Truitt Chapel Ecumenical Church In Reverse
Bertrand Bible Church, once known as “Truitt Chapel,” had its beginnings in the 1830s’ when the Indian exploits were on the wane in the thriving town of Bertrand.
Today the church, at 1008 Ontario St., Niles, one mile north of the Indiana-Michigan State line, off U.S. 31, is an independent-fundamental, strict Bible-adhering house of worship. But when it as known as “Truit Chapel” it was distinctly an “ecumenical body” comprised of many denominations.
Its obscure history came to light through Cass and Berrien county history books, old church records and information provided by Mrs. Wesley King, a “charter member.”
“Truitt Chapel,” Mrs. King recalls, “was a Methodist Church which stood a mile northeast of this present building. It was located on Bertrand road which, in 1830, was known as the Chicago-Detroit trail, the main thoroughfare across southwestern Michigan.”
As a very young girl, Mrs. King attended services in the simple little chapel. After she married, she and her husband served the church faithfully in various capacities.
“Next year I will have finished my 50th year as a Sunday School teacher in this place,: she beamed. “The Junior Church, which I organized, I taught for 20 years. It is thrilling to realize that this church has helped the steer young people on the right course though the years.
“The small frame chapel,” she continued, “was torn down many years ago after it had fulfilled its purpose and the larger structure replaced it.”
The cemetery, still well cared for by the offspring church, is all that bears witness to its historic past. A simple tombstone with the faded imprint “Alonzo Drake, died 1842” appears to be the oldest grave.
Historical accounts credit the Truitt family, pioneers from Delaware, as the founders. Peter Truitt and his family spent 44 days in the wilderness “hacking” their way westward to reach this area.
He joined his friend, Cannon Smith, an earlier settler in Cass County’s Milton township, in religious meetings in the Smith home. In 1832, the two devout Christians formed a Methodist society and from it “Smith Chapel” came to fruition.
Later, after a business venture as a storekeeper in Bertrand failed, Peter Truitt built a double log house in Milton Township near the Berrien county line. This became a famous hotel known for its comforts and hospitality to the growing number of weary emigrants. Many nights pallets had to be strewn on the floor to accommodate the number.
Zealous Christian services were held regularly in the Truitt home, which also was a welcome haven for itinerant ministers stopping over on their exhaustive circuit rounds.
While it is believed the Truitt Chapel grew out of these meetings in the Peter Truitt home, when the first formal church was built, his brother William donated the land. At a meeting held on Sept 3, 1859 this account of such a move was recorded in the church record:
“Be it remembered that the citizens of Niles Township met in a grove near the northeast corner of William Truitt’s farm on Sunday, 1859 for the purpose of taking into consideration the building of a Methodist Chapel for the convenience of the inhabitants of said neighborhood. William Truitt offered to donate ½ acre of land on the northeast corner of his farm north of Chicago road for the purpose of said building.”
The offer was accepted and a 30 x 40-foot white frame structure costing $400 was built and on this spot Truitt Chapel flourished for 60 years.
For a time, some quaint customs prevailed in the little ‘meetin’ house.’ Violins (“fiddles”) and pianos were not accepted until the early 20th century because of the association with dancing. However, a “Melodian” (small reed organ) was rented and paid for by the week.
Also, partitioned benches separated the men from the women, a custom to which the young folk strenuously objected. The custom was rigidly kept until one day young Thomas Binns “winged” his young lady down the center aisle and defiantly sat down with her. The church fathers got the message and removed the partitions soon after the rule was abolished.
A Sunday school was organized in 1879 and the oldest church records show one Sunday’s collection to be all of 88 cents. In attendance were “37 males and 25 females.”
As time passed, the family name and concern for the little church passed on to the newer generations. Some of the prominent names on the old roster of the church sound familiar even today. The names of Truitt, Rosewarne, Winkler, Barnhardt and Fulkerson still are seen on schools, churches, streets and other sites in the Niles area.
Because of the vaious faiths represented in the congregation, it was decided to make the organization interdenominational. Serving on a committee at the time were a Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Brethren, Christian Scientist, Baptist and Christian. An afterthought places a non-church member on the governing body – ecumenism in its truest form. On June 24, 1917, Truitt Chapel was changed to “The Truitt Chapel Interdenominational Congregation.”
Whatever the disturbing differences there may have been from such a mixture of doctrines, no record is found of anything other than harmony in the early church. Comparable, it seems, to the Biblical days when “they continued daily with one accord… and with singleness of heart.”
A long awaited decision to build a new church was undertaken in 1922. The search for a suitable lot resulted in the desirable present location on Ontario St. (then called Station Fire road). Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Orville Ashley Sr., who now live in Dowagiac, the site brought the new church one-half mile southwest of the old chapel.
As the congregation gradually became more conservative in its doctrine, a growing desire not to be affiliated with any particular denomination resulted in adopting a new constitution in 1924. The main provision of this document reads: “The name of this Church is The Bertrand Community Church of Niles Township, Berrien County, Michigan.”
At a homecoming, the building was dedicated on September 20, 1925 with Rev. Ray Bird, Superintendent of the South Bend Rescue Mission, as the speaker. He spoke on “God’s Share” and when he asked for pledges, almost the entire indebtedness was underwritten. Meanwhile the old chapel was sold and torn down. The funds were used to improve the cemetery and plans were adopted for its perpetual care.
The new church was steadily improved and various ministers served it intermittently. Rev. W.E. Hogan of South Bend worked with the congregation through depression years. The church still was fairly new, which was an advantage because little money was available to the treasurer.
Later, with the coming of Rev. Joseph Hyink of the pulpit, a spiritual upswing ensued. With the missionary vision enlarged, the church also began to stress tithing as the Biblical method for the support of the church ministry. The Bible became the textbook and guideline for its teaching ministry and government.
The young people with a burst of enthusiasm, started monthly visits to the Berrien County Hospital, a custom that still is practiced. A house–to-house “door step evangel” ministry and street meetings also were part of their program. The memorizing of scripture verses was emphasized as Bibles were distributed to the young folk. The Vacation Bible School came under the supervision and teaching of the Rural Bible Mission. At this time Mrs. King began the Junior Church ministry.
In 1947, the congregation voted unanimously to affiliate with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. The name “Bible” then replaced the word “Community” and thereafter the church was known as “Bertrand Bible Church.”
When Rev. Hyink left after 16 years, the new pastor, Rev. Orlen Njus, steered the flourishing church through highly successful youth programs and increased missionary activity.
The expressed need to branch out in its evangelistic ministry brought two new churches into existence – the Rosewarne Bible on U.S. -12 and the Grace Baptist in Roseland. Both soon were operating under their own government.
When a new sanctuary with basement was started May 3, 1959, Pastor Njus donned his overalls and helped volunteer workmen complete the church for its first service on Mothers’ Day, May 1960, just one yea later.
Pastor Njus served the church for 13 years. He left the pastorate in the hands of the Assistant Pastor, Rev. Harold Asire, who was elected to head the congregation. Through his projections, a radio broadcast was launched from the Niles station WNIL. On the revitalized youth program, a teen choir was started and the circulation of the teen-oriented newspaper Telstar, was increased. The often-delayed formal dedication of the new sanctuary took place in December 1964.
After a time, Rev. Asire started a new church in Niles. Today Rev. Robert Kinney, who has been active for many years on executive boards of several missionary organizations, is pastor of the Bertrand Bible Church.
In recalling some of the early church history from the pulpit recently, Pastor Kinney said, “We are thankful that the spiritual needs of our community were not neglected by our forbears and that those who followed were faithful in proclaiming the Word of God.”
Taking his cue from Paul’s biblical admonition to the early church to “keep the unity of the Spirit – to bring unity of blessing,” Pastor Kinney announced the year’s theme to be “Grow in unity through 1970.”