Judy O’Brien or members of her family grew up down the street, and they belonged to the local Cortland United Methodist Church for more than half of its existence.
Her parents’ involvement in devotees, which was established 160 years ago, dates back to the 1930s. She said O’Brien, who used to walk with her family through a building to the church on Sundays, was baptized and confirmed there.
“There were only about 250 people in town,” O’Brien said. “It was like family.”
Now, Cortland’s last remaining church—which was founded in 1862 before the city was founded in 1865—is set to close after service next weekend. The dwindling number of churchgoers, in a town of no more than 4,200 inhabitants, is the reason cited.
The number of worshipers has gradually shrunk in the past 30-40 years, from more than 45 active members every Sunday to the current six to eight per week.
In full swing, the United Methodist Church will host hay rides, casserole dinners, and other events to unite the community.
The last church service will be at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. An open house will be held that afternoon from 2-4 pm where members of the community are invited to come to celebrate and share memories about sweets and refreshments.
Reverend Sherry Coleman said the final worship service will be filled with testimonies, memories, stories, and a celebration of church life.
Coleman, who will continue her service about an hour’s drive south at the Bread of Life Co-operative, said her last three years have been a blessing. Coleman said many memories have been made in church and society.
“It’s very sad,” Coleman said. “They have been in this church and society with all their hearts for most of their lives.”
Like her family, O’Brien said, many people in Cortland used to walk to church. While the church will be full inside, the parking lot will look empty, she said.
In the 1950s, the Methodist Church’s Women’s Aid Society used to host a dinner for the entire school district once a month.
“It was a quarter of a piece,” O’Brien said. “We’d all walk from Cortland school to church, usually chicken spread on toast or something.”
Dolly Lamb has lived in Cortland since 1963. She joined the church in 1980.
“It’s sad to see a church nearby,” Lamb said.
Bill Abbott was born and raised in DeKalb and moved to Cortland in 1972. With his wife and children, he joined the congregation in 1975, Abbott said.
“It’s really frustrating to know all the people who are in Cortland on Sunday mornings, rather than being in church, are doing more fun things, I think,” Abbott said. “It really is a shame that churches suffer.”
Many old church members gather for breakfast every Tuesday at Sam’s Family Restaurant in Cortland. Abbott said this tradition is expected to continue even after the church is closed.
“Since my wife passed away, this has kind of helped me stay in the loop with people,” Abbott said. “Even after it closed, we still met on Tuesday morning.”
The First United Methodist Church of DeKalb invited the rest of the Cortland Church to join their parish. Over the past two weeks, Abbott said, the breakfast group’s discussions have revolved around closing the church.
“It would be a loss to society,” Abbott said. “Our door is always open for new people, and they don’t seem to want to join us. It is very sad.”