By Elena Ferrarin
This year marks the 175th anniversary of First Baptist Church in Elgin, which is among the oldest churches in the city.
The church, located on 8 acres at 1735 W. Highland Ave., plans to mark the occasion with a big picnic on July 14, the exact date of its founding 175 years ago.
"I'm really proud of the church's longevity," said Becky Towner, chair of First Baptist's 175th anniversary committee.
"It's definitely a lot of work to organize our events, but it's worth it. And a lot of people helped."
First Baptist, now part of American Baptists Churches USA, was founded July 14, 1838, when 13 men and women got together in Hezekiah Gifford's log cabin. The Giffords were pioneer settlers of Elgin.
Among the church's historical records is a letter penned by Harriet Gifford, Hezekiah's sister, detailing the event. The church also has a Bible signed by the founding members in August 1838.
Like many small- and medium-sized churches in the suburbs, First Baptist has struggled to retain membership as people flock to so-called megachurches, Senior Pastor Greg Huguley said.
First Baptist had a peak attendance of almost 1,000 people in the 1990s, Towner added.
Still, the church continues to boast a strong following of about 400 people at Sunday services, which in some instances includes several generations of the same family.
Modern churchgoers shop around for churches just like they shop for goods, Huguely said.
"There is no loyalty left for churches. People compare churches like they compare Walmart and Meijer," he said.
In order to keep up the audio and visual appeal demanded by younger audiences, the church underwent a $175,000 renovation of its sanctuary last year that included a new podium, drywall, lights, sound system and screens, Huguley said.
First Baptist's original log cabin was at the corner of DuPage and Geneva streets, and then was replaced in 1850 by a building nicknamed "The Cobblestone Church."
In 1871, First Baptist moved into another new building at Chicago and Geneva streets. It remained there until it moved to its current location in early 1970.
Among the most well-known pastors of First Baptist was Willis Reed, who served for 27 years from 1956 to 1983. Every morning, Pastor Reed visited patients at Sherman and St. Joseph hospitals, church officials said.
"People to this day say, 'Oh, that's Dr. Reed's church!" Huguley said.
"He was probably the last of a generation of someone who would be pastor to an entire city."
Church leaders are planning to celebrate the 175th anniversary -- called a "dodransbicentennial" -- by showing video vignettes of key historical moments during worship services from February to June.
They are also planning a memorial gallery -- named after the late church benefactor Blanche Sheffel -- with photographs and maps. A commemorative banquet will be held on Oct. 11.
The church also owns about 50 acres on Nesler Road purchased with $1.5 million raised in the late 1900s. The plan was to build a new church there, but then church leaders realized it would be too costly, Huguley said.
Now, the church hopes to sell some of the land, although the recession put a damper on those plans, he added.
First Baptist is one of several Elgin churches who have celebrated milestone anniversaries. First Congregational Church of Elgin -- the first congregation to be formed in the city -- celebrated the 175th anniversary of its founding in 2011. First United Methodist Church of Elgin celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2012.