Celebrating 60 Years: A History of the First Christian Church, Part 3
by Lynne Rostochil
This is the third and final installment on the history of the iconic First Christian Church. Construction was completed just in time for Christmas services in 1956, and it was time to open the giant egg to the congregation and a very curious public.
On its opening day on December 23, 1956, nearly 3,000 people — both within and outside the congregation — filed into the church…
… and filled the comfortable theater-style seats, crammed the aisles in the sanctuary, and even packed the giant dining room to listen to Reverend Bill Alexander’s inaugural sermon (which was broadcast over the PA system for people outside the sanctuary):
Here’s an excerpt of the dedication program from that long-ago service:
Afterward, members and guests got to tour the shiny new complex. Let’s travel back in time and take the tour ourselves — here are a couple of images of the exterior:
The church was perhaps the first in the country to install escalators, something that shocked the old fogies, delighted the young, and confounded many others:
Parishioner Bob Axworthy, who joined the congregation the very day the church was dedicated, recalls that people lined up to ride down the escalators after Alexander’s service. Once at the bottom, many gathered at the escalator landing to chat, which bottle-necked the process and led to subsequent riders barreling into the them like speeding bowling balls crashing into vulnerable pins.
Pow! Crash! Strrrrr-ike!
I have to giggle at the thought of perfectly coiffed men and women flying, flailing, and crashing together in one giant pile up at the base of the escalator. Bob, who had obviously ridden an escalator or two, stopped more people from boarding the moving deathtrap, helped stunned guests to their feet, and instructed everyone to move away from the escalator after they got off. Order was restored!
On with tour — check out the lovely sanctuary:
The organ pipes were installed on either side of the altar, which caused all kinds of acoustical problems. Each side battled the other to be heard, which ultimately resulted in the pipes being moved together a few years later.
Back downstairs was the hall to the offices and library:
How amazing is that UFO light fixture? Sadly, all of those are gone now. Here’s a close-up of the altar:
I love everything about Bill Alexander’s office, don’t you? Those curtains — wow!
The tapered conference table was made especially for this small meeting room. It and the chairs are still at the church but have been moved to the archive room.
The conference table and the recovered chairs now:
Love this office space — it might have been Don Sheridan’s:
The Jewel Box Theatre — and, yes, many of those chairs are still around on the church campus today:
The downstairs chapel:
One of the music rooms in the Education wing:
Another music room:
The dining room could be configured in a variety of ways to allow for multiple uses:
And last but not least, the industrial-sized kitchen:
“The Church of Tomorrow” was finally a reality and Conner’s futuristic design quickly became a beloved icon throughout the state and was even lauded in such national publications as Newsweek, Architectural Record, and Life:
Over the next three years, the congregation continued to grow and the church was happy. Here, Alexander chats with parishioners after a service in the late 1950s:
All of that happiness abruptly halted on a murky spring evening in 1960.
After morning services on Sunday, April 3, Alexander returned to his office and he and his secretary began going through his mail. According to the First Christian Church’s Centennial Book:
The first letter was from a father of a young man raised in First Christian whose marriage ceremony he had performed not long before. The letter, in part, read, “The First Christian Church, and you personally, Bill, have meant a great deal to our little family. It has given us the kind of church home that we were never quite able to find, and which we had sought for so long….” The next item in the mail was a clipping from an Illinois paper where Rev. Bill had spoken the week before at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. According to the reporter, … “Alexander … was a big burly man who held that there is ‘a lot of religion in laughter.'”
That afternoon, the Reverend and his wife, Mary Louise, arrived at the Downtown Airpark and boarded a chartered twin engine Aero Commander like this one:
The couple and their frequent pilot, Jimmy Shuman, took off at 1:00 p.m. and headed for Hershey, PA, where Alexander was the featured speaker at a three-day conference of school administrators. After a brief stopover for refueling, the plane was approaching the Harrisburg airport at 8:20 p.m. in light rain and fog when trouble began. Perhaps mistaking a well-lit parking lot for an airport runway, Shuman descended much too low and, according to the Oklahoman, “The aircraft hit a fence post and tree five miles south, southwest of the airport. Landing gear parts were found near the fence posts and a portion of the wing tip was found near the base of the tree.” The crippled plane slammed into the parking lot at Irwin’s Dairy, coming to rest against a milk truck. It was over in a matter of seconds and as quiet once again settled in the dairy parking lot, it was obvious that there were no survivors:
Alexander was just 45 years old and at the height of his extraordinary career when he died. Mary Louise was just 36:
Luckily, Shuman narrowly missed a neighborhood of homes and busy Route 15, as you can see in this Googlemaps shot of the area and the parking lot where they crashed:
News of the crash spread quickly back home in OKC, shocking friend and foe alike. It seemed impossible to think that this larger-than-life man was gone, but reality set in when the church was once again packed to the rafters, this time for Alexander’s funeral, which was touted as one of the largest in the Metro’s history:
With the passing of Alexander, Don Sheridan became the interim minister while the congregation began a search for a new minister for the first time in nearly two decades. Many wanted Sheridan to ascend to his old friend and partner’s position as pastor, but the aging man felt that the job was too big for him and he declined. Soon, the church settled on Dr. Walter MacGowan of the Euclid Avenue Christian Church in Cleveland.
Sadly, Alexander didn’t live long enough to see the rest of his dream for the “Church of Tomorrow” — the Youth Center — come true, but in one last gesture of his love for the church’s kids, Alexander’s life insurance payout went straight to the fund for the William H. “Bill” Alexander Memorial Youth Center, which was designed by Fred Pojezny. Here are a couple of images of the groundbreaking ceremonies in January 1961 in which Alexander’s son, Don, spoke:
Construction of the $261,000 youth center went quickly and the building was dedicated in November 1961:
Here are a few photos of the building when it was new:
Plans were to eventually add a pool and bowling alley, but that never happened. However, a statue of Alexander was also dedicated when the building opened in 1961. Presented by Frank Buttram and created by Keating Donahoe, the nine-foot statue of the minister recalled his famous words, “Teach Them to Live.” Here’s the statue today:
And the Youth Center in 2008 as it was being readied for a new tenant, the Trinity School:
Sadly, the heartbreak wasn’t over for the congregation. Just a year after the dedication of the Youth Center, the church’s beloved grandfather, Don Sheridan, died after a two-year battle with cancer. According to the Centenniel Book, “The love which came from his relationship with God spilled over and touched thousands of other lives. He wanted no lengthy or grand eulogies and yet many, myriad words could be spoken in response to his life. A void was created which was deeply felt by those who knew and loved him, but his ministry continued in the lives of all he touched. His wisdom was sought. His love was given. His life was poured out for all of First Christian.” The two friends sit side by side in the library today:
In 1965, a memorial was dedicated to this beloved minister — here is a photo of Sheridan’s family next to the memorial after the dedication:
Love the finned Caddy in the background!
Soon after Sheridan’s death, the church was rocked again when MacGowan left for a pastorate in St. Louis. Perhaps the pressure to fill Alexander’s giant shoes was just too much for him…. He was replaced by James Clayton Pippin. During Pippin’s tenure, the Oklahoma Disciples Center, which was designed by Fred Pojezny and built in 1964, completed the First Christian Church campus:
The Disciples Center today:
In 1970 as an answer to the new busing mandates, Heritage Hall first opened its doors in rented space on the First Christian Church campus. It was a controversial move and resulted in several protests and the church being censured in a regional gathering of the denomination, according to the Centennial Book.
Pippin resigned as head minister in 1972. After a decade of loss and many changes, Bill Alexander’s son, Don took over the pulpit and settled in for a reign that lasted three decades. His steady leadership and affable personality brought many new members to the lively church.
As for the church itself, Pojezny made changes to the sanctuary in the 1960s to improve the acoustics…
and updated the chapel, now renamed the Replogle Chapel in honor of a church member, in 1978. He added a stunning stained glass wall behind the pulpit and comfy theater seating. Here’s a rendering of the stained glass window Pojezny designed:
The chapel stained glass now:
For years, the First Christian Church remained a vital part of our community doing such things as sponsoring one of the city’s first Mother’s Day Out programs, hosting countless productions at the Jewel Box Theatre, and opening its doors to victims’ families, survivors, and other mourners after the Oklahoma City Bombing. On the 20th anniversary of the bombing, the Oklahoma Gazette interviewed Don Alexander about that tragic time and the role the church played in helping the community — it’s a very interesting and heartfelt article and you can read it here.
But, after Don Alexander’s sudden departure in 2002, a slew of ministers took over the helm and the congregation fled in droves, leaving just a few stalwart elderly members behind. By 2013, the aging, increasingly diminishing, and even crotchety congregation was on its last legs.
That’s when Pastors John Malget and Michael Canada came on board and vowed to revitalize the church in a way that Bill Alexander would surely approve. The two energetic men have enthusiastically reinvented the congregation as the Restoration Church and are working, much as Alexander did back in that small and failing church in Stroud, to entice young and old alike to join in on the Sunday fun and create a new “church of tomorrow.”
The First Christian church in its new incarnation as the Restoration Church
Here’s to their success and to the First Christian/Restoration Church living on for decades to come.
I’d like to thank Pastors John Malget and Michael Canada for allowing me to borrow several items from the First Christian Church archives to scan and share with the Mod Squad. I’m still scanning images and documents from the church’s rich history and will share them with you soon.