A Short History of
PEOPLE'S CHURCH OF DOVER
United Church of Christ
People's Church was established May 28, 1909 by a group of Methodists who had withdrawn from Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church downtown, when a beloved pastor, the Rev. Dr. Albert W. Lightbourne, was dismissed from the Methodist Episcopal ministry. About three hundred members began worship services in the Dover Opera House across the street. If Wesley was the bishop's church, they chose the name The People's Church. They called Dr. Lightbourne as their pastor and in July, 1909 purchased a lot on South Bradford Street to be the site of the new church. Construction began a short time later; and the cornerstone ceremony was held on Sunday, October 31, when the congregation marched together from the Opera House to the Bradford Street location. The dedication service took place on Sunday, June 5, 1910. People's Church early affiliated with the Southern Convention of the Christian Church (also known as the Christian Connection).
Over the years the original property has undergone great development. In 1916 the undercroft Sunday School space was repaired and the chancel was enlarged by two feet. On April 4, 1916, the congregation voted to buy the Hopkins home on the east side of Bradford Street as a manse for Dr. and Mrs. Lightbourne. At the time of Dr. Lightbourne's death on Wednesday morning, August 2, 1916, the church had grown to a membership of about 800. The "Good Shepherd" stained glass window facing Bradford Street is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Lightbourne.
In February, 1923 the Official Board voted to initiate a campaign to raise $30,000 for a church school building. The then pastor, Dr. Roy Helfenstein, sought the help of Mr. Eldredge R. Johnson, formerly of Dover, who had developed the Victor Talking Machine; and Mr. Johnson gave an additional $70,000 to make the church school building a Community Center large enough for a departmental Sunday School and a community recreational program. The Mission Board of the Southern Convention of the Christian Church provided $5,000 for furniture and supplies for the chapel, and the Primary and Junior departments. Mr. Johnson also gave the Memorial Tower Chimes in memory of his father, Asa Johnson. The church school building was dedicated October 5 - 10, 1924. During the construction process it was found that the original church building needed extensive remodeling and alterations. The sanctuary was practically rebuilt, the front entrances were removed, the Memorial Tower was added, and a new front entrance was built into the Tower. The total cost of the 1924 project was estimated at $135,000 plus the Chimes and the Stone Memorial Tablet (frieze) on the tower, which says "People's Christian Church." Mr. Johnson later facilitated the purchase of the properties on either side of the church and the removal of the houses to provide a church lawn reaching to the corner of Bradford and Reed Streets.
A new church manse was built in 1925 on Hazel Road, to replace the South Bradford Street home. The Hazel Road manse was sold in August, 1979, and since that time ministers have been provided a housing allowance to purchase their own homes.
On May 3, 1931, St. Luke's Christian Church of Dover, led by the Rev. R. S. Stephens, merged with People's Christian Church under Dr. Helfenstein. Later the same year the General Convention of the Christian Church entered into formal union with the National Council of Congregational Churches (the Pilgrims) to form the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. People's Congregational Christian Church of Dover continued to be a part of the Southern Convention of the new denomination.
During the 1930's and 1940's, during the pastorates of the Rev. Roscoe Metzger and the Rev. William Edge, People's Church was a recreational center for the whole community. The only bowling alley and one of only two movie theaters in Dover were both in People's Church. Many couples met, fell in love and married here. Also during these years there were active church organizations: the Young Men's Bible Class, a church band, a youth group, a choir and a Sunday School program. The church sustained in prayer its young men who served in all branches of military service during the Second World War, and kept a book each page of which honors one of these men.
In 1954 a major capital fund drive under the leadership of the Rev. Robert Duke made possible a renovation of the sanctuary. The seating plan was changed to provide a center aisle, and the chancel was enclosed and rearranged. Two stain glass windows at the front of the sanctuary were removed for the expansion of the chancel. During these years all the programs of the church grew and prospered including a large Sunday School and a strong Youth Group. May 24 and 31, 1959 People's Church celebrated its fiftieth anniversary: The Rev. Dr. James Lightbourne Sr., second son of the first pastor, and Rhode Island conference minister, preached; and the congregation rededicated the church for service to God and humankind.
In 1957 the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches formally united with the General Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. Congregational Christian churches were given the Plan of Union and asked to vote whether to enter the United Church or not. People's Church gladly became People's Church of Dover, United Church of Christ. The church now became part of the Chesapeake Association, within the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC.
The Rev. John Peace, an excellent preacher and educator, served as the pastor during the troubled era of the Vietnam War. Already during the pastorates of the Rev. Donald MacCallum and the Rev. George Higgins in the 1960's and 1970's the neighborhood around the church had begun to change. When the Rev. Emmanuel Hedgebeth came to serve as pastor in 1973 the church gave formal consideration to selling the South Bradford Street property and building a new church outside downtown; but the majority of the congregation felt that the church's mission and ministry belong near downtown Dover, so the church stayed and continued to be engaged with the community. Rev. Hedgebeth's commitment to both social justice and the life of the Chesapeake Association and the Central Atlantic Conference made these years a time of strength. The Rev. Edwin Middleton, Jr. became the pastor in 1983, and during his ministry there was a strong emphasis on youth work and caring ministries to one another. The third floor office suite was replaced by a larger main floor office suite in the remodeled northwest corner of the education building. In 1988 a new twenty-eight rank Wick's pipe organ was installed in the church-one of the two largest pipe organs on the Eastern Shore. Also as a result of a memorial gift from long-time member Gilbert Reynolds, the eighteen note Deagan Chime system in the Bell Tower was restored and played its joyous music again in November, 1994.
In 1996 the Rev. Kevin Gilliam became the pastor. His emphases were youth and young adult ministry, and evangelism. During his pastorate the Central Atlantic Conference recognized People's Church as the fastest growing church in the Conference. In the year 2000 the church property underwent a nearly complete remodeling. In 2002 the Rev. Dan Griggs became the pastor of People's Church. His ministry has emphasized worship and learning, the empowerment of the various boards of lay leadership, and "A Ministry of Health and Healing."
At the church's centennial celebration the identity of The People's Church of Dover, United Church of Christ, emphasized three aspects: worship, hospitality and healing. On May 17, 2009 Associate Conference Minister Rev. Patricia Barth was the guest preacher, and the Delaware Choral Society presented a dedicatory concert. The Rev. George Higgins preached at the May 24, 2009 continuation of the centennial celebration, the 1909 cornerstone was opened and replaced, and the church was rededicated for service to God and humankind.
The Pastors of People's Church of Dover
1909 - The Rev. Dr. Albert W. Lightbourne
1916 - The Rev. Victor Lightbourne
1920 - The Rev. Dr. Roy C. Helfenstein
1939 - The Rev. Roscoe F. Metzger
1943 - The Rev. William F. Edge
1952 - The Rev. Robert W. Duke
1961 - The Rev. Donald J. MacCallum
1967 - The Rev. George B. Higgins
1971 - The Rev. John Peace
1973 - The Rev. Emmanuel S. Hedgebeth
1983 - The Rev. H. Edwin Middleton, Jr.
1996 - The Rev. Kevin L. Gilliam
2002 - The Rev. Dr. W. Daniel Griggs
2015 - The Rev. Ellen Witko