Growing up just down the street, Judy O’Bryan or members of her family have belonged to the local Cortland United Methodist Church for perhaps more than half of its existence.
Her parents’ involvement in the congregation, founded 160 years ago, dates back to the 1930s. O’Bryan, who with her family used to walk a block to the church on Sundays, was baptized and confirmed there, she said.
“There were only about 250 people in town,” O’Bryan said. “It was like a family.”
Now, Cortland’s last remaining church – whose 1862 founding predates the town’s 1865 incorporation – is set to close its doors after a final service next weekend. Dwindling churchgoers, in a town of just more than about 4,200 people, is the cited reason.
The congregation has gradually shrunk in the last 30 to 40 years, from more than 45 active members every Sunday to the current six to eight weekly congregants.
In its prime, the United Methodist Church would host hay rides, casserole suppers, and other events to bring the community together.
The church’s last service will be at 9:30 a.m. Sunday. An open house will be held that afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m. where community members are invited to come celebrate and share memories over desserts and refreshments.
The Rev. Cherie Quillman said the final worship service will be full of testimonies, memories, stories and the celebration of the life of the church.
Quillman, who will be continuing her ministry nearly an hour’s drive south at the Bread of Life Cooperative, said her last three years have been a blessing. Many memories have been made in the church and the community, Quillman said.
“It’s so sad,” Quillman said. “They have been in this church and community with their whole heart for most of their lives.”
Like her own family, O’Bryan said, a lot of people in Cortland used to walk to the church. She said while the church would be full inside, the parking lot would appear empty.
In the 1950s, the Methodist Church Ladies Aid Society used to host dinners for the whole school district once a month.
“It was a quarter a piece,” O’Bryan said. “We would all march from the Cortland school over to the church, and it was usually creamed chicken on toast or something like that.”
Dolly Lamb has lived in Cortland since 1963. She joined the church in 1980.
“It’s just sad to see a church close,” Lamb said.
Bill Abbott was born and raised in DeKalb and moved to Cortland in 1972. He, along with his wife and children, joined the congregation in 1975, Abbott said.
“It’s really disheartening to know all the people that are in Cortland, on Sunday mornings, instead of being in a church, they’re out doing more fun things, I guess,” Abbott said. “It’s really a shame that churches are suffering.”
Several of the longtime church members meet for breakfast on Tuesdays at Sam’s Family Restaurant in Cortland. That tradition is expected to continue even after the church closes, Abbott said.
“Since my wife passed, this has kind of helped me stay in the loop with people,” Abbott said. “Even after it closes, we’re still going to get together on Tuesday mornings.”
First United Methodist Church in DeKalb has invited the remaining members of the Cortland church to join their congregation. For the past couple of weeks, Abbott said, the breakfast group’s discussions have revolved around the church closing.
”It’s going to be a loss to the community,” Abbott said. “Our door is always open to new people, and they just don’t seem to want to join us. It’s very sad.”