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Walla Walla First Congregational marks 150th

By Gwyn Frasco

First Congregational Church, at the corner of Palouse and Alder Streets, is celebrating 150 years of faith and service in the Walla Walla Valley.

It is the oldest Congregational Church in the state of Washington. 

walla walla ucc
Pastors Cecilia McKean, left, and Adam Kirtley with the congregation.
Photo Courtesy of Cecilia McKean

The Civil War was still being fought, and it was only 19 years later after the Whitman Massacre that steps were taken to form a Congregational Church in Walla Walla. 

According to the writings of the first minister the Rev. Peasley Chamberlain:  “From the closing of my labors in Portland in the spring of 1862 on through two succeeding years, my mind in various and somewhat peculiar ways was directed to Walla Walla  as my next field of labor, which resulted in my visiting the place in April 1864.” 

He  moved his family to Walla Walla to establish the church, which was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1864.

The first church meeting house was built on the site of the Pantorium  Building at the corner of Rose and Second Street.  Four years later this building burned and a new one was built. 

A third church was built in January 1900 at the present site.  The land, on the corner of Palouse and Alder, was a gift of Mabel Baker Anderson. 

In 1912, the growing congregation raised funds to build a larger church building, but following the inspiration of their minister, the Rev. Raymond Brooks, the members decided instead to give all their pledged funds to Whitman College to enable the college to relieve its debt crisis and remain in operation in Walla Walla.  

Nevertheless, when fire destroyed their church 10 years later, the congregation was rapidly able to raise the funds to have a new brick church built and dedicated in December 1923. 

That present building, with major interior modifications, was the church’s Parish House. 

Eight years later, the congregation witnessed completion of the present adjacent brick sanctuary building in a New England Congregational style.

Faith and service to the church and the wider Walla Walla community has been strong from the earliest years.  

The Rev. Elvira Cobleigh, the wife of the second Congregational minister in Walla Walla, returned to the East Coast after her husband’s death and raised $10,000 in funds that founded a number of churches in the Walla Walla Valley.  

She became the second woman ordained in the Congregational denomination in 1888, when ordained ministers were almost always men.  

The 1907 report of the church noted that First Congregational Church gave large donations to support small local churches, foreign missions and the new YMCA building. 

In more recent years, First Congregational Church answered the need for more adequate low-cost housing when the Marcus Whitman Homes were built in 1969. 

In the early 1970s, the Rev. Emrys Thomas helped found and staff Pantry Shelf food share.

In 1991, the Revs. Roger and Pat Robbenolt provided meeting space for a number of 12-Step groups that continue to meet today. 

For 20 years, the church provided space for Red Cross blood drawings. 

In 2000, the church voted to become Open and Affirming, welcoming all people wherever they are on their life’s journeys.  

The church has provided space for a homeless shelter and warming center for the homeless.  It regularly serves a free soup lunch on Wednesdays. 

The church has helped support many or Walla Walla’s social service outreach programs.

Many celebrations are planned for First Congregational Church’s 150th anniversary.   Church services in 2014 will reflect the church’s heritage. 

There will be “visits” from historical figures including Revs. Cushing Eells and Elvira Cobleigh, early ministers in the church’s past. 

Many pieces of church history and artifacts are now displayed in the church sanctuary. 

Music has always been an important part of the First Congregational church service. 

A number of hymns sung this year in Sunday services come from an old 1902 hymnal that was rescued when the third church building burned in January 1922 and two pieces of original music are being written for use in the Sunday service. 

An all-church celebration will be held in the fall of 2014.

For information, call 509-240-2494 or email


Copyright © April 2014 - Pacific Northwest United Church News


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