Natural disasters. Economic crises. A fast-moving, ever-changing society.
Thomas United Methodist Church (UMC) has faced it all during its lengthy history and continues to endure.
That’s because its members are “very tenacious,” according to Pastor Carol Middel, who has led the little church at 504 First St. since 2017.
“They are very committed to making this work,” she said.
That was abundantly clear on Sunday morning as Thomas UMC celebrated a milestone – its 125th anniversary.
“Thomas has seen its (share of) ups and down over the years. Trials and tribulations have come and gone . . . people have come and gone, but Thomas United Methodist remains strong,” said Pat Brauer, chairperson of the celebration committee, as she read from a written church history specially prepared for the big event.
During the celebration, church members reflected on the past, talked about the present and looked forward to the future.
“You are the next generation,” Middel said as she addressed a small group of youngsters during the children’s service.
“It’s going to be important to you, and to us, that you make sure this church is here another 25 years from now and that you are spreading the love that Jesus has taught us as Christians.”
For those who may not be familiar with it, Thomas UMC derives its name from its location.
Thomas is a little unincorporated village tucked away in northern Oxford Township, just east of M-24, near the Lapeer County line.
Following the construction of the Detroit and Bay City railroad in the 19th century, there was a need for a station and other facilities in the northern part of the township. The result was Thomas with its large hotel, general store, grain elevator, train depot and steam gristmill. Thomas became quite the bustling place.
When Thomas UMC was founded in 1893, it didn’t have a traditional church building, so its members gathered in Grange Hall.
They worshipped there until May 25, 1896 when a devastating tornado – or cyclone, as it was referred to back then in the local media – ripped through the little village .
“Homes and barns, churches and stores literally exploded,” according to “History of Northeast Oakland County,” written by Richard A. Young and published in 1976. “Shattered beams were found miles from their building sites. Huge trees were spun until they snapped like twisted celery stalks.”
Everything in Thomas and Oakwood – another little unincorporated village at the juncture of Oxford and Brandon townships – was “completely destroyed.” The villages were “not rebuilt as commercial centers.”
Grange Hall’s four walls and roof were obliterated, but that did not stop church members from gathering there for weekly worship.
“The floor of the building was left intact and the following Sunday evening services were held on that floor with the sky as a roof,” according to the Thomas UMC history.
Following the disaster, Thomas UMC’s leadership and members went to work. By early December 1896, a new church building was completed and dedicated.
It still stands there today as a testament to the members’ faith, determination, cooperation and hard-working spirit.
Over the years, Thomas UMC never shirked its responsibility to lend a helping hand.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, there was a point when the church could barely afford to pay its pastor. One year, he had to survive on just $50. But the congregation came to his aid by supplementing his meager pay with fruits and vegetables they had grown.
But Thomas UMC doesn’t just take care of its own. It has developed a strong partnership with Oxford-Orion FISH, a local nonprofit that’s been providing free food to those who need it since 1973.
Year in and year out, Thomas UMC collects everything from groceries to school supplies to money for FISH.
Its biggest gift came in 2005, when the church sold its 1,800-square-foot former community hall, built in 1949, to FISH for the token sum of $1. Ever since, the building has served as FISH’s food pantry.
“What a gift you folks made (to) this organization,” said FISH President Laurene Baldwin, speaking from the pulpit during the anniversary celebration.
To show FISH’s gratitude for all Thomas UMC has done, and continues to do, Baldwin presented the church with a “hospitality award” from the group’s board of directors.
“I just want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” she said. “I always say of FISH, we’re only as good as our community makes us and Thomas, you have made us look really great.”
Part of what makes Thomas UMC so unique, according to Middel, is that its pews are “filled with family.”
“They’re all related to each other,” she said. “Most of the people who are coming right now, at one time, one of their ancestors lived in the little community of Thomas.”
For some folks, journeying to Thomas to attend the weekly 10:30 a.m. Sunday service is a family tradition that transcends geography and convenience.
“People have moved on and out of the community, (but) they’re stilling coming back,” Middel said. “It’s just a really nice, warm, inviting place to be on Sunday morning.”
The church currently has approximately 70 members and the weekly service has an average of about 25 to 30 people in attendance.
Middel characterized Thomas UMC as a place where people can hear “the positive teachings that Jesus had for us – the love-thy-neighbor concept – not the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament.”
“I tell people this is the kind of church that Jesus would want to be at on a Sunday morning. That’s what we are striving for,” she said.