Holland’s first female clergyman did not work quietly


Nellie Churchford was Holland’s first female clergyman. In the 1920s, she was also one of only 58 Dutch women to own an automobile.

Churchford was born in 1873. In the 1890s, she served the people of the Holland region as a maid, midwife, and minister. But she did not work quietly—she preached on street corners, in vacant buildings downtown, and, during the summers, in a large tent on Eighth Street between River Avenue and Pine Avenue.

After:Con DePree and DePree Chemical Company

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After:The original rivalry behind Hope College and Calvin University

In 1903, to save the poor (physically as well as spiritually), she opened a mission in any vacant building she could find. But despite all this, at first Holland didn’t welcome her.

In short, Churchford made Holland’s church, political, and business leaders uncomfortable. They saw her as insufficiently qualified, feminine and fundamentalist. Lacking the emotional and financial support she needed, Nellie left town. While away, she graduated from Scofield Bible College in New York and was ordained by the Apostolic Holiness Association in Battle Creek.

Then, following the stock market crash and banking crisis of 1907, Dutch leaders realized the city needed her and they promised to support her work if she returned. She did and redoubled her efforts.

Nellie was both a charismatic preacher and a talented musician. During her services, she played the cornet, the trumpet or the baritone, accompanied by musicians on string instruments. Not only did she serve the poor who came to her mission, but she also went to see them on horseback. But she was always short of money.

Thus, in 1919, to give poor children clothes for school, she launched a collection. Then, before Christmas, to give families food, clothing and other supplies, she launched another campaign. The extra work may have done it, for in 1920 she announced she was quitting her job and moving to northern Michigan.

Not wishing to lose her again, the city council formed a committee, chaired by Con DePree, who recruited his fellow business leaders to join him in garnering support. In response to new funding, Nellie redoubled her efforts.

In 1923, Nellie invited evangelist FH Lane from Toledo to preach in a tent at Centennial Park. The following Saturday afternoon, she baptized 16 converts in Lake Macatawa off Kollen Park, surrounded by 2,000 witnesses.

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Next, Nellie invited Evangelist Mel Trotter of Grand Rapids to preach in a tent. This time, she had the tent pitched in Kollen Park. Two thousand people attended and saw 20 converts baptized in the lake. One of these converts was EJ Harrington’s son, Huibert.

EJ was so grateful that he donated one of his finest lots on Lake Macatawa to the Trotter Mission.

Nellie didn’t water down her language. Commenting to the Holland City News on the success of the mission’s Christmas campaign in 1924, Nellie said that “not a child in Holland went hungry on Christmas Day” and “not a woman in the city went without shoes or underwear”.

Nellie Churchford on horseback from Holland Museum Digital Archives

The community also retired their horse and replaced it with a Model T automobile, so they could more easily deliver baskets of food, clothing and other supplies to those in need, including candy for children. . Not only was the car free, but the fuel and maintenance also worked, courtesy of Vandenberg Brothers Oil.

In 1925, a grateful town came together to honor Nellie. Evert Blekkink, professor at Western Theological Seminary; prominent lawyer, orator and politician Gerrit Diekema; and Con DePree were there.

However, because the Bethlehem Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star of the Masonic Temple sponsored the event, notables from the Christian Reformed Church did not attend. Undaunted, Nellie, DePree and AH Landwehr launched a $25,000 fundraiser to give Nellie’s mission a forever home.

Steve VanderVeen

Their committee included Diekema, John VanderVeen, Abraham Leenhouts, Pieter Prins and Charles Kirchen. Two of them donated $5,000 each to kick off the campaign. Under its mottos – “No law, but love; no creed, but Christ” and “Eternally active” – Nellie’s aim was to ask every man, woman and child in Holland to donate.

As her mission’s operations grew, Nellie began to delegate tasks. She handed over the mission orchestra to John Van Vyven, who raised $600 for the instruments by presenting concerts at Centennial Park. In 1926, she entrusted her mission to DePree and Landwehr, co-founders of the Holland Furnace Company. They then borrowed $10,000 from First State Bank to balance its books.

Encouraged, Nellie continued to evolve her work.

We will come back to his story next week.

— Community columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of the Netherlands. Contact him via start-upacademeinc.com.


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