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City recognizes First Presbyterian's longevity

by Caitlan Butler | March 9, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
Mayor Paul Choate reads a proclamation declaring March 11-12 First Presbyterian Church Weekend in El Dorado as Esther Byrd, chair of the church's anniversary committee, looks on. First Presbyterian will celebrate 177 years in the community with several events set for this weekend. (Caitlan Butler/News-Times)

Mayor Paul Choate paid a visit to the First Presbyterian Church of El Dorado on Wednesday, where he read a proclamation recognizing the church's long history in the city.

First Presbyterian was founded 177 years ago, in 1846, when the Rev. W.S. Lacy led the church. Some of Lacy's descendants are still members, said Esther Byrd, chair of the church's anniversary committee.

"We've always been here," Byrd said. "We're a place of sanctuary."

Humble beginnings

The first Presbyterians to arrive in Arkansas came in 1828. The first Presbyterian church in the state was established within six months in Little Rock. By 1848, the Presbytery of Ouachita, covering south Arkansas, was established. The first Presbyterian church in Arkansas to grow its membership past 100 was the Scotland Church, now a small, rural church near Junction City.

By 1845, in addition to the Scotland church, the Mt. Holly Church, another Presbyterian house of worship, had also been established in Union County. When First Presbyterian was established, it was a small, house-like structure utilized from 1848 through 1861. It was destroyed by a severe storm in the early 1860s, according to information provided by the church.

At the same time, a cemetery, set on land donated by Matthew Rainey, was established.

The church was reorganized in 1868, and a new church building was constructed at the corner of Hill and East Main streets. The cost to build the new church was about $2,600, and church members provided homemade furniture. The new church was dedicated on June 29, 1872.

As the city grew, new businesses and buildings went up, and in 1896, the First Presbyterian congregation voted to erect a new building because a hotel was built very close next door. Construction was finished in 1897, and the building was dedicated in the fall of 1898.

Then the oil boom hit, and El Dorado's population exploded. In 1924, the church began raising money to build a new church, and within four days had $104,000 pledged toward the effort. Church member David Armstrong purchased and donated land for the new building, and the red brick sanctuary and Sunday school rooms were finished in October 1926.

 Gallery: First Presbyterian weekend declared

The following year, one of only two General Assembly meetings for the Presbyterian Church to be held in Arkansas ever was hosted by First Presbyterian of El Dorado. In a photo from the event, hundreds of church elders and members from across the country can be seen in front of the church.

A century-plus later

This weekend, First Presbyterian will celebrate its 177-year history, and is inviting the community to join.

"We're really excited about this celebration. We've got former members that are coming from as far away as Utah coming to be with us," Byrd said.

On Wednesday, Choate stood with Byrd atop the steps leading into the church's sanctuary, where he read a proclamation declaring March 11-12 First Presbyterian Church Weekend.

On Saturday, the church will host a community reception from 1-3 p.m., where local residents will have the opportunity to tour the current building and see archived newspaper articles, photos and more from throughout the church's long history.

Saturday night, the church will host a fish dinner starting at 6 p.m. Reservations are required for the dinner, and Byrd said local residents who wish to attend may reserve a $20 plate until 4 p.m. today by calling 870-863-7144 or emailing [email protected].

On Sunday, worshippers may come to church early, at 9 a.m. for a celebratory breakfast, which will be followed by the regular Sunday service, where the Rev. John Byerly, formerly a youth pastor at First Presbyterian from 1984-1987, will be a guest speaker. A light lunch and reception will follow.

Byrd said that while other churches in El Dorado can also boast longevity, First Presbyterian's enduring membership sets it apart.

"The fact that we have descendants of the first founders of the church says something about our congregation and their commitment to serve the community and everywhere else in the world," she said.

Byrd said that as a member for only 45 years, she's a newcomer compared to some of First Presbyterian's other members.

First Presbyterian is involved in a bevy of charitable ministries, ranging from building schools and hospitals in Haiti through Trinity Hope and funding missionary work in eastern Europe to providing donations and volunteers to local organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of El Dorado, HOPE Landing, Interfaith Help Services and Life Touch Hospice, among others.

First Presbyterian is currently led by an interim pastor, the Rev. Janice West. Byrd said that when West first started, she commented that she'd never worked at a church with "this much history."

Over the years, the church has made several improvements to its facilities, including 2019's refurbishment of its carillon – the chimes in the bell tower --, which is one of only two of its kind in the state. Byrd said next year, the church hopes to refurbish its century-old organ as well.

First Presbyterian, like many churches the world over, was impacted by COVID-19, switching for a time to virtual services. Byrd said the online streams of the worship services are ongoing, but she was also glad to report that in-person membership has been building as of late.

All of the events scheduled for this weekend are free and open to the public, except the dinner on Saturday, to which reservations can be made. For more information, contact First Presbyterian at 870-863-7144.

"Come and experience our joy we receive from being a part of this community as a family of believers," Byrd said.

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