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Historic church lives on

Man works on belfry of historic church.

This historic 157-year-old building spent much of its life storing hops and livestock. But it once was a church and now it is a church once more, thanks to a heroic restoration effort.

For Herald-Palladium

POKAGON, Mich. — Molly Shaffer still gets a little teary-eyed every time she walks through The Old Rugged Cross Church in Pokagon.

Not only does the beloved hymn hold special meaning for her from her childhood, the church represents decades of dedicated restoration efforts by her and other volunteers.

Molly Shaffer with historic photos of the church.
Molly Shaffer stands in the museum at The Old Rugged Cross Church in Pokagon with pictures of the restoration and her book detailing the project and the hymn that inspired it. ~ courtesy Debra Haight / HP correspondent

Shaffer has captured what the hymn and the church mean to her in a new book, “‘The Old Rugged Cross’ Lives On.” The 488-page book details the history of the hymn, the building and the efforts to restore the 157-year-old building over the last two decades. “When we would be giving tours of the church,” she said, “we’d tell stories about the building and our experiences, and people would say they hoped we were writing everything down.

“We’ve had cases where people tell a story back to us that we had forgotten, and other times when people were telling the wrong stories,” she added. “I thought it was time to get the story told as to what really happened. I wanted to document what happened, and the people who helped make it happen.

“The more I got into it, the more rewarding it became,” Molly said. “I asked others how to proceed, and they said to just sit down and start writing, and to write it in a conversational manner. I tried to get the passion into the book. Hopefully, people will laugh and cry in places. There’s been a lot of tears and a lot of laughter.”

Old Rugged Barn

The restored church building at 61041 Vermont St., about halfway between Dowagiac and Niles, is where the Rev. George Bennard’s hymn was first publicly performed in 1913.

Bennard, an Albion, Mich. minister, was visiting the area to take part in a series of revivals. While at the church, he finished writing the hymn for its public debut during the revival.

Shaffer can remember singing the song from the time she was a child.

Old Rugged Church
Before and After. From 1915 to 1998 the building was used as a livestock barn. Fundraising began in 1998 and today the church stands in restored glory, a story of resurrection.

“It’s one of the first two songs I ever memorized as a child along with ‘In the Garden,’” she said. “I grew up in Lebanon, Indiana, and we would have big hymn sings. I’d stand up and sing it at the top of my lungs.” 

Her involvement with The Old Rugged Cross church building began in the late 1970s when she and her husband, Robert, joined the nearby Pokagon United Methodist Church. They began learning about the church across the street, which at that point was a dilapidated barn.        

 The building was constructed in 1862, to be a hops barn, and was converted into a church in 1876. It was sold in 1915, to a local farmer, two years after the famous hymn was sung there. The farmer converted it back to a barn – this time for livestock after the sanctuary floor was removed. It fell into disrepair in the following decades and ended up vacant.

The Shaffers bought the barn in 1998, and formed The Old Rugged Cross Foundation to raise money to restore it.

That effort brought in more than $1 million to completely restore the building, which is now on the state and federal registries of historic places. “We did any fundraiser we could think of, and we learned as we went,” Shaffer said. “Now we have just one big fundraiser each year with a spaghetti supper and silent auction each October at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Niles.”

Her book details everything from the history of the hymn and the church to the fundraisers, including a 2006 Sandi Patti concert at Andrews University and the building restoration work.

She credits the transformation to the dedication of volunteers and the contractors they’ve worked with, including Dale Layman of Berrien Springs and Wardell Art Glass Studio of Aurora, Ill.

Those interesting in touring the church, or buying the book, can call 683-4540 or visit The book is $84.80.

Hymn Sing at Old Rugged Cross Church.
Hymn Sings in the Old Rugged Cross Church always close with the Lord’s Prayer and the signature favorite by George Bennard.

The church hosts interdenominational hymn sings twice a month from May through early December, concerts twice a month, Good Friday services, and rentals for weddings, funerals, and other gatherings.

“We close every hymn sing with ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and the Lord’s Prayer,” Shaffer said. “It never gets old to hear it. It just means a lot.”

~ Reprinted with permission of the author. This story first appeared August 18, 2019 in the Herald-Palladium, a newspaper serving counties in Southwest Michigan. Photos courtesy of the Facebook page of the Old Rugged Cross Church.

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