History detective investigates an old photograph
The above is a photograph of the interior of Grace UMC (United Methodist Conference) Church, today the Lydia B. Cannon Museum. It is among the dozens of prints in the Delaware Public Archive’s Zebley Collection of photographs of Delaware churches. While the Milton Historical Society has a similar print in its collection, the DPA version offers better detail when enlarged. Therein lies the interest, at least on my part: there are a number of details of Milton’s wartime experience to be learned from this one photograph.
The view is from the east wall of the church (the wall facing Union Street) looking down the center aisle to the chancel. The museum’s stamped metal ceilings and walls, the hanging electric light fixtures, and stained glass windows are clearly visible in the photograph, largely in the same form as they exist today. The one notable exception is the stained glass window and surrounding wall that occupy the space to the left of the chancel; today that area is open to the office and Donovan Annex spaces added in the major renovations of 2005- 2006. An upright piano stands to the right of the chancel; no Methodist service would be complete without at least a piano to accompany the singing of hymns.
Below the round window at the center of the chancel wall is a sign that reads “Jesus Never Fails.” Although I have not been able to find a source for this phrase in those exact words, I invite those who have a better understanding of its origin to comment.
The hymns for the upcoming or most recent service were posted on the hymn board to the left: #269 (“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days”) and #287 (“O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done?”). For those of us who are not familiar with the Methodist hymnal, YouTube videos of #269 and #289 are available, respectively, at these links: https://youtu.be/c7LiDUFP0s0 and https://youtu.be/zAuCYkKRyJ8
The register board on the right tracked attendance and offerings. The first figure is “MEMBERS ON THE ROLL,” or total church membership: 183. The second figure is “ATTENDANCE TODAY” showing 86 members worshipped the last time a service was held, for an attendance rate of approximately 47%. The third figure appears to read “ATTENDANCE A YEAR AGO” (presumably on the corresponding Sunday) and the number is 79.
Contrast the attendance rate of 47% with the 2019 rate for the northeastern conferences of the United Methodist Church, which was 36%. Except for a brief spike after 9/11/2011, the attendance rate at Methodist churches in the Northeast, as for many mainstream Protestant denominations, has been steadily declining for the last twenty years.
The fourth figure is “OFFERINGS TODAY” and it shows a collection of $2,703 (over $40,000 in today’s dollars) – an impressive amount of money for a single collection in a small church in the 1940’s. The final figure reads “OFFERINGS A YEAR AGO” and shows $547. The reason for the much higher amount over the prior year can only be guessed at without knowing the circumstances, but one can surmise that the war effort had a profound economic as well as emotional impact on local families requiring community assistance.
The final detail is the banner hanging over the center of the chancel and partially obscuring the round window on the wall. This is a blue star banner, which when hung outside a home signified, then as now, that the family has a member in the military.
More stars could be added in there was more than one family member actively serving. In this case, the number 60 below the star in the photograph suggests that 60 Milton townspeople were serving in the armed forces at the time, or perhaps it was the figure for Sussex County; this will require further research, or input from a reader with greater knowledge of the WWII era in Delaware.
The two smaller stars below the number 60 are gold stars, indicating two men who lost their lives in service to their country. These gold stars help with confirming the date of the photograph. As far as I have been able to determine, only two Milton men had lost their lives in service prior to 1944: William Yeates Conwell in 1942, and Joseph T. Winn in 1943. Both of these men were seamen in the U. S. Merchant Marine fleet and lost their lives when their ships were torpedoed in the Atlantic by German submarines. Their harrowing individual stories will be told in my next two blog posts, so that we can all appreciate what the men’s ultimate sacrifice actually entailed.