SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Celebrating a rich and enduring history in the community, the South Orange-Vailsburg United Methodist Church acknowledged its 170th anniversary on Nov. 11 at the church, located at 150 South Orange Ave. in South Orange.
The festive service featured traditional hymns including “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “For All the Saints” and “Marching to Zion,” as well as a sermon from retired United Methodist minister Keith Rae.
A Maplewood resident for more than 30 years, Rae worked as a staff member at the General Board of Global Ministries, a position that took him to more than 75 countries. Rae has also co-authored two books: “Sailing in Hope” and “Evangelization and Church Growth in the African Context.”
A call to action, Rae’s message encouraged the audience to consider what they have done thus far, and how they can utilize those lessons learned to make an even greater impact in their communities moving forward.
“What have we accomplished as we celebrate this anniversary? And what things have we learned that will equip us to be a better church?” he asked. “What will be the qualitative differences that you will be able to celebrate at next year’s anniversary? We are not called to live our lives in the past, no matter how glorious that past was. We must look forward to the future.”
Founded on Nov. 9, 1848, the congregation has been worshiping in its current location on South Orange Avenue since 1902, which is the third building that the church has used. In 1973, the Vailsburg Methodist Church merged with the South Orange Methodist Church to form the South Orange-Vailsburg United Methodist Church.
Following in the tradition of early Methodists such as John Wesley, the members of SOVUMC strive to live by the adage “growing together in faith, spirit and action.”
Church member Marilyn Schnaars has been attending the church since she was 7 years old, and at age 85 is one of the longest-attending members.
“We lived in South Orange and all of the neighbors were Methodist, although at that time my parents were Lutheran. There weren’t any Lutheran churches in the area at the time so we went there and they were buried there,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “My father worked at the former Grunings Ice Cream store at 59 South Orange Ave., and the church was always very active in the community.”
Schnaars now serves as the church historian; she is dedicated to not only preserving the church’s history for future generations, but also sharing it with others.
“I keep track of all of our records that are not stored at Drew University. I try to keep up with what we do and try to tell everybody a little about what we do,” she said. “All the Methodist churches in New Jersey keep their records there and Drew University is Methodist so many of the ministers are trained there.”
The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Archives and History is located on Drew University’s campus; the commission maintains an archive of Methodist records and artifacts from the 19th century to the present.
Schnaars fondly recalled the strawberry celebrations that the South Orange-Vailsburg UMC was known for in the area, as it was one of the church’s earliest fundraising efforts and grew into a popular event.
“If you ask people what they remember about our church, many will mention the strawberry festivals that we used to hold the second week in June for many years where we sold cakes and pies made with fresh strawberries,” she said. “Back in 1848 when the church was first founded, the ladies who were members at the time were raising money to buy canvas for our very first church site in South Orange, and they did this by purchasing large quantities of strawberries from South Jersey and making desserts from them.”
South Orange resident Zella Felzenberg has been a member for more than 40 years, and her family came to the church after being invited by another parent at the preschool that her children attended.
“We weren’t Methodist, but the people were so warm and friendly and I know that it’s God’s hand in this. I’m so proud of the work that our forefathers and foremothers did, because we are building on their legacy,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I really believe the church lives that mission and the people help you see God’s work in your life.”
Felzenberg says that one of her most treasured memories as a member of the church is her time serving as the staff-parish relations committee chairwoman, and assisting in bringing in new staff to their congregation.
“I helped with bringing in our first female and our first African-American pastor, and those were very important to the growth of our church and our mission,” she said. “Those who attend South Orange-Vailsburg United Methodist reflect God’s love of mankind by helping one another resolve personal challenges and crises and by working together to correct injustices found within our local communities and throughout the world.”
Photos Courtesy of Zella Felzenberg