DeKALB – Rick Martha can point to the old nursery room in the basement of First Baptist Church of DeKalb, where he slept as a newborn when his family was attending services upstairs. Like one other family in the congregation, he can trace his lineage back to 1844, when the church formed.
Martha, 70, celebrated the church’s 175th anniversary Nov. 5 with a ribbon-cutting. He was joined by other congregants including his wife, Ruth, 67, and Rosalie Williams, the church choir director, who also grew up in the building.
The anniversary is officially Oct. 15.
“Forty-eight years ago, I got married right up there,” Williams said, pointing to the stage in the sanctuary where an organ donated by barbed wire magnate Jacob Haish sits. “This is my church. Since ’61, I’ve been attending here.”
Williams is not the only one who’s childhood revolved around the church. Rick Martha’s family, along with the Mosher family (who’s descendents, like Joan Mosher, also are members), can trace their roots back to 1844, when 10 people met in a log cabin for a prayer meeting and to discuss establishing a church. They hosted regular services at a school near Route 23 and Barber Greene Road. In 1855, a plat of land at the corner of Third and Prospect streets was donated by one of the Huntley brothers (another famed DeKalb family), and First Baptist Church, 349 S. Third St., was born.
Rick recalled spending time in the youth group rooms, attending Sunday school, taking communion, watching over the grounds as church custodian for more than 30 years, producing a Sunday half-hour radio show on WLBK for 46 years, and now, with his wife, Ruth, serving as one of the church’s historians.
Ruth, who grew up in Harvey, teaches Sunday school and said she views the church as a way to build community and share her faith.
“We think its very important to learn about Jesus and want to become a Christian and a follower of Jesus all your life,” she said. “I grew up in a church, too, but then drifted away in the ’60s and ’70s, then became a serious Christian as a teenager.”
In the 20th century, the church underwent a number of renovations, including additions for a second floor in the sanctuary, a multi-classroom Sunday school space in the basement, a fellowship hall and new kitchen, and new additions to the front entrance, among others.
Many of the original stained glass windows and sanctuary still stand.
During the Great Depression, Ruth said, church-goers took extra steps to try and pay off the building’s debt from its two-story addition.
“During the early years of the Depression, the church men and women bought raw peanuts for roasting,” she said. “They were sold in the community with the proceeds going to a church building debt. Enough money was raised to avoid a foreclosure on the mortgage.”
The congregation, like many in 2019, isn’t what it used to be.
Rick said he can remember a time when almost 200 people came to worship every Sunday, and the halls of the Sunday school downstairs overflowed with children in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, he said, regular attendance is around 40 each week, and the church’s reverend, Dr. Rev. John Peterson, will serve in an interim capacity until new leadership can be found.
Rick said life is fuller now: youth sports, businesses open on Sundays, a shift in priorities.
Still, the Marthas’ sense of pride and ownership in the place is palpable. The church itself is a pinnacle for DeKalb’s history, and their own.
Rick, one of six brothers, got set up on a blind date with Ruth 44 years ago.
“My brother and [Ruth]’s friend from Harvey were dating, so they got us on a blind date,” he said. “Now they’re both married, and we’re both married.”
Rick is reluctant to tell the story, but Ruth interjects and shares they went to Sambo’s restaurant (now the parking lot between Fatty’s and Taco Bell off Lincoln Highway).
“Then we went to Huskie’s Den and played pool,” she said. “And I won.”
Rick said he can’t imagine life without the church.
“It’s hard to say, since I’ve been going to one all my life,” he said. When asked how his life would be different without First Baptist, he said “I hate to think about it.”