Buried memories

Michelle Seeber

The old First United Methodist Church of Portales, where services first were held when it was only half a basement and later became a three-story building, will always be remembered by its ministers and members.
Recently demolished for about $145,000, the church — now replaced by a new one at the intersection of South C Avenue and Second Street — holds many fond memories for one of its oldest members, 84-year-old Dorthy Sparks.
“It was my life,” Sparks said Friday in her home in Portales. “I raised my children there — six girls. It was always there for my children from Sunday schools to church camps.”
Sparks, a diaconal minister emeritus of the church, joined the congregation about 1950, she said. Though her title is one of Christian education, she also knows about the demolished building’s history.
“The torn-down church was started in a basement,” she said. “In 1929, (church members) dug a basement while meeting in stores, a theater and people’s homes. They finished the basement in 1936. They built the shell of the church over it, but were unable to finish during (most of) the (Great) Depression.

“They used big horses and drays to dig it,” she said. “The congregation wanted a woman to drive the team (while the basement was being created). The minister’s wife was afraid to do it, so Mrs. L.L. Brown helped do it.”
Brown, Sparks said, was a member of the Women’s Missionary Society.
“Anytime they needed something done, the women did it,” she said.
It was the women – each carrying a brick – who went forward during one of the church’s first services and told members of the congregation to donate bricks until they had enough to construct a building.
“Of course, that was symbolic,” Sparks said.
Despite their efforts, it wasn’t until 1937 when the church’s interior was complete, and it wasn’t until 1938 when the building’s dedication took place on land that came for $1 from the Pecos Railway Construction and Land Co.
With the help of the women, by the time 1959 arrived, the much-needed educational building was constructed, and in 1965, the church parsonage was built.
The current pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Portales, Rev. Harry Riser, said the old church had its “own atmosphere and spirit.”
“There were certainly long-standing relationships because of that building,” he said.
Riser said the new church was built “because the more we looked at it, the more it became apparent that we needed the space. It was a classic old building that reflected a lot of history of the churches of that time.”
Despite its good aspects, however, there were also bad ones.
The old church lacked entrance ways for the handicapped, and they were impossible to build because of the church’s foundation, Riser explained. It also lacked exits and other requirements that finally led to the decision to tear it down.
Dave Russell, chairman of the church’s Stewardship Committee, organized campaigns to pay for demolition of the old church and construction of the new one. He said to upgrade the old church would have been prohibitive.
“In 1991 or 1992 we were talking about doing something to bring (the old building) up to code, and we were talking about (a cost of) $1.5 million,” Russell said. “That was before handicapped access.”
Russell, himself a lifelong member of the church, said his parents married in the old building. He was baptized in it. Later, he married in it and baptized his children in it.
Russell remembers the time a truck driver on his CB radio was broadcast by the old church’s PA system.
“A trucker said, ‘Hey, how’s it going down there?’” Russell said. “If I’d been on my toes, I’d have stood up and said, ‘We’re doing fine, God.’”
The Rev. Don Holladay, a former pastor who is now director of the Wesley Foundation at Eastern New Mexico University and an associate professor of religion, said he preached in the old building from 1988 to 1993.
“CB radios were always coming over the PA system,” Holladay said.
His history with the building included attending it as a youth, serving as a seminary intern there in the 1970s, then pastoring there.
“You try to remember people in the balcony who fell over the top,” he said of his years there. “Fortunately, that never happened.”