MORGANTOWN — This is a story about this weekend’s 175th anniversary celebration at Avery United Methodist Church.
That’s why it opens with a tuna fish sandwich and the sound of giggles coming from the other side of the wall.
The sandwich belonged to the Rev. Jenny Williams, a Southern Californian who pastors at the gleaming, contemporary place of worship on Cheat Road.
The giggles belonged to the bevy of youngsters who attend pre-school classes at Avery. The office of Williams, who was taking one of her signature, late-afternoon lunches at her desk, is next door to the classrooms.
Families with young children are a significant segment of the church’s population.
“I love hearing that sound every day,” Williams said, smiling. “I love hearing it during services. Because I’m hearing the future of the church.”
This being Morgantown, a transient community that still knows how to sink deep roots, the descendants of those children today might be providing that same lunchtime soundtrack, say, 175 years from now.
In the meantime, there are the last 175 years to tend to.
That’s what the church will do Sunday.
‘We’re Methodists — we always have food’
The congregation of Avery United Methodist will mark that milestone anniversary with a 10 a.m. service, featuring pastors from years gone by and the Avery families who moved away for work or school, but still consider the church, and the region, home.
A meal will follow at the pavilion next to the parking lot, with its lofty views of the West Virginia countryside.
“Of course, we’re gonna have food,” Kathy Pompili said. “We’re Methodists. We always have food.”
Pompili, who is the current president of Avery’s United Methodist women group, is helping plan the party.
She’s been a church member for more than 30 years. Her daughters were baptized here and walked down the aisle in their wedding gowns here.
“It’s a special place,” she said. “It’s home.”
The inclusive Mr. Avery
The church’s namesake, the famed Abolitionist and philanthropist, Charles Avery (1784-1858), gave a home and haven to lots of disenfranchised members of the American republic, including women and slaves.
Avery, who made his name in nearby Pittsburgh, worked to free slaves on the Underground Railroad and encouraged women to preach at services decades before the American Methodist Protestant Church decreed full clergy rights for all.
It was Avery who responded to the letter written by the Rev. Peter Laishley in 1837.
Laishley, a Morgantown clergyman, was one of the founding members and trustees of the original Avery Methodist Protestant Church, which is right down the road from the current one.
Laishley asked Avery for a donation to help build the church.
The fundraising goal was $300, and Avery gave $100. Laishley was so grateful that he named the church after Avery.
“His name is on everything around here,” said Virginia Hopkins, who teaches Sunday school at Avery United Methodist and is the church historian.
“He just gets more and more fascinating, the more I learn about him,” she said.
Like Avery, the church on Cheat Road for which he’s named conducts several outreach ministries, including after-school backpack feeding programs for youngsters in need of nutrition.
It even opens its parking lot on the Fourth of July, so people can watch fireworks from Cheat Lake, with that aforementioned vertical vantage.
A congregation, afoot
The current Avery United Methodist Church was dedicated in 2007. Construction began the year before that, and the build topped out with a $2 million price tag.
Don’t think it carries the rarified, members-only air of some sterile mega-church, though, Hopkins said.
Two services were held on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007, she said.
The first was at the original Avery. The second was at the current one. To get to that one, she and Pompili remembered, congregants walked.
“The police shut down Cheat Road for us,” Pompili said.
They walked, while carrying the altar, an 18-inch high golden cross and other important trappings of the church’s day-to-day.
“It was beautiful,” Hopkins said.
“And did somebody already show you that?”
The historian pointed heavenward as she asked — guiding a visitor’s eye to the striking stained glass features of the church.
Integrated into the design were old panels, also stained glass, from the original church building.
The one Avery and other kindred spirits helped build 20 years before West Virginia statehood when they were listening for the future.