WEST GARDINER — In 1955, as a recent graduate from Bible college, the Rev. Fred Benner reopened Wayside Chapel.

The white, nondescript church on Neck Road had been abandoned by a Quaker church years before, and it had no electricity. But Benner, in his mid-20s at the time, opened the church and began offering Sunday school classes and later started a nondenominational church service.

He married his wife, Ella, three years later, and the two continued providing Sunday school, picking up children in the area themselves, and slowly grew the church’s congregation, which they said totals around 35 to 50 most Sundays.

Finally, in August, nearly 60 years after opening the church, Benner, 83, stepped down from the pulpit for the last time.

“Stability. We very rarely miss church for any cause,” Benner said in a recent interview at the church. “Stability is of major importance in the church. People know that you will be there.”

People knew he would be preaching every Sunday for more than five decades. For that, the congregation and the community will honor Fred and Ella Benner, of Farmingdale, at a ceremony from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the church.

Ella Benner, 82, said she and her husband used to go door-to-door in the area, inviting people to come to the church.

“He felt that people needed to hear about the Lord, and this was here,” she said. “It was an opportunity to do that and give this area a place to come and worship.”

Many parishioners who started with the church have since died, Ella Benner said. Even people who started in the Sunday school have died, she said.

Ella Benner said she and her husband once received a letter from one of their former Sunday school students who had moved to the Midwest. The woman was writing from her deathbed.

“She wrote a letter thanking us,” Ella Benner said. “So thankful that we were the ones that brought her to the Lord to accept him as her savior. It was really rewarding. I wish I could hear from more of them.”

Donna McGibney, one of the children the Benners used to pick up for Sunday school, took over as pastor of the church in August. McGibney said she started going to the church around the age of 4 or 5.

Arlene Brann-Brown, 93, of West Gardiner, has been going to the church for only around a decade, but she said she’s known the Benners for most of her life. She said she thinks they’ve both led many people to find Christianity. Brann-Brown also spoke highly of Fred Benner’s sermons.

“He always started off with a little kind of a dry moment, and before he was through, we were all laughing in our seats,” she said. “He always brought out something funny. I never, in all of his preaching, ever heard that man say anything (bad) about another person, especially a pastor or another religion. He was not judgmental in any sense of the word.”

Another parishioner, Ron Dodge, 69, of West Gardiner, said without Fred Benner, the addition built in 2000 probably never would have happened. The church built the addition, which finally gave it bathrooms and a kitchen, with the help of volunteers, including Benner, who worked as a full-time contractor most his life.

“He’s been an excellent example,” Dodge said. “It’s hard to let him go. He’s been doing it for 59 years. He’s done his time.”

Fred Benner said if he hadn’t opened the church, the building probably wouldn’t be still standing. It was built around 1814, but the Quakers rebuilt it in 1850. Benner said he doesn’t know what happened between those dates, but he suspects it burned down and had to be rebuilt.

As to why he stayed all these years, Benner said his home was in Farmingdale, and he wasn’t about to move anywhere else. He also stayed because he wanted to help people.

“God makes a tremendous difference in life. He is the answer. He is the solution to the problems of the world and individuals and households,” Benner said. “I believe that is one of the major reasons why we stayed here. We recognize the importance of God in the lives of people and in their homes.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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