Crossing paths: couple restores old, abandoned church with claim to fame

By: Alana Greenfogel Email
By: Alana Greenfogel Email

A popular hymn cherished by many Christians was actually sung for the very first time nearly a century ago in a small church in Cass County.

"The hymn, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, is a hymn I grew up with," shares Molly Shaffer from Niles.

"It's really the story of Christ in a hymn, if you listen to the words,” adds Molly’s husband, Bob Shaffer.

1n 1862, a barn was built off a back country road in Pokagon Township, between Niles and Dowagiac. In 1876 it was transformed into a church. Then in 1913, Pastor Leroy Bostwick invited his friend, Rev. George Bennard, to visit. Rev. Bennard brought with him a hymn he was working on and while staying with the Bostwicks, performed it for the very first time. That was the first time “The Old Rugged Cross” hymn was sung in public.

Two years later, the church was sold to a local farmer.

"Who came in, tore up the sanctuary floor and brought in livestock and turned it back into a barn," Molly explains.

Over the years, the barn was abandoned and vandalized. And that’s how the Shaffers first saw it in 1998.

"It had been mistreated and abused but there was something, when you walked in this building, there was something that spoke to you," Molly shares. "It wasn't until I went upstairs and I saw the graffiti and the satanic writings on the wall and it took a hold of me and I stood there and I prayed and I promised God right then that I really felt that he wanted this building back again and I said we won't quit until it's worthy of you once again."

Molly, Bob and their team of contractors and volunteers have dedicated much time, sweat and love to revitalize the building. They’ve fixed the walls, the floors, painted, scrubbed, and all along, had faith in their mission.

"It's not as much about the finished product as is it the journey along the way,” says Molly. “There are lives that are being changed by this project."

"Definitely I think so," says Anne Bostwick, who recently got married inside The Old Rugged Cross Church.

Anne’s husband, Scott Bostwick, is the great, great nephew of Leroy Bostwick, the pastor of the church when the famous hymn was first sung.

"It was hard to imagine what would have went on at that time in that same place," Scott shares. "I think it has a meaning in their hearts that something really did happen there that can change their lives."

"Our wedding was wonderful. It was simple and beautiful,” Anne adds. “I wouldn't change a thing about it because it just meant so much more to have everyone there in that one place that meant so much to us."

The Shaffers hope for many more special occasions inside their beloved church. They’re also in the process of collecting the original pews. So far, they’ve collected two. The Shaffers say when the church turned back into a barn, the pews were sold off and dispersed to homes and churches.

The Shaffers ask people in the community to take a look at the ones they might have to see if there’s a match. These pews have distinctive characteristics. They are either four or eight feet long and made from oak, walnut and poplar wood. The pews have a spiral design on the arm rests and a distinctive design on the side of the seat that looks like a raised shield.

The church is considered a Michigan historic site, as well as being on the National Register of Historic places at the national level of historic significance. The community is welcome to participate in hymn services the first Sunday of every month from May until December at 6 p.m., with tours beginning at 5 p.m.

"People of all denominations come and just sing for 90 minutes,” says Molly. “All the old hymns--they pick them and we sing them."

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