In 2012, lightning struck the bell tower at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church. Now the tower is crumbling, and water sometimes leaks inside.
With its aging building plagued by decay, the congregation has decided to sell the historic structure. The Rev. Keith Coker handed out ballots after his service Sunday. The congregation sang “Once in Royal David’s City” as he announced the tally.
“I heard faltering voices,” said Jenny Armstrong Boulden. “Some people were too emotional to sing.”
Her great-great grandfather joined the congregation in the late 19th century, when it was called Winfield Methodist Church and met at a brick cathedral on the corner of 15th Street and Center Street. The congregation moved to its current location in 1921, when work began on the five-story building marked by Gothic windows, buttresses and an elaborately ornamented tower. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Boulden’s mother and father were married in the church. Her grandparents would take her to nighttime choir practices and set her loose in the five-story building. She wandered up the winding staircases, through pathways she imagined to be secret and forbidden. To ward off ghosts and bats, she walked on tiptoe across the balcony.
The bats were a real problem, said Anne Armstrong Holcomb, Boulden’s aunt and a former pastor of the church. They got into the organ pipes and would chitter during weddings. It finally cost $22,000 to have them exterminated.
The church no longer has money for such expenses. At one time, it drew over 3,400 people, more members than any Methodist congregation in Arkansas. On the day of the vote, fewer than 60 worshippers were in the pews. Twenty-nine members remained after the service to cast their ballots.
Coker announced the final count: one to stay, 28 to leave. Boulden cried and hugged the other members of the congregation.
“I keep thinking of a song,” she said the morning after the decision. “A church is not a building. It is not a steeple. A church is not a resting place. It is the people.”