For its September 2016 meeting, about 35 members of the East Side History Club visited the Assumption Greek Orthodox church. Ann Waidelich spoke about the history of Bashford Methodist Church, which originally occupied the site at 11 North 7th Street, and Father Mike Vanderhoef shared his personal history with the church, which he attended as a boy and now makes his spiritual home. Then the attendees moved to the church’s sanctuary to view the remarkable iconography painted by local artist* David Giffey over 30+ years.
Here’s what we learned:
Bashford Methodist Church traces its history back to 1919 when the Methodist Union bought two lots on North 7th street from the Girstenbrei family as the site for an East Side Methodist Church, which was its name until 1945. They were somewhat hesitant about the site because it was so far out–almost at the very limits of the city–but they went ahead because there were indications that both an elementary school (Emerson) and a high school (Madison East) would be built in the vicinity, which would attract more residents to the neighborhood.
The Methodists pitched a large tent to serve as their worship hall, but soon afterward a 30′ x 60′ “tarpaper shack” was erected with a cinder-covered dirt floor. Wood boards on packing crates served for pews, a wood burning stove for heat, and a very old grand piano for music.
The building was below the sidewalk grade and was surrounded by water after every rain.
In 1922-23 the building was remodeled, adding stucco to the outside, plasterboard walls on the inside, and a new roof. The structure awas jacked up onto posts to position it above the waterline.
The anticipated schools were built, and the neigbhorhood population grew–and so did the congregation. In 1941 the congregation decided to tear down the old building and build a new church on the site. (They worshiped in Schenk’s Hall, a space above the Schenk-Huegel store in Schenk’s corners for almost nine months while the church was being built). The church adopted the name “Bashford” in 1945, for Methodist Bishop James Bashford. (His brother, Robert Bashford, was mayor of Madison and a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice.)
By 1953 Bashford had grown to 912 members and, again, they needed a bigger space. At first an addition to the 7th Street church was proposed but by April of 1954 the church voted to spend $100,000 on a new church on North Street and sell the old church to Assumption Orthodox Church.
Madison’s Assumption Orthodox Church is a Pan-Orthodox church which means it welcomes not only Greeks but also Russians, Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Lebanese, and people of any nationality who worship in the Orthodox manner.
The early Madison residents who were members of the Orthodox faith had to go to Fond du Lac , Milwaukee or Chicago to attend services. During WW II the military commissioned an Orthodox priest to come to Truax Field once a month to minister to the Orthodox soldiers training there and on the UW campus. Some Madison residents also attended these services, which encouraged the local residents to organize a congregation in 1951. Still, a priest had to come from Milwaukee or Chicago. These services were held in Grace Episcopal Church.
The Orthodox congregation heard that Bashford Methodist Church was going to build a new church on North Street and wanted to sell their old church on 7th Street. T $50,000 was raised to purchase the building. For about a year both congregations used the building on 7th Street until the new Bashford Church was completed.
Then work began to convert the interior of the building into an Orthodox Church, but it wasn’t until 1963 that the first full-time priest was assigned to the Madison parish.
In 1976-77 Madison architect Alex Frunza, a member of the church, offered to design a remodeling of the building. According to the church’s website:
…Alex Frunza, a member and an architect from Romania… brought forth a plan to remodel the existing Church structure to improve the building, and to transform it into a traditional Orthodox Church. Because of his tireless efforts and his own monetary contributions, the Sunday School gained new space, the dome, apse, nave and iconostasis (icon screen) were remodeled and a Bishop’s throne was constructed. His efforts insured that AGOC would have a home and presence for a long time in Madison.
During the remodeling, the congregation held services in the Edgewood College chapel.
In 1980 a converted Irish Catholic named David Giffey, who had studied icon painting in Greece, offered to decorate the church interior. The iconography represents 1500+ years of gradition in which the artwork serves as a visual reminder of the church’s sacred stories. The images placed on the upper walls represent holy characters and scenes, while the icons on the lower walls represent historical figures, “creating a bridge between heaven and earth,” David said. The images are painted on canvas and attached to the walls using successively thinner layers of plaster. David studied icon painting with master iconographers and muralists during two years spent in Greece beginning in 1977.
In summer 2016 the church completed another remodeling which enhanced its Orthodox look, enlarged its footprint, and made it even more appealing to a growing congregation of Pan-Orthodox worshipers, not only the descendants of the original parishioners but also Orthodox people who come to Madison from all over the world to study at the University and work at EPIC !!
Father Mike Vanderhoef can claim an unlikely connection to the original Methodist church. Growing up attending the Greek Orthodox services, he heard only acapella music, as that was part of their tradition. When it was time to attend college, he felt compelled to major in organ, and holds a BA in that instrument from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He recently learned that his great great aunt, Ida Vanderhoef, played the organ for the Methodists. “I never knew where that seed in me came from until now,” he said. It amuses him to think that “Where she sat when she played the organ back then is just a few feet behind where I stand when I preach today.”
Mrs. James J. (Ida) Vanderhoef sits at the newly dedicated Joyce and Victor Glenn Memorial Organ at Bashford Methodist church located at the corner of North 7th Street and East Washington Avenue. WHS Image 62203, 11/3/1949, by Arthur Vinje.
This report was compiled by Ann Waidelich and reported by Sarah White.
*David Giffey is also a widely respected journalist and oral historian.