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.
4 thoughts on “Grace Church in wartime”
My parents told me of the stories about how the church was no longer allowed to assemble in this building and padlocks were placed on the doors. They started having church in the Milton Fire Hall until the construction of the current Grace Church could be completed.
Hi Mary Ann,
I’ve only been in this area for 8 years, but the church’s story has always fascinated me. I don’t know how much you learned from your parents, but I can tell you what I know about the last two decades of Grace UMC Church (later simply Grace Church). It began as the Milton Methodist Protestant Church in 1857, well before the Milton Methodist Episcopal (today Goshen UMC) Church was established. The two denominations were largely agreed on doctrine, but their governance models were different. The M. P. Church had a working class congregation: carpenters, artisans, tradesmen, laborers, etc. The more affluent classes favored the M. E. Church (and for the really monied, St. John Baptist Episcopal). There was a lot of pride in the M. P. congregation, and the transformation of the simple box-like building starting in 1906 into a larger structure with stained glass windows, stamped metal ceilings and walls and a social hall, is a reflection of that pride. The unification of the two Methodist branches in 1939 – 1940 was the beginning of the end for the M. P. congregation (renamed Grace UMC), however. Goshen UMC was rebuilt ca. 1947 as a larger structure with more members, and by 1953 the UMC leadership decided to consolidate the two congregations. Naturally, Grace UMC congregants objected, and carried on for several years outside of the UMC organization as Grace Church. Milton’s Sesquicentennial celebration program literature listed the church as Grace, not Grace UMC. Litigation for the congregation to retain the church was unsuccessful, and by 1963 the church building was padlocked. Its revival began in 1972 when it was purchased by Lydia B. Cannon and donated to the nascent Milton Historical Society. The building as you see it today did not take shape until 2005 – 2006.
“Jesus Never Fails” was a chorus I often heard sung at Methodist evening services when I was growing up in the 70’s. The chorus was: Jesus never fails, Jesus never fails. Heaven and earth may pass away but Jesus never fails. Since the folks who sang that chorus were old enough to have been youngsters during the War, I would say that phrase comes from the chorus. Perhaps as a motto to uplift during the time of war.
My uncle, Preston Howard Chandler, served in the Army during WWII in Southern Europe. He was born and raised in Milton and would have been one the blue stars. The number 60 is most likely indicative of the number from Milton or the church itself. Sussex County, Delaware had quite a few of its young men and women serving in the War.
Teresa, I’ve located a hymn with the chorus as you described it. It first appeared in the Methodist hymnal around 1925. Here is a link to it: https://hymnary.org/text/earthly_friends_may_prove_untrue?extended=true