First Presbyterian Church of Fort Dodge traces its roots to the very beginnings of the community. When the military post was abandoned in 1853 only a handful of civilians remained behind and the future was uncertain. It was only when the federal land office for North central Iowa was located in Fort Dodge that the economy of the new community began to boom. In 1855 and 1856 five churches were organized: Methodist, Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Catholic.
Credit for the organization of the Fort Dodge Presbyterian Church can be given to Rev. S. T. Wells, the first minister commissioned by the Board of Domestic Missions of the Presbyterian Church as a missionary and evangelist for the Synod of Iowa. Rev. Wells sent Rev. E.I. Dodder to serve as the first pastor in October of 1856. During the first two months, the congregation met in people’s homes but in December services were moved to the new but uncompleted public school.
In July of 1857, it was decided to build a new church on a lot on the east side of Seventh Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue South. The new church, like most frontier churches, suffered through difficult times. When Rev. Dodder left in 1861, membership had fallen to sixteen. Without a pastor, regular worship services were suspended.
In 1863, the Presbyterian Church and the local Congregational Church agreed to unite for worship and share a pastor. Under this agreement, which lasted until 1866, Presbyterian membership fell to only ten members. Over the next thirteen years, the church had eight different pastors.
When Dr. Coyle arrived, membership had reached 119 with 175 in the Sunday school. Under Dr. Coyle’s leadership a new church was built at 1st Avenue South and 9th Street, the largest church in the city, capable of seating nine hundred. With the support of the church, the Fort Dodge Collegiate Institute, the predecessor of Buena Vista University, was established.
Growth continued over the next few years as the church was blessed with several excellent pastors. Especially noteworthy was Dr. J. Milton Greene, who came to the church in 1893. He led the church to greater commitment to Christian outreach, including the organization of the First Presbyterian Calvary Church of Barnum in 1899. Under Dr. Green’s successors, the Rich Memorial Chapel was organized in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood and Sunday school centers near Duncombe School, at the gypsum mills, and at the brick and tile plants were established. Several women’s groups were established and successful efforts were also made to establish church youth groups.
Dr. Greene was succeeded by Phil Baird, a brilliant preacher and lecturer, and Dr. Hastings who entered the ministry after a career in law.
In 1916, Dr. Harless assumed the pastorate and served twenty years, the longest pastorate in the history of the church. During his term, membership grew and eventually exceeded one thousand, making it the 4th largest Presbyterian church in Iowa. In 1922, lots were bought at the site of the current church and a new building fund was started. The Depression of the 1930’s and World War II created financial hardships for the church, and plans for the new building were placed on hold.
Rev William Paden became pastor in 1936 and he brought a new vitality to the church. For the first time, focus was placed on families with the organization of the Mariners clubs. Church life was disrupted by the coming of the Second World War. One hundred and thirty-eight members served in the armed forces, roughly 15% of the membership. Others moved to new places to work in defense plants. In 1945, Rev. Paden entered the military as a chaplain and his position as pastor was filled by Rev. Harrison Hilscher, former missionary to China.
The return of peace brought a renewal for the church. The drive for a new church was revived and in 1948 ground was finally broken. In 1970, the East wing was added as the church programming expanded and the existing facility proved inadequate.
American culture changed drastically after the 1950’s and the change was apparent in church life as well. Church attendance nationally declined and worship styles, which satisfied the previous generation, lost their appeal for the baby boomers and later generations. First Presbyterian responded by placing an increased focus on its youth program, hiring full time professionals to expand the offerings.
Traditional styles of worship were also reconsidered and it was determined that an alternate style of contemporary worship might more effectively meet new needs. In response, the congregation purchased the former Jewish synagogue and named it the Shalom Center. First Presbyterian also committed itself to the construction of another addition, the Christian Life Center, completed in 2003, to better accommodate changing conditions. A Hispanic ministry was added in 2004, which started it's own church in the Spring of 2010. Vida y Esperanza Iglesia Presbyteriana was the first new church development of North Central Iowa Presbytery in roughly forty years.
In the first decade of the new century, First Presbyterian began two other new ministries that continue to enrich our community today. In 2003, the church began the KidZone Christian Childcare Center. Now the program has expanded to include a three and four year old preschool, and KidZone offers care for children through elementary school. The ministry is a wonderful service to families throughout the community of Fort Dodge.
In 2004, First Presbyterian completed the Outreach Ministry Center. This facility houses our wheelchair ministry and provides a space where people come together to work on a variety of projects for others. Through the tools and machinery in the OMC, members of the church are able to refurbish wheelchairs for Hope Haven International, help repair items for community events, and help others in need.
In the most recent years, First Presbyterian has mobilized a concerted effort in mission. Senior high students have taken annual trips to inner city St. Louis and Omaha to work in homeless shelters and community centers. FPC has done mission work in Fiji, and have taken seven trips to Guatemala, with an eighth trip already scheduled. The August 2014 trip to Guatemala saw 66 people volunteer, 43 of whom were senior high students.
In addition to these short-term mission projects, multiple members have begun non-profit ministries here in Fort Dodge and beyond. Gateway for Discovery is a women’s recovery home in Fort Dodge. It opened in 2013 and three church members helped to create the ministry and serve on its board. Another church member co-founded Small Change 4 Big Change, a non-profit ministry that helps people discover sustainable sources of income in rural Guatemalan communities.
The best part of the First Presbyterian Church story is that it’s not done! We invite you to join us and make your story a part of the First Presbyterian story. Help us write the next chapters and see how God can use you!