Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church looks like a time capsule.

Perched on a rise west of Highway 63 just south of Columbia, the brick facade of its meeting house dates back to 1919, when the congregation renovated a building that dates to 1844. The church itself is even older. It was founded in 1819, two years before Missouri became a state and a year before the territorial legislature created Boone County.

Today, the grounds connect the 21st century with some of the proudest and darkest periods in the nation’s history.

Virginia Riehn, a retired nurse and bicentennial committee chair, began worshiping at the church in 1977 and serves as a deacon with her husband, Dewey. On Dec. 1, the church will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Members are celebrating the year with activities, T-shirts and even coffee cups, Riehn said. A local artist also painted a painting for the church.

“For something to exist for that period of time, there had to be something that drew the people together,” Riehn said. “And I think it is the loving fellowship that exists today where we care about one another.”

Anderson Woods, a Baptist preacher who moved to Missouri in 1816 with his wife, Elizabeth, founded the church about two miles to the northeast of the current site on Dec. 5, 1819, in a log cabin.

In September 1820, the church built a meeting house on land owned by War of 1812 veteran James McClelland. Pastor Bart Tichenor said the cabin likely sat just north of where the existing meeting house rests today.

McClelland mandated his land be used for education, Tichenor said. Boone County’s first higher education institution, the Bonne Femme Academy, sat on the land. Tichenor knows the northwest corner of the academy sat near the northern edge of the old meeting house.

In 1844, the church built a new building. Today, the log-supported floor and portions of three walls remain from the 1844 building.

A 1919 renovation added new exterior brick walls and added a porch. Roof beams are still in place from the 1919 renovation, but the pine roof panels date back to the 1950s.

“For 1919, in a rural setting, it was a tremendously impressive structure,” Tichenor said.

From the beginning of January through Easter Sunday, church members vacated the sanctuary and replaced rotted 1919 window cases with almost-identical new wooden window cases. The new window casings still house glass windows from 1919.

Pews in the church date to the 1950s. The most recent renovation shortened them to widen aisles from 22 to 30 inches to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Prior to 1953, the choir loft and pulpit sat on the eastern side of the church. An annex housing the church’s Sunday School classrooms and offices was added during a 1953 renovation. The layout was flipped, putting the pulpit in the middle of the western side.

A cemetery just a few steps outside the sanctuary’s doors contains the remains of a Revolutionary War soldier. Some of the tombstones are cracked, or too old and worn away to be read. No known veterans of the Civil War lie in the cemetery, though if any unnamed Civil War vets are buried on the church grounds, they likely were from the Confederacy, Tichenor said.

As Boone County and Columbia approach their own bicentennials, community leaders are grappling with ways to reconcile the fact that slave owners founded many beloved local institutions.

Slave owners founded the church and owned other people, a fact which Tichenor is not shy to acknowledge.

“It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp,” Tichenor said. “It’s fact.”

While sitting in a pew as sunlight flooded the northern part of the sanctuary and shadows crept across the southern portion, Tichenor paused.

He pointed to the northwest corner of the sanctuary where slaves once sat in two rows of pews in the back of the old setup. He glanced to his left and imagined Eli Bass, at one point the largest slaveholder in Boone County, sitting a few feet in front of him on the building’s southern side.

“If these floors could talk, they would tell us that’s where Eli and his wife sat,” Tichenor said.

Once each month this year, Little Bonne Femme celebrates its bicentennial by having a church member talk to the congregation about moments in the church’s history. The February message centered around the church’s history with slavery.

Tichenor does not think modern standards should be used to judge people of the past. At the same time, he does not think the men should be absolved.

Today, Little Bonne Femme has about 180 members, but only about 70 to 75 attend the one service every week. The church reached a plateau where it’s not growing but not shrinking, Tichenor said.

A time capsule will be placed in a wall to be opened on the tricentennial in 2119. Members are gathering ideas for what should go in the box, Riehn said. University of Missouri and St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia will likely go in the time capsule, Riehn and Tichenor said.

Riehn and Tichenor know civilization changed in ways far too numerous to count since early settlers founded the church to serve rural residents. Some members of the church are from families that began attending the church decades ago, Tichenor said.

The building may change and the cemetery may fill up, but Tichenor and Riehn believe its members will find a way to ensure Little Bonne Femme reaches its tricentennial.

“They have a vested interest,” Tichenor said. “They are part of the community and so those people are what is going to see that it carries on.”

pjoens@columbiatribune.com

573-815-1722