According to local history the first sermon preached in the Aubry-Stilwell community was at the house of A. J. Gabbart by Rev. Duval, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church North in February 1858. Meetings were held in homes for many years.
This part of Kansas was a dangerous place in those years. This first tier of counties along the Missouri border was a battleground in the war that was going on before and after the Civil War between the Missouri Red Legs and the Kansas Jayhawkers. Tradition holds that every house in Aubry Township (and several others) was burned by one side or the other.
Johnson County carries the name of a Methodist missionary, the founder of the Shawnee Mission Indian School (1829) and a strong pro-slavery supporter. The Rev. Thomas Johnson was affiliated with the southern branch of what is now the United Methodist Church. Because the Rev. Johnson worked with the Shawnee tribe, and Aubry Township is in part of what was the Black Bob Shawnee Reservation, it is likely that he was involved in the beginnings of the Methodist tradition in this area.
In 1870 the Methodists of Aubry joined with the Baptist and Christian Churches in building a common place for worship. After Stilwell was founded November 20, 1886, a new Methodist Church was built on the northwest corner of Broadway and Main. A brick church building was bought and transported from Atchison, Kansas, in 1913. This was also a Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the stained glass window over the entrance of this new building honors those ties. It wasn’t until 1939 that a General Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, healed the wounds left by the Civil War and created the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Evangelical United Brethren became part of the United Methodist Church.
Apparently Stilwell was linked with churches in Missouri until the unification. There has never been a parsonage in Stilwell. The pastors served two or more small churches, traveling between them for services. The pulpit was filled by many pastors, six came and went during the 1920s. There were eight between 1960 and 1969. After St. Paul’s School of Theology was opened, many students served this charge while attending school. A tradition of caring for each other and doing whatever was needed for the church was strengthened by necessity.
After being born in the time of the Civil War, the church survived the Depression, two World Wars and various local fires, etc. In the 1920s Stilwell was larger than Olathe. Sparks from the railroad lit up the local lumber yard twice and a reliable water supply wasn’t available until the 1950s. It has been said that the motto of the WSCS was “We serve Chicken Suppers.” The women fed the community at every opportunity, and kept the church doors open. The men did whatever was necessary to keep the steeple from collapsing when the bell was rung. The younger generation enjoyed the novelty of an “outhouse” until embarrassed adults installed an indoor bathroom in the 1970s.
At one point Stilwell was linked with Spring Hill and later with Louisburg. It was 1978 before Stilwell had a minister that did not travel. In 1980 the first minister lived in the community By that time it was apparent that a new church building was needed soon. After years as a small congregation, hovering around one hundred members, it was starting to grow.
There had been talk of closing the United Methodist Church of Stilwell and starting over, forming a new congregation. It was discovered that the deed to the building had never been turned over to a conference. The congregation owned the church, not the United Methodist Church. In exchange for support and various kinds of help, the deed was signed over to the Kansas East Conference and Stilwell United Methodist Church began to expand.
The process of building the current church was a long, involved, highly participatory activity. The amount of in-kind giving and donated labor exceeded the “experts” predictions and resulted in a strong sense of ownership and a larger more useable building than a congregation of this size could ordinarily expect. Out of the years of “making do” and “doing without,” came plans for a seven day a week building accessible to the community as well as the congregation. The old building lacked a telephone until the mid-1970s so a functional cheerful office was a priority, as were space for socializing, convenient parking and a preschool. The bell now rings from a new sturdy steeple.
When the procession left the old building in December 1987 members of the same families who had brought the bricks from Atchison were in the parade along with many newcomers. A cold wet day didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. Both traditions and new ideas have enabled the church to survive and thrive. It has been said that God must have important work for Stilwell Untied Methodist Church to do, He has rescued it so many times.