A History of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church (Excerpts)

by Rex W. Minckler (1964)

Christian Endeavor PartyIn the spring of 1840 John Hughes and his wife, with their six children left Wales and sailed for America.  They had no special destination in America but were venturesome enough to push farther west than any other of their countrymen had gone, up to that time.  When crossing Lake Erie the Hughes met a Reverand Moses Ordway, a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in South Prairieville, a settlement about four miles southwest of the present City of Waukesha.  He recommended his area as a desirable place for settlement.  After a period of exploring the countryside, the Hughes family settled on land in the north half of section 2, town of Genessee.  Here by dint of hard labor, endurance, and suffering many hardships and privations, they developed one of the productive as well as one of the beautiful farms in Waukesha County and gave it the name of Lime Brook.  John Hughes of Lime Brook, and family, were the first permanent Welsh settlers to enter Wisconsin territory and the first to settle in Waukesha County.

Soon other Welsh settlers followed and at the close of 1842 there were 99 Welsh people in the Welsh community of Waukesha County.  It would be safe to say that 90% of this community lived with 5 miles of the intersection of the present Highways of 18 and 83.

The first settlers, John Hughes of Lime Brook farm, and his family attended worship at the Congregational Church in Prairieville, now Waukesha.  In like manner a number of other families also attended services in Prairieville, usually traveling by ox cart.  In 1842 the Welsh colony was large enough and the Welsh sentiment strong enough to demand religious services in their mother tongue.  The Jerusalem Church, now located in the village of Wales, was started in the summer of 1842.  The first meeting was held in a barn on a nearby farm.

The Bethesda Church Society was started in the home of another John Hughes in 1845.  This second Welshman by the name of John Hughes had arrived with his family in this community the year before in 1844.  They had settled on land in sections 11 and 12, Town of Genesee, in the Bethesda neighborhood, and had given their farm home the name of “Cilmaenan” after Mrs. Hughes family home in Wales.  This name was later translated into “Keystone”, the nearest English equivalent…

Church services were held in the Cilmaenan home for about nine years.  Then, in 1854, John Hughes and family moved to Oshkosh and the Cilmaenan church services were continued in the home of David Jones, of Park Farm, for 3 years…

On the evening of March 6, 1857 the Cilmaenan Church Society held an important business meeting at the Park Farm.  They met to decide the question of building a church.  The membership of the church society then was 28 adults and 24 children.  It was agreed that a church would be built.  It was to be located on what is now [in 1964] the southeast corner of highways DE and DT…  Land for the building was donated by Mr. Thomas R. Price…The size of the church building itself was to be 20 feet by 24 feet by 12 feet high, was to face the east… It was also agreed at this time to change the name of the Cilmaenan Church Society to Bethesda Church.

On March 20, 1857, another business meeting was held at the Park Farm.  According to the minutes of this meeting, which were recorded in Welsh in the church record book,…it was decided that another John Hughes was to build the church according to the specifications.  This is the third John Hughes that we have referred to.  No information is available as to his family connections but it is believed he is of no relation to the other two John Hughes.  He is referred to in the records as John Hughes, the Carpenter, and apparently lived somewhere in the Welsh Community.

His contract and signature to build the church in accordance with the specifications is a part of the minutes of this meeting held on March 20, 1957.  He would be paid $90…The church trustees were to furnish the material and build the foundation and chimney and plaster it.  They were to pay Mr. Hughes expenses to Milwaukee to purchase some of the lumber and supplies.  The church frame was to be of oak, and timbers for this were to be donated by those who had them.  White oak trees were cut and donated by four of the members.  Another member was to hew them.  Some of the logs were to be taken to the Saylesville (then South Genesee) sawmill to be sawed into the desired pieces of lumber.  This church building cost about $300, and was used for 20 years.

During this period it was the practice for the men and women to enter and leave the church through separate doors, and to sit on separate sides of the church.  There was another old rule that church members must marry church members but this rule was dropped at an early date.

The congregation flourished and expanded until the little “shoe box” church was too small to accommodate them.  In 1877 the membership was 40 adults and 45 children and it was that year that a new and larger church was built and occupied.

View ca 1915That is the church being used today except for some alterations and additions… In 1876 a building program had been instigated by the church members.  In 1877 a plot of land was purchased from the Price family for $60, and the present church was built at a total cost of about $3,000.  The builder and contractor was Mr. Griff D. Evans; the carpenter assisting him was Mr. Harry Evans.

Sanctuary From the Back1The pulpit and pews were built at the same time and are those now in use.  The pews were patterned after those of the original Congregational Church of Waukesha, and the pulpit after the pulpit of the original Baptist Church of Waukesha.  The Gothic  Arch design has been used in the construction of the church windows, the carved designs on the pulpit, the ends of the pews and other items.  It is said that the builders worked all of a Saturday night in order to have the walnut pulpit finished for the opening service the next day.  The small Gothic Arch designs were carved by hand, and today this pulpit is considered in the antique category… According to church records, a pulpit bible and silver dishes for the Sacrament were purchased at the time…

In 1878, the year following the building of the present Bethesda Church, Reverend R.H. Evans became the first regularly installed pastor.  Since that year, Bethesda Church and Jerusalem Church at Wales have always formed a joint pastorate  [until 2005]. Until this time, Welsh ministers preached here, there, and elsewhere according engagements previously arranged.  It is natural that the ministry in this community followed the system in vogue in their native Wales.  The early ministers preached in all the churches in the community but were attached to no church as an installed pastor.  Ordinarily, a minister would occupy the pulpit in one church on a Sunday morning and preach in another in the afternoon.  Thus, each minister, in turn, preached in all the churches on the circuit.  They were called circuit preachers.

These early circuit preachers or circuit riders were paid from 25 cents to $1.00 per sermon and rode horse back from church to church.  During the week they often worked upon farms or at some trade.  Evening services were seldom held in the early days.  From the beginning of Bethesda Church in 1845 until this year of 1878 there had been a total of eight circuit preachers who served this church.

Also in 1878, a long carriage or horse and buggy shed was built on the south side of the church grounds.  This was a shed with a wooden roof, open on the east side, and with masonry and stone walls enclosing the other three sides.  The stone walls still exist along one side of the present parking lot.  With the window openings in the walls one might imagine they are the walls of an ancient fort with open ports for the cannon.  The shed roofs were dismantled in 1953 and the lumber was sold for $266.

Newspaper PhotoDuring the 87 years following the construction of this church building many changes gradually took place.  This has been necessary to keep the church abreast of changes in our mode of living and religious needs.  The kerosene lamps were replaced with acetylene light, then with electricity.  The wood stoves were replaced with coal stoves, which in turn were replaces by the coal furnace and then the oil furnace.  The foot pedal organ was replaced by the piano, which in turn has been partially replaced by the electric organ.  Many items of furnishings and equipment have been purchased, donated, or acquired through legacies or memorial funds during these years… The Roy Anderson Memorial Windows of cathedral glass were installed and dedicated in 1964.

From the early days of the church when the Welsh language was first used exclusively, the gradual change to English took place.  This started first in the Sunday School.  In the early 1900’s the classes, except for some for the adults, where in English with some attempt to teach the young people the Welsh language.  Gradually the church services changed to English with one Welsh service a month.  Many of the old song books and bibles in the Welsh language are still in possession of the church.  Some are on display in the glass historical case.

Most of the old church record books have been preserved also.  The last entry in these books in the Welsh language was in 1915.  In 1922 one adult Sunday School class was still held in the Welsh language, but shortly afterward was discontinued.  About the same time the last Welsh monthly church service was held.

On May 18, 1919 the church members voted for their church – which was still a part of the Calvinistic Methodist or Welsh Presbyterian denomination – to unite with the English Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. This took place in 1920.

In 1926 additions of the enclosed stairway to the basement and an extension of the rear part of the church were made.  These were dedicated at ceremony on May 2, 1926.

Bethesda Presbyterian Church is proud of its unique and interesting old Welsh Heritage, and the important part it played in the early development of Waukesha County.  Today it is an active and progressive small country church – located only 3 or 4 miles from Waukesha – striving to be an asset in the religious life of all people who enter its doors…

Freeman PhotoWhile a few descendants of these of these early founders are numbered among the members and friends of the church, there are now found many people of other nationality backgrounds active in carrying on its mission.  It is to these newer people that this little story about Bethesda Church is dedicated with a hope they will find it helpful in their thrilling experience in living a part of this actual history.


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