CORINNE, Box Elder County — For Brett Merkley, entering the old Methodist Episcopal Church is like stepping into a frontier church of an old Western movie.
The simple one-story brick chapel is lined with wooden pews and hymnals. Light shines through the stained-glass windows. A small pulpit and pump organ stand at the front of the chapel beneath a life-size painting of Jesus, the good shepherd with his flock. In the back of the chapel there’s a potbelly stove and a rope ascending to a bell tower.
“I love old Westerns and I feel like this is just like a piece right out of history,” Merkley said. “I travel back in time when I walk in here. It even has that old smell.”
The Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1870 and is said to be the first Methodist church in Utah. A sign out front also declares it to be the “oldest existing Protestant Church building” in the state. It’s been a landmark in the community for more than a century, said Merkley, the mayor of Corinne.
“If you look around Corinne, there’s very little left that reflects our history. This church is one that does,” Merkley said. “The city is excited to have it and try to bring it to life again so it lasts and is preserved for the future.”
The Methodist Episcopal Church was recently donated to the city with the understanding that it would be preserved, said Merkley, who has served as the city’s mayor for six years now.
Pastor Dave Sauer of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Brigham City is involved and is glad to see the historic house of worship will be preserved.
“We are in a time as a society that we forget our heritage as a nation and state. This state was built on the shoulders of men and women, of many backgrounds, races, faiths, beliefs and values. Churches have always played an integral part of the growth of Utah, and regardless of the religious denomination, each church helped form values in each person and family,” Pastor Sauer said. “The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Corinne played such a role in starting in the 1870’s. The town was full of saloons, brothels, and businesses. The Corinne church and other new churches in Corinne provided stability and a respite for a wild west town.”
Once renovated, the building will be used for community events such as weddings and musical programs. The city hopes to secure funding through state historical grants, the mayor said.
It’s going to be at least a five-year project. The roof and bell tower need repairs, along with the brick and mortar exterior and foundation. The plans also call for adding a kitchen and some bathrooms to a small structure behind the church.
“I think our history is fascinating and I don’t want to lose that,” Merkley said. “This (project) is a good chance for us to step back and recognize the value of where we came from, our history, and not forget those lessons learned.”
Corinne was founded by people who were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about six weeks before the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869. Polygamy was banned. The “Gentile Capital of Utah” quickly grew to have thousands of residents, along with an opera house, a gold smelter, the state’s first Masonic lodge, banks, saloons and brothels, the Deseret News reported.
Within a year it also had a church. The Methodist Episcopal church was dedicated on Sept. 20, 1870, and L.C. Damon was the first pastor, according to USU Digital History Collections.
Attendance at the church dwindled during the first two decades as ministers traveled to preach to different congregations along the Wasatch Front.
By 1892, the church was in bad condition with “glass nearly all broken, floor torn up, plastering off, seats gone,” the history records. “By the blessing of God we have been able to repair it at a cost of $350, all of which has been paid by the good people of Corinne.”
Electric lights were installed in 1915 when the church hit its peak enrollment of 127 souls.
The church’s last religious services were held in 1957. In the mid 1990s, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Corinne Historical Society agreed to use the building as a museum.
Over the years members of the community have pooled resources at various times to keep the building from falling apart, Merkley said.
“This has been a good community effort for a long time, but unfortunately a lot of the people who started that have passed away,” Merkley said. “It’s a good time for us to come in and preserve this little piece of history.”