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Encyclopedia Dubuque



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The spire on the church made First Congregational in 1907 one of the most distinguished buildings in the city.Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium-Captain William D. Bowell, Sr. River Library-James Wall-Wild, Registrar

FIRST CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST. Dubuque's oldest Protestant church in continuous service. Around 1833, a congregation was formed as a "missionary church in the wilderness." (1) This group of nineteen people, five men and fourteen women, placed the cornerstone for The Old Stone Church, their first permanent place of worship, built with the help of John KING east of WASHINGTON PARK. To illuminate the service, members brought their own candles. On May 12, 1839, Reverend James A. Clark, hired by the Congregational Home Mission Society, organized the congregation as the First Congregational Church of Dubuque. (2) The congregation's growth was slow with as few as six coming to weekly church services. Of the nineteen members of the church in 1843, seven were on the board of directors. With the leadership of Rev. John Holbrook, however, the group adopted the Congregational form of governance on December 12, 1844. (3)

Old Stone Church (a sketch by Alexander SIMPLOT)
Lack of funds led the congregation to suffer foreclosure on Old Stone Church in 1844. The congregation worshipped in the Court House or a Baptist Church. In 1846 the Main Street Church was completed at a cost of $3,500. (4) Increasing attendance led to the need for enlarging the building. This was done at a cost of $2,700. (5) Raising money led to many activities. Reverend Holbrook, minister to the congregation, toured New England and collected over six hundred dollars. Church members turned to the American Mission Society for financial help and resorted locally to conventional and unconventional methods of raising money. The church sold or rented pews to the members. Annual rentals varied from twenty-five cents to over five dollars. Pews could be purchased for $37.50, and owners made annual payments or risked swift repossession. Rentals, assessments, and sales provided sufficient money to pay ordinary expenses allowing offerings to go to church causes. It was not until 1849 that the church became self-supporting.
Collections during the service were made as the ushers passed velvet bags on long poles down the pews.

The church soon purchased two lots, the site of the present church, for $1,250. Rev. Holbrook bought the easterly thirty feet of the two lots for the parsonage. Before work on the church was begun, some members expressed their feeling that the church was located too far north in the city. The trustees kept the two lots they had purchased, but also bought Lot 619 for $850. The church members finally decided to move. The single lot, across the street from Washington Park and next to the bluff, was sold and eventually became the location of the mansion built for Jesse P. FARLEY.

The cornerstone-of the present church was laid in July of 1856. The financial panic of 1857 left work on the church incomplete. Faced again with the threat of foreclosure, members chose not to sell the buiding but raise the $20,000 mortgage. Success was assured when a member, G. D. Wood, donated $10,000 in gold. By 1858 worship was possible only in the basement. A five thousand dollar loan was required to complete the sanctuary by April 1, 1860, when the church was dedicated with nine hundred people in attendance. The building eventually cost $41,000. The rose window in the southern wall of the church is thirteen feet in diameter making it the largest window of its kind in the city.

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

Changes in the church continued. In 1869 the congregation purchased, at a cost of four thousand dollars, a Johnson's Opus 277 organ from the Westfield, Massachusetts, company of W. A. Johnson. Because there was no bridge available, the organ (said to be the best in the West) had to be transported across the ice on the frozen MISSISSIPPI RIVER using bobsleds. The prominent tower of the church was completed in 1875. In 1886, a new 4,000 pound bell was hung in the tower. Celebrating the surrender of Lee at Appomattox and the end of the CIVIL WAR, the former church bell had cracked as it rang through the night on April 9, 1865. Silver dollars made in offerings were melted into the casting of the new bell to make the sound of the bell sweeter. Funds for the purchase of the bell came from "bell dinners" organized by the church women.

In 1889 the congregation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The membership stood at 449 and the church helped establish SUMMIT CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST next to FINLEY HOSPITAL (THE) the following year. Memorial windows were installed during remodeling in 1895. On the church's 134th anniversary, a three-story educational and administration building was completed on the site of Rev. Holbrook's parsonage.
1893 church history
Eveline Deming Stout is remembered through one of the stained glass windows.

On June 27, 1931 the Congregational Church and the Christian Church united in Seattle, Washington. The local congregation became known as First Congregational Christian Church, although most people continued to call it First Congregational. On June 25, 1957 the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church was celebrated in Cleveland, Ohio. Each Congregational church, however, had to vote to join the new church. The issue was divisive with ten percent of the Congregational churches in the United States choosing not to join. On December 2, 1960, the members of First Congregational, however, voted 103 to 44 to become members of the United Church of Christ.

Pews were rented and carried the names of many prominent Dubuque residents.

In 1972 First Congregational United Church of Christ began construction of an educational building on the site of the former home of Martha BAKER. At a cost of $375,000, the new building provided over 11,000 square feet of space for Christian education, church meetings and administration. The building was dedicated on May 11, 1973. The church ordained its first woman pastor, Elizabeth Pigg, on December 14, 1986, and the church was the first in Dubuque and of United Church of Christ churches in Iowa to offer the STEPHEN MINISTRY to members.

The congregation endured displacement for three months in 1989 as the sanctuary was renovated at a cost of $250,000. A celebration of 150 years of Christian service was held in the newly renovated sanctuary on May 7, 1989. At the time, the search for a new senior minister led to the hiring of Rev. Kenneth BICKEL as Senior Minister and Nancy Bickel to be the Director of Church Life. Ken completed his Doctor of Ministry degree at Lancaster Theological Seminary in 1993. Nancy moved from Director of Church Life to Minister of Church Life in 1995 after completing the Master of Divinity Degree at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She was ordained in the sanctuary of First Congregational.

First Congregational has earned widespread respect for its commitment to service and furthering the faith. Records indicate the the Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM) contributions of the First Congregational placed it in the top ten in mission giving as well as first in per capita contributions and percentage of budget to mission in all UCC Churches in the United States. In June 2001 Reverend Nancy Bickel received the Belva Duncan Award for excellence in ministry.

In December 2002 First Congregational was selected as one of one-hundred "churches of distinction" for the vitality of the church. In 1986 First Congregational's Sunday morning attendance rated it among the top 4 percent of the United Church of Christ congregations. The congregation became a partnership church with Habitat for Humanity in 1990, began collecting food for the Dubuque Food Pantry on the first Sunday for every month in 1990, and on November 13, 1994, began a feeding ministry called CAFe for those needing a meal. A meal is served every Thursday evening by the members of the congregation with help from other churches and organizations in the community.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zs9DCCbKpS8 Church Youth Bell Choir-2010



1. Hanson, Lyn. "History Highlights Celebration," Telegraph Herald, May 13, 1989, p. 8A

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Brown, C. O. (Rev.) editor. Semi-Centennial Celebration of First Congregational Church of Dubuque, Iowa. Nov. 1889, p. 63

5. Ibid.