By Christian Potts
Perhaps no church in Norman, or even this part of the country, opened with quite the spectacle of McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church.
As its doors opened 85 years ago this month, the church towered over the landscape. The church, dubbed at the time "A Temple on the Plains," was dedicated Dec. 7, 1924. It was valued at that time at $700,000, "an amount in 2009 dollars that would exceed $15 million," said church archivist Mary Joyce Rodgers.
"It was really a unique beginning for a church," she said.
A special edition of The Transcript on the date trumpeted the opening: "The finest South Methodist Church in the United States."
As large in size as the building was, and still is for that matter, the story of how it came to be is perhaps as impressive.
Rodgers has spent years telling that story, including a book at the 50th anniversary of the church and an abbreviated version that recently was completed marking this year's anniversary.
"Mainly I'm the one who's been around the longest and knows the most people," she said.
McFarlin's story started many years before the building's 85-year birthdate, with the early life of a family that endured tragedy in its few years in Norman.
Robert M. and Ida Barnard McFarlin moved to Norman in 1890, working as cattle farmers and operating a feed store.
Shortly thereafter they celebrated the birth of their only son, Robert Boger McFarlin. But Robert died of typhoid fever in July 1892, shortly before he turned 2 and was buried in the IOOF Cemetery, where today his grave is next to those of his parents.
During their time of grief, the couple was comforted by support from the Methodist Episcopal South Church in Norman. While the McFarlins didn't stay in Norman much longer, moving to near present-day Holdenville in 1895, they never forgot that generosity, Rodgers writes.
They struggled, getting by day-to-day, week-to-week on the land. "They mortgaged their home for $800 to buy land near Kiefer, Okla.," Rodgers said.
That's when their fortune changed. That land turned out to part of the Glenn Pool oil patch that was part of Tulsa's oil boom. "They became millionaires overnight," Rodgers said.
The company Mr. McFarlin subsequently started with his nephew James A. Chapman drilled there and in several other places in the state. It eventually sold for nearly $39 million in 1916.
Filling a need
Members of the Methodist Episcopal South Church, as well as student members with the Sooner Bible Sunday School Class had continued meeting at a building at Tonhawa and Crawford Streets near downtown. That building was constructed shortly after the Land Run of 1889.
In their effort to raise funds to try to build a new church, members of the group got the idea to contact Mr. McFarlin, who then was living in the San Antonio area. The Rev. C.S. Walker, then the pastor of the church, visited McFarlin, who was ill at the time in a Texas hospital.
Recalling the support he and his wife received in their time of need, he said if he recovered from his illness -- which he did -- that he would pay to build an entire church himself "in memory of his infant son and in honor of the Methodists who had been very kind to them at the time of their bereavement," Rodgers said.
"His main stipulation was that he would pay all of the bills and that it had to be built so strong that a tornado would not destroy it," Rodgers said.
The ball was rolling. Work on the church went on in 1923 and 1924, preceded by the purchase of several lots in the area of Symmes Street and University Boulevard.
The building was constructed of Indiana Lithic limestone transported on 70 rail cars from a Norman quarry. At its tallest it rises 84 feet, roughly the height of an eight-story building.
The day before its dedication, Mr. and Mrs. McFarlin were honored during a reception where visitors were able to tour each of the 95 rooms that then were part of the building.
Even in the years following, McFarlin continued to help. At the time it was built, the church maintenance was a lot for a congregation of a little less than 900 in a town with 11,000 people to handle.
McFarlin established a $200,000 endowment, in addition to his other donations, to help. Money from the endowment still is available to this day for special projects, Rodgers said.
Today the church has grown. A 1998 expansion added about 46,000 square feet, and the congregation has grown to approximately 5,000.
The past has not been forgotten, right down to the name of the church, not only the McFarlin family name but the title "Memorial," as remembrances of the McFarlins' son and the gift the family gave them.
Flowers are laid at his grave the Sunday nearest to the baby's death in the summer, and each Sunday a fresh flower is placed on a commemorative plaque in the church's sanctuary.
"So there is always a fresh flower in his memory there," Rodgers said.
A statue depicting the young Robert sits near the church's day care, and part of this Sunday's celebration of the anniversary will be a dedication of a walnut display case containing pictures of the McFarlins and other memorabilia from the church's history.
"It matches the original woodwork in the church very closely," Rodgers said. "It's beautiful."
Christian Potts 366-3531 firstname.lastname@example.org