By Josette Keelor
Until about seven years ago, the history of Toms Brook United Methodist Church was packed away in suitcases under the church historian's bed.
Gloria Ryman inherited the suitcases when she became historian, and she figured it was about time to start a history committee. About four years ago, she began to sift through it all.
"There were just records and just all kinds of things," she said. "We spent a couple years looking through and then in the process we realized that we hadn't really celebrated our heritage in about, I think they did it 35 years ago."
Now, with the church's 135th anniversary taking place this year, she and other members of the history committee have a challenge for other area residents.
Out there in the community -- in people's closets, under beds, in attics or in family archives -- is information about Toms Brook UMC waiting to be rediscovered.
So on May 4 when the church plans its anniversary celebration, the history and reunion committees invite everyone, members and others, to attend and bring with them whatever information they have about the church, its current or former membership and other tidbits for the book member Connie Broy has been compiling.
The church, which currently boasts a membership of 412, began in 1879 with seven devotees who met in the woods by the former Alms House on the Shenandoah County Farm. The congregation has occupied two other buildings over the years before 1954 when it broke ground on its current home at 326 S. Main St., Toms Brook.
Most of the work and materials for the current church were donated by members or salvaged from the wooden church that previously sat next door on the same property.
According to Ryman, "That was the way that churches got made."
Churches also used to share preachers if they couldn't pay for their own, and she said Toms Brook shared theirs with Mount Olive and Union Forge UMC until it could afford to pay its own in 1989.
The May 4 celebration will start with a coffee hour at 9:15 a.m. before its 10 a.m. worship service with guest speaker Tom Berlin, who was minister for the church in the late 1980s and early '90s. Other former ministers have been asked to speak as well.
Following lunch at 11:45 a.m., a 1:30 p.m. musical showcase will include performances by the church choir, praise band and possible speakers.
"We just hope that everybody will enjoy, visit and just share," Ryman said. "Music is going to be very much a part of it."
Church history will be on display, and event committee members said they hope to learn something from party guests. They also will have access to a scanner that day and can quickly return any photos or documents that people bring them.
A slideshow of photos will rotate through some they already have.
"It started with suitcases, and then we had 15 boxes," Ryman said. "We had lots of photographs ... we had photographs from way back, and that was sort of how we got started."
But as exciting as the process of unearthing the past has been, Ryman said it's also been bittersweet.
"We're losing our members," she said. "One of our members of the history committee, Norma MacInterff, who was very [instrumental] in a lot of the history, just died."
MacInterff's father was a previous Sunday school superintendent, her grandparents were key members in the church, and the committee explained she descended from one of the seven founders.
Before she died, she wrote a preface to the church history that the committee plans to use in the completed book:
"It is because of those who were here before us that we are who we are," she wrote. "If I should have no interest in the church's history why should those who come after us care to know about it!
"We walk on the land that those before us walked with each step we take, we pause to absorb the environment and wonder about them," MacInterff continued.
According to Ryman, "We were working really hard to get this book together for Norma."
"[It's] very important," she said. "This is where it all came from, just trying to preserve this history. ... Because there's so many changes everywhere. In churches, there's lots of changes too."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org