Joyce Sapp can clearly recall her first memories of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church. She remembers her 3-year-old self playing with other children during Sunday School and the echo of hymns in the sanctuary.

She was married in this church and watched both of her children also marry there. Her grandchildren are the sixth generation of her family to attend this Baptist church.

Now 75, Sapp still attends Little Bonne Femme. She teaches the Sunday School class she once attended years ago.

Even though times have changed and many of the hymns she once knew are no longer sung, this church will always be home to her.

A lot of history lurks behind the walls of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church. Founded in 1819, it was built two years before Missouri became a state and a year before Boone County was established.

It is regarded as the oldest Baptist church in the county and is also considered the second oldest Baptist church in continuous use west of the Mississippi River.

The church will celebrate its bicentennial on Sunday; the actual anniversary is Dec. 5. A special service is planned for the afternoon, including a talk from keynote speaker Dr. Brian Kaylor, editor of Word and Way magazine — and, of course, a big meal.

“Every big Baptist event has a big meal,” said Jesse Stephens, chairman of the deacons. “It wouldn’t be a Baptist event without a potluck dinner.”

Church leaders have spent two Sundays each month on the history of the church since January.

Other celebratory events have taken place throughout the year, and free bookmarks, coffee cups and bumper stickers have been distributed.

“It’s to help people remember the event,” said Virginia Riehn, head of the bicentennial committee who also serves as a church deacon.

A long history

On Dec. 5, 1819, Anderson Woods, a Baptist deacon who moved to Missouri in 1816, along with his wife, Elizabeth, founded Little Bonne Femme in their log cabin home, about 2 miles northwest of the church’s current location.

Named after the Little Bonne Femme Creek nearby, the church started with 16 members. Many were prominent figures in the area at the time, including Woods himself. He, along with fellow member Lazarus Wilcox, were the first two judges in Boone County.

In February 1820, the church would change meeting places to the home of Thomas and Nancy Tuttle. For several months, the church would continue to operate out of its members’ homes.

Then in May 1820, Col. James McClelland, a War of 1812 veteran, arranged to build a meeting house on his property.

The building was finished in August and most likely sat approximately 45 feet west of the present church, Pastor Bart Tichenor said. It would have been a 20-by-20-foot log cabin with one window, a door and a fireplace.

In 1827, a second meeting house was built just north of current sanctuary. Two years later, part of McCelland’s land was used to add the Bonne Femme Academy where the church’s current parking lot sits.

The school was Boone County’s first higher education institution. It accepted both young men and women, and several important people attended, including Charles Henry Hardin, the 22nd governor of Missouri.

To this day, Little Bonne Femme is proud to support education. In the early 1980s, the church decided to set money aside from the congregation to give a scholarship each semester to members of the church attending college.

“There are people who donate because they believe in education,” said Stephens, a past scholarship recipient.

The academy would last until 1843, and its library was then donated to MU. Tichenor said he believes the building was salvaged and the bricks were used to build the new church building in 1844.

That church still stands with its original log-supported flooring and most of the original walls.

A number of changes

One aspect of the building that has changed, however, is the former seating section for slaves.

In the back corner of the building, near the pulpit, the church once had a few rows of pews where slaves were assigned to sit. All 16 of the original members owned slaves, and Eli Bass, the largest slaveholder in Boone County in 1850, was a church member.

In 1919, the church saw its first major renovation. The original brick wall was covered by a layer of brick veneer, and the roof was raised with wooden beams.

“We have no idea how they got those beams up there,” Tichenor said. “Most likely with horses and pulleys.”

Two small alcoves were also added to each side of the building to make the church look like a cross from above.

“Airplanes were a new thing at time, so they thought that was cool,” Stephens said.

In 1954 an extension referred to as the annex was added to the south side of the church. That created an office for the pastor, and another room was divided into three Sunday School classrooms with drapes.

The layout of the sanctuary was also flipped. The pulpit moved to the middle of the western side of the sanctuary, while the main entrance was shifted to the east to be more convenient after U.S. 63 was built.

A 40-by-60-foot addition, along with a breezeway, was added in 1973 and became the new Sunday School classrooms. The breezeway was needed to connect the new addition to the annex, Tichenor said.

Another change was made in 1987 with the Short Addition, named after a family whose father and two sons were important to the church.

Then, between the months of January and April this year, the sanctuary was remodeled to resemble the 1919 version as closely as possible.

An example of the work: Rotting wood trim around the windows was replaced while still keeping the original 1919 glass windows.

A strong congregation

While the physical structure of Little Bonne Femme has changed over time, a strong, unified congregation has kept it running, Tichenor said. Without help from members, many of the renovations wouldn’t have been completed as quickly or as cost effectively, he said.

Remodeling the sanctuary in 1919 took only six months to complete and cost about $7,000 at the time. Although the documentation has been lost, it is widely believed that most of the labor was done by church members.

“I daresay, they had some men who knew plastering and could do it, so they didn’t have the amount of labor,” Tichenor said.

The church is also full of personal touches, whether intentional or not, that illustrate the congregation’s contributions.

A cross behind the stage in the sanctuary was built by a carpenter from the Short family. Stephens hung the lights in the sanctuary with his brother and a cousin in memory of a previous pastor. And a wooden window in the shape of a cross was installed in 1919, removed in the 1990s for repair and then restored by another church member — although it is now slightly askew.

“It’s not a building that makes a church, but the people,” Riehn said.

On Sunday, the church will insert a time capsule in a wall to be opened in 2119 during the church’s tricentennial. Among other things, MU memorabilia and artwork of the church will be placed inside.

“It may all be skyscrapers grown up around (the church) and air cars,” Tichenor said. “But I have faith we’ll still be here to open it.”

  • Public Life reporter, fall 2019 Studying Print and Digital News - News Reporting Reach me at nplmb7@mail.umkc.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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