The First United Methodist Church has a long history in Wilmington. In the 1830’s, Circuit Riders served this area which was called Winchester at that time.
Circuits were sometimes 100 miles long. Each pastor rode a circuit to preach, as well as perform baptisms, marriages, funerals and other church-related ceremonies. The average life-span for these pastors, once they became Circuit Riders, was 7 years. Many died before the age of 30.
In 1838, the name of this two-year-old town of Winchester was changed to Wilmington because there was already a Winchester in Illinois southwest of Springfield.
In 1840, the first pastor was appointed to Wilmington. A small building was built on Jefferson St. at the cost of $2,000 to become the first Methodist church.
By 1857, the first building was too small as the town was growing due to the railroad and commerce along the Kankakee River. A large two-story stone structure was built at the corner of Kankakee and Jefferson Streets. It was built from locally quarried limestone for a cost of $15, 000. The first church building became the main part of the parsonage. The congregation was appointed its first full time pastor in 1866 at an annual salary of $730.
In 1861, the first high school was organized by the church and met in the church. The town’s first public high school building was built in ten years later. The church was electrified in 1902.
During an army recruitment meeting at the church in 1862, a severe wind storm blew the top of the steeple off the church. It fell through the roof, striking and killing a young man. That part of the steeple was never replaced. A 600-pound bell was purchased for the church in 1878.
The first pipe organ required boys to pump the bellows to make air for it to play. An electric pipe organ was purchased in 1957 in celebration of 100 years of the Methodist Church at the Kankakee Street location. The Kankakee Street church served the congregation until 1966. It now houses the Wilmington Public Library.
In the early 1960’s, land was purchased on the south side of Wilmington to build a new church, as the Kankakee Street church was becoming too small for the growing congregation. With the influx of people working at the Army Munitions Plant north of town, the members of the church made the decision to move to a new location. After much planning was done, ground was broken in October 1965.
In November of 1966, the congregation ceremoniously walked from the Kankakee Street church to the newly completed building on Kahler Road. It provided easy access being on one level, more Sunday School rooms, a modern kitchen and fellowship area, and plenty of parking with room to expand in the future.
The parsonage, where the pastor lives, was completed in 1973. Also, in 1973, the People’s United Methodist Church of Symerton merged with the First Methodist Church of Wilmington to form the First United Methodist Church of Wilmington. The church in Symerton had been an Evangelical United Brethren church until that denomination merged with the Methodist church in 1968, adding the word “United” to the titles of all Methodist churches.
The merger with the Symerton congregation increased the membership by about 20 members. Many of them have passed on, but several remain very active and dedicated. The merger also allowed the church to pay off the mortgage on the parsonage earlier than expected and install air conditioning in the sanctuary.
During the years 1988-1991, the church expanded again to add a large fellowship hall with education space, new kitchen, library, chapel, new office space, larger narthex area for overflow from the sanctuary, and the sanctuary was reconfigured. Chairs replaced the church pews, to allow flexibility, and the altar area was moved from the north wall to the west wall, creating a more intimate setting. More parking was added and blacktopped.
When the congregation moved to Kahler Road the bell was removed from the steeple and stored until a bell tower was constructed in the mid-1980’s. The stained-glass windows in the sanctuary, narthex and fellowship hall are restored windows that originally hung in the Kankakee Street church. The electric organ was also moved to the current building. The pipes are behind wooden louvers on the south wall of the sanctuary.
In 2007, to commemorate 150 years since the Kankakee Street church was built, a new lighted sign and antique-style light posts were added to the parking lot.
The church is fully accessible, being on one level. Memorial funds were used in 2013 to make the entrance doors mechanical. The Parsonage was renovated in 2014 with ramps, a roll-in shower and other accessibility upgrades.
For over 175 years, the Methodist Church has played a vital role in the Wilmington community.