old Rugged Cross Church return to its rightful place inside the sanctuary for the first time in more than 100 years. The organ was delivered from Aston, Pennsylvania.

The organ originally sat inside the sanctuary of the church, which was known as the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon from 1876 to 1914. The church is known for being the location where evangelist and song leader George Bennard first debuted “The Old Rugged Cross” in 1913. The returned organ was the organ used in the song’s debut.

“If you grew up in the church, you grew up with ‘Old Rugged Cross,’” said Sharon McKnight, church pianist and member of the Old Rugged Cross Foundation advisory board, in a 2021 interview. “I can remember singing it when I was a little kid. It’s one of the songs usually played at funerals and around Easter. It’s familiar to most people and has a lot of meaning to it.”

“I love history, first of all,” said Pokagon Bible Church Pastor William Walters. “I think it’s awesome that it’s back home. I like the story of it, the history of everything. This is great for the community.”

Once the organ was inside, members gathered around to look at the historic instrument. McKnight, who has played “Old Rugged Cross” countless times over the years, attempted to play “Old Rugged Cross” on the organ. While the organ was in need of repairs, even so, the experience was one that McKnight won’t soon forget.

“That was neat,” she said. “It’s exciting; it’s home.”

The Old Rugged Cross Church

The Old Rugged Cross Church was recently restored by the Old Rugged Cross Church Foundation, which has dedicated years to restoring the building to its 1913 appearance. According to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the building was erected in 1862 as a hop barn before being purchased by the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon in 1876. The church purchased the building and enlarged and remodeled it into a church.

In 1913, Bennard was asked by his friend and the church’s pastor, Leroy Bostwick, to help with the church’s revival meetings. It was there that the church’s five-member choir performed Bennard’s “The Old Rugged Cross” the first time the hymn was performed in public.

However, not long after, the building was sold and fell into disrepair over the years. Bob and Molly Shaffer purchased the historic building in 1998 and created the Old Rugged Cross Foundation, a nonprofit with the goal of restoring it to its original state.

“You came in, you jumped down onto the dirt floor,” she said. “It was just a horrible mess and upstairs, standing up there and seeing all of that graffiti, I made God a promise. I said, ‘I won’t finish until this is worthy again.’”

After years of work, the building was restored and is now used as a church and to host special services, as well as a historical museum. The church received Michigan State Historic Site designation in 2000 and was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

From Ocala to Pokagon

When Molly Shaffer was contacted by Nancy Heidelberger of Pennsylvania saying she had the original organ from the Old Rugged Cross Church, Molly was skeptical to say the least. Many years ago, the ORCF had purchased a pump organ which they were told was the original and proudly displayed it in the ORC Church. Molly was always curious as to why that organ did not match the one pictured with the original choir members who remained in a picture taken circa 1940.

As she and Nancy continued to correspond via email, Molly asked for pictures of the organ Nancy had inherited from her mother. When she saw them she was astounded to see that Nancy’s organ was exactly like the organ in the picture with the original choir. So how on Earth could the ORC organ have gotten to Pennsylvania?

The story continued to unfold in ways the Shaffers could not imagine. Nancy’s mother, Marcia Duncan, had been given the organ while living in the Ocala-Belleview area of Florida. She cleaned house for a man who owned it and before he died, and he told her she could have the organ if she would promise to “return it to Michigan where it belonged.” Marcia soon moved back to her home state of Pennsylvania and took the organ with her but she died before she could figure out how to get the organ to Michigan.

Nancy did not know the name of the man her mother worked for and had no additional information about how he had obtained the organ, so Bob went to work using his genealogy skills.

In trying to decide who would have been most likely to have ended up with the organ, Bob and Molly assumed it might have been one of the original choir members. Bob began searching census records for those individuals and, after several dead ends, found that Charles Virgil, son of Franklin and Clara Virgil – two of the original choir members – had moved to Ocala, Florida during the same time that Nancy’s mother was living there and cleaning house for a Michigan man who had moved there. For Bob and Molly, the dates all seem to support the theory that Charles Virgil moved the organ to Florida with him and gave it to Marcia before he died, asking her to return it to Michigan.

“All of the pieces just started fitting together,” Molly said. “I’m still amazed. This is just amazing.”

Bob said that back in 2000, when he was lying on his stomach digging holes around the perimeter of the old church, Charles Virgil stopped and introduced himself, asking what was going on. Bob explained that he was digging holes for concrete piers which would serve as a temporary foundation for the building.

Charles Virgil said he was here from Florida visiting family and drove by to see the old church. He was shocked but thrilled that someone was there working on it and was going to try to save the building from collapsing. The Shaffers firmly believe that Charles Virgil is the one who moved the organ to Florida and gave it to Marcia Duncan.

The organ was picked up at Nancy’s mother’s home in Essington, Pennsylvania on Dec. 12, 2023, and taken to B & N Piano Storage Co.in Aston, Pennsylvania. Charles and Carl Brock, owners of Broch Music Store and Piano Movers of Solon, lowa, delivered the organ to Pokagon where it will once again grace the sanctuary of the church from 1874 to 1914.

“It’s really cool,” Charles said. “We get a chance to move a lot of stuff but not very often do we get a chance to move something with such history and importance for a city and a church, so it’s really cool.”

At some point, the organ was moved across the street when the congregation purchased the abandoned Baptist Church and moved all of their church accouterments into the “new” Pokagon Bible Church, 31393 Kansas St., Dowagiac. That is where the remaining original choir members had their picture taken standing around the organ.

What’s next?

Molly said the foundation plans to have the organ fixed in the near future so it can play for a new generation of hymnal fans and tourists. The historic church hosts monthly hymnal sings and regularly hosts concerts. Hundreds of people from around the world travel to Pokagon to visit the birthplace of one of the world’s most popular Christian hymns.

“We’ve always encouraged everyone who comes who knows how to play to play, because you have to keep the organ active,” she said.

Bob and Molly joined Pokagon Bible Church in 1979. In 1984, Bob was asked to be the church historian. Neither Bob nor Molly could imagine where this role would take them decades later.

“We started going through all of the historic papers and both of us got kind of bitten by the history bug,” Molly said. “I had never cared much about history until we started going through all that stuff and it was fascinating.”

With the return of the organ, the Shaffers were thrilled to see a new chapter unfold in the legacy of the church.

“Every time we think this is finished, God has another surprise for us,” Molly said. “You think, ‘what more can you possibly do’ and yet then he does something miraculous. It’s amazing. It’s a story that you think can’t possibly happen.”