As the dusty “gateway to the West” started in 1854, Omaha needed services. Hotels, saloons, restaurants and brothels soon opened up throughout downtown. One of the most important services to the young city were churches, and among the earliest were the Methodists. This is a history of the Seventeenth Street Methodist Church.
The first-ever sermon preached by a Methodist minister in Omaha was delivered by Rev. J. Harrison Presson (1816-1912) on April 21, 1850, when he shared a sermon with a large colony on their way to the Pacific Coast as they camped on the future site of Omaha.
The Methodists offered the first religious services in the newly founded Omaha City in 1854. Rev. Peter Cooper (1778-1870), an Englishman from Council Bluffs, led the first service on August 13th that year. The owner of a rock quarry in early Omaha, Rev. Cooper preached to about 25 people at the St. Nicholas Hotel. His audience included many important people in early Omaha, including A.D. Jones and A.J. Poppleton.
Rev. Isaac F. Collins (1819-1862) was sent to the Omaha City Mission from Arkansas later that year, and in 1856 he became the first minister of the first Methodist church built in Omaha.
On December 5, 1856, Rev. Moses F. Shinn preached the first sermon in the new Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church at 210 South 13th Street. Shinn was a prolific church starter who opened several churches afterwards, including the Second Methodist Episcopal Church and the Eighteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1856, the First Methodist Church was built on 213 South 13th Street between Douglas and Farnam, and was the second church of any kind built in Omaha. In 1858 and 1860, the church grew in size and needed more room, and as the church grew and changed, there were a few attempts to build better churches.
One of them was the Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church located on North 17th Street, which was primarily called the Seventeenth Street Methodist Church.
Originally planning to build on a small lot on North 13th Street, the church was eventually constructed on a larger lot on North 17th Street at Capitol Avenue instead, where First National Bank is today. It was the year of Nebraska statehood, and optimism was high in young Omaha.
Built in 1867, the new Seventeenth Street Church was located between on North 17th Street on a large lot between Dodge Street and Capital Avenue in the middle of the block. Seating “about 475 people,” the building cost $20,000 to construct. The structure was 32 feet wide by 70 feet long, with a sub-basement divided into Sunday School rooms, a lecture room, and an office. “Almost the whole area of the third floor” was an “audience room” with cherry pews, a desk, table and chairs at the pulpit, and a small gallery at the front end by the stairs to the second floor. Four tall spires stood on the front of the building and four large chimneys heated the building in the winter. It was made of brick and had a shingle roof. The bell in the church was originally bought in 1857. A new parsonage was built by winter 1968 too. The contractors for the building were a Mr. Barringer, carpentry; John Withnell, brickwork; and Marston and Clark, painters.
The Sunday School was the most successful activity of the church to that point. With more than 265 “scholars” attending, there were three teachers along with Samuel Burns, Sr. (1838-1914), who was the superintendent of the Sunday School from 1867 to 1876. In 1872, a report said there were 667 students in the school, and donations were skyrocketing. Burns’ influence and leadership were apparently felt for decades after he left the position.
In 1877, the church trustees panicked and sold the church. Looking at debts owed by the church and speculation about a looming economic depression, they did a “fire sale” that included the church, the two-story parsonage next door, and the large quarter block lot everything sat on. The last service was held there on July 8, 1877.
In a history report from 1892, the author wrote “But excluding us from the Seventeenth Street place of worship was the most serious mishap that ever took over this already venerable organization, not along because of the loss of all its property, but the impairing of the credit of the Church was much in the way of future efforts.”
Later that year, the rest of the block was demolished to make room for a new commercial block being built. Called Hitchcock’s Row, which stood until 1894. That year, the old church building and the commercial block were demolished.
Worshipping in a small wooden building at 17th and Davenport Streets, it was four more years before they replaced that building.
Leaders of the congregation built the large First Methodist Episcopal Church with plans by architect Charles F. Driscoll (1841-1929) at North 20th and Davenport and dedicated it in 1891. Today, Omaha’s First United Methodist Church continues at North 70th and Cass Streets in a building from 1955.
There is no historical plaque or other marker for the location of the second Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church located at North 17th and Capital Avenue from 1867 to 1877.
Early Omaha Methodist Ministers
- Rev. J. William Presson (1816-1912) — First documented sermon in the Omaha area on April 21, 1851
- Rev. Peter Cooper (1778-1870) — Preached in Omaha, 1854
- Rev. Dr. Isaac Collins — Preached in Omaha, 1855 to 1856; Preached in Florence, 1856
- Rev. Moses F. Shinn — Preached the first sermon in the Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church at 210 South 13th Street on December 5, 1856 and opened several churches afterwards
- Rev. H.W. Davis, D.D. — Minister, Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862
- Rev. W.M. Smith — Minister, Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862 to 1863
- Rev. T.B. Lemon — Minister, Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church, 1863 to 1865
- Rev. W.M. Smith — Minister, Omaha Methodist Episcopal Church, 1865 to 1866
- Rev. Dr. William Slaughter (1822-1879) — Minister, Seventeenth Street Church, 1866 to 1868
- Rev. H.C. Westward — Minister, Seventeenth Street Church, 1869 to 1870
- Rev. Gilbert De La Matyr — Minister, Seventeenth Street Church, 1870
- Rev. H.D. Fisher — Minister, Seventeenth Street Church, 1877