(Rev. Kelli Hitchman-Craig) - Like many small towns across the United States, there’s something special about Opelika, Alabama. Though nestled right next door to Auburn University, Opelika’s story and legacy holds its own place in the annuls of Alabama history. Once a thriving mill-town, Opelika is now home to a new United Methodist Church nestled in the heart of the Mill Village—Foundry United Methodist Church.
In 1924, at the rumored interest of New England company, the Pepperell Manufacturing Company, establishing a textile factory in Opelika, a group of Opelikans banded together to raise over $60,000 to persuade the company to put down roots in Alabama. They succeeded in that endeavor and the rest is history. The Opelika Pepperell Mill broke ground in 1925, building with it 100 homes for mill workers. Quickly, the Mill Village exploded with growth, establishing a school, Post Office, and church.
In the Fall of 1926, the Pepperell Mill built a community church for the Mill workers. Both the Baptists and Methodists shared a building together until 1945. Since that time, the Pepperell Church has served its community in a variety of ways—as Pepperell Methodist Church, as a thriving United Methodist Church, as a Cooperative Parish of the Auburn Wesley Foundation, and as the Alabama Rural Ministry headquarters. Though the Pepperell Mill has long since ceased operations and eventually burned down, a Methodist presence in the Opelika Mill Village has remained steadfast. On August 27th
, 2023—just three months after their very first worship service together—Foundry United Methodist Church held their first worship service in their permanent home: the long beloved Methodist Mill church. Formerly Pepperell United Methodist Church, Foundry proudly inhabits and serves the Opelika Mill Village community almost 100 years after its founding.
The very same spirit of generosity and community support that brought the Pepperell Mill to life in 1924 continues today with vigor. The renovation of the former Pepperell United Methodist Church building was made possible entirely by the generosity of Foundry UMC friends and supporters. The revitalization efforts included new landscaping, paint, and electrical work while also establishing a church nursery, Sanctuary upgrades, and fresh fixtures. The project utilized 100% locally sourced generosity, labor, and love, made possible by $150,000 of contributions given by Foundry supporters.
As news of the re-opening of the beloved mill church travelled, many who grew up attending Pepperell UMC shared their memories of time spent there. One of those was Opelika native Garrett “Rigney” Cofield. Cofield grew up in the Pepperell Mill Village as the child of a Mill foreman and Mill postal worker. Cofield began attending Pepperell Methodist at five months old, eventually becoming the church’s pianist at just 12 years old. As he reflected on his 18 years spent in the Mill church, Cofield remembered the church’s excellent choir and music program. It was the church’s excellence in worship music that led Cofield to a fruitful 66-year long career as an accomplished church musician. He shared, “I am just so well pleased. It’s just wonderful that the church will be full again.”
Foundry certainly was “full again” this past Sunday. For their first Sunday in their new home, Foundry welcomed 143 worshippers through their freshly painted doors. Complete with a coffee bar and nursery care, Foundry opened their doors eager to love and serve the Mill community. The words to the morning’s opening hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” rang out with wholesome sincerity as each voice experienced firsthand just what the Almighty can do. Foundry’s pastor, Rev. Patrick Hitchman-Craig, shared glassy-eyed, “to look out and see all the people gathered in the Sanctuary was overwhelming. People of every age gathered for worship and in support of this new church. It’s hard to believe that these wonderful people pulled off a project of this size, ‘Project Pepperell’ as we call it, in such a short amount of time… But they did it. Their love of this community and their love of Jesus made it happen.”
As Foundry member Leslie Melton Anabtawi reflected on her experience planting Foundry UMC she shared, “It’s an exciting experience in that we are building something new from the ground up. There is involvement at a much deeper level compared to a church where so many of the day-to-day details are handled by staff.” She continued, “After a hard season of discernment, it required a lot of strength to undertake a new challenge. However, what I have seen from others who have gone through a similar experience has been heartwarming and uplifting. We have bonded, rolled up our sleeves, and gotten to work to serve our Lord.” Melton concluded, “I have great hope and promise for the future, for our church, and for the community we will serve. My hope is that we will be great stewards of our community and will be known for our walk and our desire to humbly reach out to people who are on different journeys in their walk with God.”
Other members, Charles and Elizabeth Mason, joked as they shared, “If you’re bored and looking for something to fill your time, plant a new church!” They went on, recalling, “When we first knew we would no longer have a church home and our pastor mentioned we would probably “plant a church” We had no idea what that would entail. Every day since we started this journey has been physical work, brain work, lots of fun, and a wild and crazy ride! But wow, I can’t tell you how much I have loved the past three months. I think the most special thing about this season is the making of new friends and drawing closer to old friends. Each Sunday at Foundry, we are surrounded by people who love God and just want to be at a place where there is love, grace, and peace. I love the feeling on Sunday mornings that everyone really wants to be there!”
The planting of Foundry UMC reflects the best of the United Methodist connection. As a church planter, Rev. Hitichman-Craig’s salary is currently funded through the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. Likewise, the former Pepperell UMC building will soon be gifted to the newly-planted Foundry UMC by the AWF Conference Trustees. And committed United Methodists in Opelika have given generously to bring new life to their new church home. Though their story is just getting started, Foundry UMC has already embodied their mission of being “A community of grace and peace that is rooted in Christ for the renewal of all things.” They have renewed their sense of purpose, renewed an aging Mill Village church building, and, perhaps most importantly, renewed their hope. Rev. Hitchman-Craig concluded, “I believe that Jesus is still in the business of drawing people to himself and the fact that Foundry exists proves just that.”
To learn more about Foundry United Methodist Church visit www.FoundryOpelika.com
. If you’d like to donate to the ongoing work at Foundry UMC, you can donate here
. Learn more about the work of the Alabama-West Florida Conference’s New Ministry Strategies here https://www.awfumc.org/nms
Click here to see photos from the first Sunday photos