Bethany Missionary – “The Little Steel Church”

Bethany Missionary – “The Little Steel Church”

   The Reverend S. J. Grabill, district superintendent of the Missionary Church Association conducted a tent meeting in the summer of 1932 on Route 24 (now Route 8) near Leadley Avenue in East Peoria and with the response from that meeting wanted to start a church in the community. Fred Spinder , father of former East Peoria Mayor Jim Spinder, and his cousin Clara Klint Yoder from the Mount Olive Missionary Church in Peoria determined to make this vision a reality led the first church service in the music room of East Peoria High School on March 5, 1933. This meeting was attended by thirty-three people, of whom only eight were adults. By Easter the congregation had increased to eighty. Mount Olive Missionary Church purchased the lot at 223 Leadley Avenue and dedicated the ground in May of 1936. Plans were drawn for a thirty by fifty-four foot basement structure with a steel roof provided by a member of the congregation, Robert Gilmour LeTourneau. Sunday school was first conducted there on December 6, 1936. The upper auditorium, constructed completely of steel, was completed on November 14, 1937. The elements of the structure were fabricated at the R. G. LeTourneau manufacturing plant in Peoria, floated across the Illinois River on a barge and welded together in place. There was quite a controversy because the building was erected by non-union workers and a number of fights took place at the site. Another basement addition was built and dedicated in September of 1942 and the last addition added on November 27, 1946. Mt Olive Missionary Church deeded the property to Bethany Missionary Church on May 10, 1947.

   The structure was designed on the concept of the Quonset hut and during the time R.G. LeTourneau was completing his first steel housing system and community design in Peoria, Illinois. This community was called the “All Steel Colony” and was a worker housing development that LeTourneau named LeTourneau Court; the twenty-three 3-4 room houses were air conditioned and romantically referred to as “The Garden City of Tomorrow.” Remnants of this development may still be viewed north of Lake Street in Peoria Heights.

     The resulting “Little Steel Church” remains today as one of East Peoria’s most unique structures. Not only for its design, but for the fact it was  designed and fabricated under the direction of R. G. LeTourneau, the leading earth moving machinery manufacturer of his day with plants on four continents. R. G. had more than three hundred patents to his name and major contributions to road construction and heavy equipment that forever changed the world. Seventy percent of the earth moving machinery employed by the allies during World War II came from his factories.  Most importantly, his contribution to the advancement of the Gospel ranks him among the greatest of Christian Businessmen of all time. Famous for living on ten percent of his income and giving ninety percent to the spread of the Gospel, LeTourneau exemplified what a Christian businessman should be.

   The church became too small to accommodate the needs of the congregation and a steering committee was formed in May of 1961 to explore construction of a new church. Approximately three acres of ground were purchased from Ralph Arnold on Route 8 across from the present Fondulac Plaza in December 1964 and the new church was dedicated on June 26, 1966. The old church on Leadley was sold to Evangelical Bible Church in August 1967 who sold to Oak Grove Evangelical in March of 1971. Oak Grove sold to East Peoria Christian Church in February of 1975 who in turn sold the property to Jesus Name Apostolic Pentecostal Church in October of 1987. Following the death of Pastor David Sweat, and bowing to his wishes that the church not remain a congregation if a new pastor was not on board within six months, the property was put up for sale  In August of 1999 the property was purchased by Last Harvest Missionary Church.

Compiled August 2016 by Frank Borror

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