In the mid 1800s, when the University of North Carolina was still a modest institution and Chapel Hill was a small, dusty town, a group of Methodist-Episcopalians decided they needed a change. For years, the group had been traveling to church on horses and wagons down three long miles of a rutted dirt road that is currently MLK/Highway 86. They attended services at what is now Orange United Methodist Church, but needed something closer to home with a different worship experience. In 1840, a small group of these dedicated worshippers started a new church in a house on Rosemary Street and then in 1843 moved to a rented space in the upper room at 157 Franklin Street. The surroundings were spartan — backless pine benches with a cloth covered table for a pulpit and candles for evening light. The membership numbered 64 whites and 8 blacks, and was ministered to by the Reverend Charles Deems, adjunct professor to the faculty of UNC.
Charles Deems, 1841
Rosemary Street, 1853
With a desire for a building of their own, in 1850 Samuel Milton Frost, a student at UNC and pastor to Chapel Hill Methodist Church traversed the state to raise $5000 from other congregations. On July 3, 1853, the congregation dedicated their first church building at the corner of Rosemary and Henderson Streets. The building still stands today and has served over the years as an African American Church, airplane shop, architect office, womens’ crisis center, a school, and currently a software firm, dentist office and residential apartment.
With a growth in membership after the Civil War and a mission to minister more closely to students, Trustees purchased a lot on Franklin Street in 1878 and in 1889 we moved into a new, bigger church where the Education Wing stands today. After World War I, American troops coming back from the war enrolled in colleges and universities in large numbers. The University of North Carolina practically doubled between 1915 and 1922, and so did the size of our church. A new larger building, our current church building, with its soaring steeple rising 210 feet into the Chapel Hill sky, was completed in 1926 and dedicated in 1935 after the building loan was paid off by James A. Gray, a 1908 UNC graduate.
Second church, 1889
Third and current church, 1920s
The old church building was not torn down immediately, but continued to be used in various ways – as a social center for men in the armed forces during World War II, a recreation center for local teenagers, headquarters for Boy Scouts and for other church purposes. Eventually with continued growth of Sunday school classes, the Methodist Youth Fellowship, the Wesley Foundation, Methodist Women’s activities, music and choir programs, community outreach, and a whole host of programs too many to mention, the final stage of the 1920s building plan was realized when the old church building was replaced with the Eubanks Education wing in 1961.
Just as the buildings of the church have changed over the years to meet the growing needs of the congregation, the university students, the community, and the world, the programs of the church have changed to meet those needs. The church’s 21st century mission statement is “Loving God, Serving Others and Building Christian Community.” University UMC continues to serve the needs of our community and congregational causes and is a Church in mission beyond the walls of its buildings. The story of University UMC is one of engagement, with and by its members, with students, with the community, and with the world.