For years, a good-natured religious controversy has simmered in Wichita: Which church is the city’s oldest, First Presbyterian or St. John’s Episcopal?
“The holy war,” as Gary Huffman, archivist at First Presbyterian, puts it, “was fought many years ago and we finally took the trophy.” As proof, Huffman points to the church’s articles of organization, which are dated March 13, 1870. The church will mark its 150th birthday on March 13.
Not so fast, counters Rev. Liz Gomes, associate rector at St. John’s. She says that church’s founder, John Price Hilton, arrived in Wichita in 1869 and began holding services in the home of D.S. Munger.
“It was actually the first church in Wichita,” Gomes said. “This is a long, on-going battle between the churches.” Gomes, who says that she’s “very good friends with Gary Huffman,” concedes that St. John’s wasn’t officially incorporated until after First Presbyterian. St. John’s will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a picnic May 8 at the original site of the Munger House, at Waco and Ninth streets.
What can’t be disputed is that both churches have much to commemorate, as does a third congregation, First United Methodist, which also will turn 150 this year. All three churches predate Wichita, which was officially incorporated as a city in November 1870, and undoubtedly played a civilizing role during its rowdy cowtown era. Today, they remain anchors in a downtown their predecessors wouldn’t recognize.
“It’s fun to be at 150 years, the same as First Presbyterian and St. John’s and the city of Wichita,” said Pastor City Watson of First United. “It’s fun to be part of the beginning.”