Wayland Community Church in Paris Township, known for decades as "the little white church on the hill," is not so little anymore. Less than a year ago a new addition was completed as a result of more than 20 years of fundraising and tithes and offerings from the congregation.
The church, hidden just south of Route 5 under the shadow of the West Branch Reservoir dam, can now seat 100 comfortably thanks to the addition, whereas the former fellowship hall previously only had room for 40 congregants. Two handicap-accessible restrooms were also added on the main floor, along with a larger kitchen, which originally was a tiny office. A full basement was included in the renovation for future storage and/or classrooms.
The addition was the dream of the late Rev. Harry O. Harvey, who served as pastor from 1987-2011. Sadly, he did not live to see the completion, which will be dedicated in his name during morning services at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20. Those who have not recently attended church are invited to join the congregation for the dedication. Guests are welcome and lunch will immediately follow the service. There will not be an open house.
The congregation traces its roots back almost 200 years, when Welsh settlers from nearby Palmyra formed The First Particular Close Communion Welsh Baptist Church of Parisville in 1835 with 11 members led by the Rev. David Jenkins. All the sermons were in Welsh. A small "edifice" was built at Paris Center and later moved to Wayland, which was then known as Newport.
The Welsh settlers had been members of the Congregational Church of Palmyra and still considered themselves a branch of the Palmyra church when they built their new, 25-by-25 foot building in 1844. That church was named Libanus and was led by the Rev. Hugh J. Hughes.
In February 1850 the Paris Congregationalists chose to separate from Palmyra and became the Welsh Independent Congregational Church of Newport, Paris Township. Rev. John Williams officiated as minister until the fall of 1852. Records indicate there were 39 members in 1853.
Baptist residents of the area built Bethany Baptist Church in 1882 at a cost of $4,000 on land donated by the Thomas George family. It would become the site of today's Wayland Community Church. The 1882 building was burned to the ground by an arsonist on Dec. 18, 1899.
The Ravenna Republican newspaper ran a lengthy article about the fire a couple of days after. The arsonist was never caught, although blood tracks reportedly led to a neighboring farm. Just a week later, on Christmas Eve, the congregation worshiped among the ashes of the lost church.
The Baptist congregation immediately cleared the debris and rebuilt on the same foundation. The new church — still used for worship today — was dedicated on May 1, 1901 and its debt was paid off in 1903.
In February 1918 the Welsh Independent Congregational Church and Bethany Baptist Church merged to form Wayland Federated Church. Services were held six months at each church during the year.
Eventually services were held solely at Bethany Baptist Church as it was "better adapted for Sunday school purposes with the Congregational Church being used for social activities," according to church records. Each denomination retained its own board of deacons.
The late Elizabeth Richards remembered that the Congregationalists sat on one side of the church and the Baptists on the other. In 1958 both denominations agreed to combine their properties and assets and chose the name Wayland Community Church. They were no longer separated during morning services. As the newly combined church members could not maintain both buildings, the Congregational Church was auctioned and torn down in 1974.
The Rev. J. Thomas Holbrook, who was hired in 2012, continues to serve the church today. The congregation has grown since then and the average attendance each Sunday is 62 and often more, nearly filling the pews, which now seat 100 people. As in most churches, the pews are full Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday.
Renovations have included a new bell tower in 1954; the original slate roof was replaced in 1981; plaster was removed and drywall installed; stained glass windows were restored in 1989 and cleaned in 2019; and a new front entrance was added in 1992.
Other than those renovations, the inside of the church looks like it did when built in 1882. The pews, stained glass windows and woodwork are all original. Wayland Community Church is unique in that it has a curved altar, curved pews and a center aisle. Several members were married in the church and have been faithful in attendance.
Historical information contributed by Bonita Lock, Secretary-Treasurer and Anna Crowl, Lay Leader.