Voices of a Global Movement: The building of the Oconto church

Photograph of lumberjacks in Wisconsin, c. 1890s, Courtesy of Chippewa Valley Museum.

Along the northwest shore of Lake Michigan, the small town of Oconto, Wisconsin, became a focal point in the history of Christian Science. About 2,600 people resided there in 1870, but as the lumber industry began to take advantage of northern Wisconsin’s richly forested wilderness in the 1880s, the town’s population surged above 5,000.

John E. Nelligan described his fellow lumbermen as “rough in dress and speech and manners, gaining their livelihood by the hardest kind of manual labor, living, loving, and laughing crudely.” But, he added, “still they were gentlemen.”1 Nelligan worked for two well-known builders in Oconto, the brothers James and Henry Sargent.2 Their wives were themselves sisters—Laura and Victoria Sargent—who later became important pioneers in the Christian Science movement. It was against the backdrop of this hearty lumbering community that the first Christian Science church building was completed in 1886.

Christian Science came to Oconto in the fall of 1883, when Hugh McDonald, a resident of the area, was visiting a dock near his lumber mill in nearby Fort Howard. He met a steamboat inspector who reported that his wife was benefitting from the prayer of a Christian Science practitioner. McDonald had never heard of Christian Science, but his own wife, Emma, was deathly ill. Their daughter Margaret “Kittie” McDonald recalled: “She [Emma] had been given up by the Doctors at home and specialists from Chicago, they said nothing could be done, and that she only had about six weeks to live.” In November, Emma travelled to Milwaukee to receive Christian Science treatment. By Christmas, she was well.3

The McDonalds told the Sargents about Christian Science, and soon both families had copies of Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. They shared Christian Science with friends, and a group started meeting on Sunday afternoons at the home of Lovina Millidge. Eventually she took instruction in Christian Science healing with Eddy, along with other women from these meetings, including Libby Beyer, Emma McDonald, Almeda Pendleton, Laura Sargent, and Victoria Sargent.

Oconto Church

Photograph of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oconto, Wisconsin, undated, Church Archives, Box 530771 Folder 239774

In June 1886, this little group officially organized as a Christian Science branch church.4 Records suggest that they asked Eddy for permission to construct a church building (something that had always been in their plans), to which she responded,“Go right on and build.”5

Henry Sargent donated a lot on which to build, and the group raised $1,100 (the equivalent of about $30,000 in 2017). They also received donations of lumber and money from local businesses.6

News of the building reached Boston, where Eddy had founded the Christian Science Church. A notice in the October 1886 issue of The Christian Science Journal anticipated the completion of the structure: “A fine Edifice is nearly completed, at Oconto, Wis., as a Christian Scientist Church. It will hold some four hundred. Who will go and be the pastor and preacher there?”7 The small wooden church was quickly completed, with the first services held on October 31, 1886. (The church accommodated about 100 people, rather than “some four hundred.”8)

A few months later, Mary C. Swift reported to the Journal about a visit she had made, giving some details about the church and its members:

Dear Journal: It has been my privilege to spend some time with the Christian Scientists of Oconto, where a beautiful little church has recently been dedicated.

The people were filled with gratitude and love for their Teacher, Rev. Mrs. Eddy, for having led them into the same highway of holiness in which the Master walked before them. They have renounced the world, with its allurements, and in every way strive to emulate the virtues of the meek and lowly One.

The church, with its complete furnishing, stands as a monument of the unity and faithfulness of the members. It is a reminder of the fulfilment of the promises of God to those who ask in trust. 9

In 1889 Eddy wrote a letter of appreciation. “Yours is a light that cannot be hid,” she declared. More than 130 years later, the “little church that built the first temple for Christian Science” still meets in Oconto—and still uses this beautiful and modest Victorian structure.10

Photos of individuals involved in the Oconto church, and their contributions to the Christian Science movement

Hugh McDonald, undated, P0126

Engraving portrait of Hugh McDonald, undated, P01269, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Studio portrait of Emma McDonald, undated, P01270

Studio portrait of Emma McDonald, undated, P01270, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Hugh and Emma McDonald were the first in Oconto to learn about Christian Science. Both united with The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1893, and served as Christian Science practitioners. Emma studied with Eddy and was a teacher of Christian Science.

Laura Sargent, undated, P01561

Studio portrait of Laura Sargent, undated, P01561, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Victoria Sargent, undated, P01573

Studio portrait of Victoria Sargent, undated, P01573, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Sisters Laura and Victoria Sargent both studied with Eddy, and united with The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1892. Both served as Christian Science practitioners and teachers. Laura was a member of Eddy’s household for many years, serving various periods between 1890-1910. In 1913, Laura taught the Normal class in the Board of Education.

 Lovina Millidge, undated, P01339

Studio portrait of Lovina Millidge, undated, P01339, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Almeda Pendleton, undated, P01432

Studio portrait of Almeda Pendleton, undated, P01432, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Sisters Lovina Millidge and Almeda Pendleton both studied with Eddy, and united with The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1893. Both served as Christian Science practitioners, and Pendleton was a teacher of Christian Science.

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  1. John E. Nelligan, “Introduction: John E. Nelligan’s story,” The Wisconsin magazine of history, September 1929, 33.
  2. Ibid., 86.
  3. Margaret ‘Kittie’ McDonald, “A short sketch of the pioneer work in Northern Wisconsin,” Church Archives, Box 530767, Folder 239744.
  4. Stover, Frances. “Christian Scientists’ First Church—Oconto, Wis.” Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee), June 14, 1952.
  5. Staff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor. “First Christian Science Edifice—50th Anniversary.” The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 1936.
  6. “First Christian Science Church in America.” Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee), January 18, 1925.
  7. “Church erected,” The Christian Science Journal, October 1886, https://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/2gvg7n6r5rk?s=t.
  8. Staff Correspondent, “First Christian Science Edifice.”
  9. “Church and Association,” The Christian Science Journal, June 1887, https://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/2pqh1xpgsos?s=t.
  10. See Eddy, “To First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Oconto,” Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, 149-150.; Kent Tempus, “Leindeckers revive 125-year-old church,” Green Bay Press Gazette, 25 October 2011, https://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/pz3ci3496u?s=t.