MONTCLAIR, NJ (JULY 2, 2013) – The Evangelical Covenant Church of Montclair, New Jersey (ECCM), concluded 117 years of ministry on June 23. Current and former members joined together in a celebration service, sharing what the church meant in their lives and all that will be accomplished through its legacy, as well as the faithfulness of God throughout its history.
Although the diverse congregation had actively engaged in ministry until the time of its closing, facility issues ultimately impeded the small church’s ability to continue. The cost to repair damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011 proved too great.
“We felt it was important to end well,” said Pastor Daniel Shaw. “As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a time for everything, and although we could have held on indefinitely, we felt that the Lord was saying that the time had come for us to move on.”
Commenting on the service, longtime member Elaine Fiveland said, “The final service was truly a beautiful celebration of what our church has been, a caring community of people of all ages, backgrounds, and gifts.” Five generations of her family have attended the church.
Fiveland’s grandfather was a charter member, and her mother was a lifelong member. Her son, and now her two- and four-year-old grandchildren also attend.
The final service reflected not only what the church has been but also the diversity of what it had become, Shaw said.
Veronice Horne, pastor of ECCM’s unofficial sister church, Holy Hands Fellowship of Newark, New Jersey, brought words of appreciation and encouragement. Holy Hands, an inner-city African American fellowship, was a guest at ECCM for two years while looking for their own facility in Newark.
Among those who have called ECCM home are well-known Covenant hymnist and pastor Bryan Jeffery Leech of Oakland, California, John Martz, now senior pastor of Arvada Covenant Church in Arvada, Colorado, and Covenant minister Don Lindman in Batavia, Illinois, each of whom served the church in his first pastorate. All three pastors sent reminiscences that were shared during the final service. Tom Anderson, another former pastor of the church, attended in person.
Kreig Gammelgard, associate superintendent, represented the East Coast Conference at the service. Musical direction was provided by the church’s former organist, Frank Johnston, who is now organist at First Presbyterian Church of Toccoa, Georgia, and an adjunct professor at Toccoa Falls College. Peter Fiveland of ECCM assisted.
The church, formally incorporated on October 31, 1895 as the Swedish Mission Church, was one of three in the community born out of the Swedish Mission Society of Montclair in the late nineteenth century. The other two were Baptist and Lutheran congregations. In its infancy, the church received support from local Presbyterian and Congregational churches.
Important milestones in the life of the church were marked by a name change in 1943 to Valley Road Congregational Church, which reflected the growing Americanization of the now English language congregation and worship. Another name change in 1954 to Valley Road Covenant Church reflected the church’s joining the Evangelical Covenant denomination. A final name change in 1994 reflected the church’s ministry to the entire area.
The church’s “carpenter gothic” style sanctuary dates from 1899 when it was built in the short span of seven months by the members of the church. Many of the men of the original Swedish immigrant population were carpenters who helped build many of the older homes that still line the streets of the community.
In 1904 the church’s physical plant grew as a leading member of the congregation, Christina Johnson, purchased the historical Munn Tavern, which was built around 1802, and had it moved to sit on the property next to the church. “Mor Stina,” as she was affectionately called, used the building to provide a safe home for the young single immigrant Swedish women of the church, many of whom worked as au pairs and domestics in the community before they got married.
“God’s sense of humor may be on display in the repurposing of the Munn Tavern for Christian ministry,” Shaw said. Its builder had been locally famous for his hospitality and peach brandy in the early 1800s.
A century later one of the prime social problems the church addressed in its early days was giving the immigrant population a way to spend their free time other than going to local bars.
“In the providence of God the tavern became a place where now it is the gospel that has been ‘on tap’ for over a hundred years,” Shaw joked.
Further building additions over the years included a parsonage on the church property in 1924, and a fellowship hall that linked the sanctuary with the Munn Tavern space in 1957. The Munn Tavern is listed on the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places.
Money from the sale of the property will help fund the planting of more churches.