Nestled in the heart of Kensington, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has often been a meeting place for friends and neighbors. People come to St. Paul’s at all times, from all places. People arrive here hungry to connect with God and with one another. Our history reminds us where we’ve come from, and where we still can go.
In the 19th century, Kensington MD was known as the town of Knowles. Methodists in the area lacked a dedicated worship building and held services on the lawns of their homes. Mr. William H. Wheatley, who had been active in the Methodist Protestant Church in Georgetown, moved to the area in 1884 and offered the use of his large barn for worship. Mr. Wheatley would continue to provide his home for Sunday School classes until 1900.
Founded in 1885
The first purpose-built sanctuary for St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church was erected on the southeast corner of St. Paul Street and Bladensburg Road (now Plyers Mill Road) in 1885, with a formal dedication service held May 30, 1886. The growing congregation soon needed a larger building, however. Dr. R. B. Detrick donated land for a new sanctuary and a parsonage at the northwest corner of what are now Fawcett & Mitchell Streets, near where the church sits today. That church building was dedicated in 1897.
When an emergency arose in Kensington, hand-drawn vehicles from the volunteer fire department responded to the emergency ringing of St. Paul’s bell. Like Kensington’s unpaved streets, St. Paul’s church changed slowly but surely. Rev. Walter McKenney, pastor 1910-1912, wrote, “My slogan was ‘They do who believe they can.’” It took Rev. McKenney some time to convince the 17 church Board members to replace the brass oil lamps with electrical wiring and lights, but he succeeded.
Regular prayer groups, not unlike our current Prayer Lift, became a fixture in the early 20th century. A tragic train accident in present-day Hyattsville in 1906, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the dark days of World War I led to the formation of prayer groups and outreach efforts. The church persevered during the first World War, despite experiencing Sundays with no heat and canceling church dinners due to strict rationing. The women’s missionary society at St. Paul’s joined with the women of Warner Presbyterian Church to roll bandages for the war effort and sew linens for Sibley Hospital.
In the 1920s, St. Paul’s Sunday School regularly teamed up with other Methodists, Episopalians, and Presbyterians for outings, including a memorable 161-person boating trip down the Potomac River. A new minister with a new baby arrived in 1938, with many fresh new ideas for engaging the rapidly expanding community.
World War II, as expected, caused a surge in service. The Women’s Society of Christian Service, already active in supporting the Hayes Nursing School and the Child Care Board orphanage, volunteered as USO hostesses and took first-aid certification classes in order to be prepared as community care-givers. By the late 1940s, members of the vibrant youth program were putting on dramas and holding fundraisers to cover the cost of attending the Methodist Youth Retreat Camp. As today, the youth group balanced mission and fun. They regularly went bowling and collected clothing and canned goods for Overseas Relief. Rev. Edward Harry Porter even played on the basketball team with the youth! A drama group began offering musicals and comedies, counting the famous actress Helen Hayes among its casts.
With all this activity, a new structure was needed. A larger sanctuary, social hall, office space, and classrooms were built in 1953 and replaced the previous building.
Rising from the Ashes in the 1960s
Just 13 years later, on May 3, 1966, the east end of the sanctuary was destroyed by an arsonist’s fire. This set in motion plans for a new building phase. Under the guidance of Rev. Charles F. Kirkley and the building committee, the damaged sanctuary was converted into our current fellowship hall. The fourth (and current) sanctuary space was consecrated November 10, 1968, just after our denomination took the name The United Methodist Church.
An Ongoing Legacy of Community Presence
The church continued its growth and outreach through the 1970s and 1980s. Rev. Kirkley felt citizen awareness of political issues was vitally important and offered the fellowship hall for community meetings and candidate debates. Children from St. Paul's and inner city schools met together in Rock Creek Park for summer camp experiences and Youth boarded buses to go work at homebuilding sites in rural Appalachia. A handbells group formed, gleefully calling themselves “The Ding-a-lings” - although the name has changed, the bells they purchased are the same ones used by the Joyful Ringers! today. Concern about a lack of opportunities for senior adults to engage in fellowship led to the formation of the Friendship Club, which is also still going today. St. Paul’s welcomed its first woman pastor in the 1980s and first Black pastor in the 1990s. Many of the Bible study, outreach, and fellowship programs the church now enjoys were started (or re-started) in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In recent years, the church structure has also benefited from numerous improvement projects, including renovations in 2006 that added the Aeolian-Skinner organ, an elevator, chair lift, and updated chancel area.
St. Paul’s has never been content to stay within our walls. A church newsletter from Rev. William McKenney in 1921 argued, “No day is without opportunities for doing good. Let us shoulder under someone’s burdens and thereby lighten our own. Let us make the Golden Rule not the rule of gold but the rule of life. Let us make our church a power in the community!” As we send work teams to Nicaragua, collect coats for refugees coming to the US for the first time, and put food into the hands of hungry neighbors, we know we are carrying out this mission today.