First church in Las Vegas to close after 97 years

LAS VEGAS -- When John Wesley Bain founded the First United Methodist Church in a tent in Las Vegas 97 years ago, he envisioned big things for the town and his church.

"In the future, this place will have a population of 50,000," he inscribed on a plaque commemorating the June 18, 1905, opening. "We will stay."

Las Vegas has grown to 1.5 million people, but First United Methodist, the first congregation in Las Vegas, is planning to close its doors next year -- the victim of young families moving to the suburbs, an aging and shrinking membership and factors including a lack of convenient downtown parking.

"We are closing in June because that is when our savings will be depleted and we will be broke," said the Rev. David Devine, the 30th pastor the church has had.

"We would have loved to have made it to our 100th birthday," he said. "But it would be illogical and ethically wrong for us to take out loans that we would have no way of repaying just to make it to that anniversary date."

It won't be the first downtown Las Vegas church to close. Among others were the First Baptist, which sold its church building to the city, and St. John's Greek Orthodox, which relocated to northwest Las Vegas.

Four different church buildings have stood on the First United Methodist site at Bridger Avenue and Third Street.

In the town's earliest days, it was called simply "the church" because its congregation included Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

The congregation spent three years in a tent before moving in 1908 into a new $12,000 structure.

In 1922, the building burned down. It was rebuilt by 1925 for $30,000, according to church archives. It was rebuilt and expanded in 1952.

The latest building, built in the mid-1960s, is on land valued at about $2 million.

First United's members have included former Las Vegas Mayor C.D. Baker, educator Robert E. Lake and many city pioneers.

The ministry is free of debt, and the sale would give the church members a chance to merge with one of the five local United Methodist offshoots or start a new church elsewhere in the city.

The question is whether the current church structure can be sold as anything but a church. Historical and preservation experts believe it can.

Frank Wright, retired historian for the Nevada State Historical Society and Museum, said there appears to be no historical preservation reason to stop a sale.

"It is difficult to place such restrictions on churches because of the government versus religion issue," he said.

The church is not on the city's register or the national register of historic places, said Frank Fiori, Las Vegas city historical preservation officer.

But if Bain were so insistent on the church standing forever that he would etch it on a brass plaque, could there be a century-old legal document requiring that the site always be a church?

Maybe, Wright said, and such restrictions would be binding.

Fiori agreed.

The Rev. Tom Mattick, United Methodist Church district superintendent, said he didn't believe such a restriction exists, but said a title search will be done.

Devine said wedding chapels and other businesses have expressed interest since the congregation voted Oct. 13 to close and sell the land.

"We'd hate to see it be anything but our church," he said. "But, unfortunately, it could wind up as a parking lot."

In the 1960s, when families inhabited the downtown area, the church had its largest congregation of 850. As the suburbs grew, members joined other branches.

Today, First United has 104 members -- about 60 active -- and the average age of those at Saturday or Sunday services is about 55, Devine said.

"Without families with children, it's just us older people, and a church cannot survive without young members," said Jackie MacFarlane, a First United Methodist member since the early 1950s who drives nearly eight miles from her suburban home to attend weekly services.

"We have nine ladies in their 90s and many in their 80s," she said. "Seniors who are on fixed incomes can only give so much."

Church member Beverly Carlino-Banta sees the closing as a sad time, but also a chance to merge with another church and accomplish so much more as part of a larger congregation.

She said First United Methodist donated more than 1,000 packages of blankets, diapers and other baby supplies this year to needy families.

The church is distributing 40 Thanksgiving turkey food baskets to poor people this week and the church's Tuesday morning women's sewing circle made 150 lap robes this year for people in wheelchairs.

"With the congregation surviving we will be able to continue this work with others to help us," Carlino-Banta said.

"This church may die, but it will be born again with our congregation staying as a body," Devine said. "The building is just a building -- one that we are sad to lose -- but the church is the people."


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