Their church’s doors have permanently closed following more than a century of ministry, but the members’ minds retain an optimism and their spirits remain high.
The last three surviving members of Milltown United Methodist Church in Milltown have spent several days reflecting on their church’s history, which stretches back to 1905 and, in the words of the church’s long-time pastor, Louise Owens Finney, boasts seemingly countless moments of spiritual growth and peaceful happiness. Like the church’s history, the church’s congregation was fit to be included in a book or movie, she said.
“I loved it,” said the 68-year-old Finney, a licensed minister who began pastoring at the church in 1986. “It was such a great experience, and I can honestly say to everyone that I was encouraged by everyone at the church.
“Everyone was so positive and accepting of me, and the church had some great ministries for the community,” she added. “I’m happy to say that pastoring for the church never overwhelmed me. Everyone was just so great to me.”
In recent years, the church had five members, but once two of those members passed away, only Finney, Donna Roe Cochran and Dorothy Elmore Cochran comprised the congregation. The decision to close the church wasn’t unexpected, but it wasn’t easy, either, Finney said.
“They had always said that as long as they had three members attend, they would have the church open,” she said. “When we were reduced to three people, that’s when we decided to close the church. It was something we had decided to do a long time ago.”
Although some obvious sadness was felt by Finney and the Cochrans, the church’s closing had a few upbeat moments. Some of that positive vibe was felt during a “church celebration” hosted by Finney and the Cochrans in December. The event was attended by many who enjoyed cake, several stories and an array of color and black-and-white photographs detailing the congregation’s history.
Among the programs that helped the area was Milltown United Methodist Church’s participation in “Our Daily Bread,” an outreach program established by the South Sebastian County Parish of the United Methodist Church. The program offered food and clothing for people in the Milltown/Greenwood/Hackett region, while also giving church members an added sense of focus and purpose, Finney said.
“One day at the Our Daily Bread ministry, the ladies of our church helped find something for a woman to wear on her wedding day,” she said. “The women from our church all would get together in one car and drive over there to help out at Our Daily Bread when it was still a ministry. They loved to help others.”
For decades, Milltown Church members met in the large, two-story Milltown Community Building, which was located near the church’s existing site at Milltown Road and Arkansas 252. Members of other area congregations also met inside the building before it was demolished in the mid-1990s, Finney said.
“People from churches would meet downstairs, and people with other groups and organizations would meet upstairs,” she said. “There were lots of people who would be in that old building.”
Milltown Church’s current building was constructed in 1952. Painted white, the church was small in appearance but massive in heart and community impact, Finney said.
“The church had what we call double-front doors, and there was one room; there wasn’t a Sunday School class in that church,” she said.
Despite the small indoor space, “big happenings” would occur between church members, Finney said.
“There was what’s called a Card Class, and they would meet in a corner by the folding chairs,” she said. “Each child in this class would get a card, and they would study and learn about the subject that was on that card. They also had coloring books and they had their Bible lessons.”
The bonds between Finney and the members stretched beyond the church’s walls. When Donna Cochran’s husband, the late Ronald Cochran, became sick, Finney and Dorothy Cochran would conduct their church service at Donna Cochran’s house.
“Dorothy and I would go there to support Donna, and Ron would be there, too, but in bed,” Finney said. “We prayed with them and had our own worship service right there.”
For the 98-year-old Dorothy Cochran, Milltown United Methodist Church served as a place of sanctuary.
“I had gone to that church all of my life; I was born and raised there,” she said with a laugh. “That church was home to me because I knew everybody, and everybody was friends. We sang a lot of hymns, and we had singing events in that church.”
Other favorable memories held by Finney include what she called a “fun ride” with former church member Jean Turner.
“I remember Jean took me in her truck, and we bounced around everywhere,” Finney said with a laugh. “Jean was playing the piano at the church when I first started going there, and later, I played the piano. We all kind of did a little bit of everything for Milltown United Methodist Church.”
Turner proved to be as willing to mail cards of encouragement to other parishioners, she said.
“I have some of the most meaningful cards from Jean,” said Finney, who has two children and four grandchildren and taught for 28 years at Chaffin Junior High School and four years at Ramsey Junior High School. “Jean could almost sense when I needed help or encouragement.”
When church member Vergail Elmore Willsey celebrated one of her birthdays a few years ago, the occasion drew smiles and laughter, she said. When Willsey, Finney and others moved the celebration to the Bearcat Restaurant in Booneville, Willsey embraced the festive mood.
“Vergail had told a few people there that it was her 100th birthday, even though she had just turned 94 or 95,” Finney said with a laugh. “She lived to be just a few days shy of turning 100, and I have to smile when I think back on that birthday. I think she loved the attention she got from telling people she was older than she was. People were really paying attention to her that day.”
Dorothy Cochran, who has lived in Greenwood since 1994, admitted she has yet to commit to another church.
“I just haven’t decided that yet,” she said. “If I go, it will be at a Methodist church in Greenwood.”
Today, Finney is a member of First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. Calling the closing of Milltown Church a “bittersweet” occurrence, she has vowed to help fill in as pastor when needed at area churches.
“It’s amazing how many of those dear people I visited with when they were sick and later dying, and it’s amazing how I officiated at most of the church’s funerals,” Finney said. “If I wasn’t officiating all of the funerals, I would at least read the eulogy.”
Finney paused for a few seconds before exhaling.
“I can say this — the church members were wonderful,” she said. “Those church members ministered to me as much as I ministered to them. Never did I fail to receive a blessing.”