Steilacoom’s Oberlin Church turns 125

By Nancy Covert

Several years ago, as meal preparations were underway for a traditional Easter Sunrise Breakfast at Steilacoom’s historic church, the electricity unexpectedly went off! Fortunately, the unplanned power outage (due to a circuit overload) was quickly resolved. Over time the details of that long-ago spring mishap became folded into the evolving, sometimes happy – sometimes poignant history of a local place of worship.

That memory, told by Betty Loverin, was one of many recollections shared at a March 1 assembly of members from Oberlin Congregational Church at ceremonies starting a yearlong commemoration of the church’s 1883 founding.

As rosy hues of a wintry sunset cast reflections through the fellowship hall’s windows, more than 100 members took part in the early evening festivities that featured one of its renowned potluck dinners and a program showcasing reminiscences about times past.

According to Steilacoom historian Joan Curtis, the first church stood near the intersection of Rainier and Puyallup Streets, high on the hill. It originally was a Presbyterian Church but was left empty when the congregation moved out.

With the muddy streets of the area, women of the church frequently discovered the bottoms of their long dresses were soiled so pushed for a new church in a better location. Ultimately funds were raised to build the structure on Lafayette Street. Interestingly, according to Curtis, the old church was taken apart and materials utilized in construction of the new building.

This second church was used from 1902-1961 and is now home of the Steilacoom Tribal Cultural Center and Museum. The third – and current – church structure, dedicated in 1961, is located on Rainier St.

Twenty-seven pastors have guided the congregation during its 125 years in Steilacoom, from Arthur T. Burnell in 1883 to Alvin Helms who was called to serve in 1998 and remains as current pastor.

Highlights of the weekend program included church historian Joan Curtis’ recap of Oberlin’s early history, a slideshow of historical photos, and a video about church history. The video presentation, interspersed with a selection of favored hymns, covered the periods of 1900-1950, 1950-1975- 1975-2000 and 2000-08.