In the early 1950’s, Wendell Terwilliger, a recent graduate from a Bible College in South Carolina, came to Alaska to do mission and church planting work with his wife Pat. Wendell had long felt the call to mission service and through most of his college years had planned to serve in India. But in his senior year, the Lord spoke to him through the ministry of Alaska missionary Vince Joy, who was involved in church planting and other ministries in the Alaska Interior with SEND International. Wendell felt the call and heard of evangelical needs in Southeast Alaska. Originally starting out in Ketchikan, Wendell and Pat moved to Haines where they had heard of the need for an evangelical church to supplement the work the Presbyterians were doing.
Wendell was bi-vocational and paid bills by doing general carpentry around town and working at the cannery. Much of his work was for Carl Heinmiller who had purchased the old Army Post, Ft. William Seward, from the Department of Defense after it was de-commissioned. At that time, the Fort was part of a separate community called Port Chilkoot, later merged with the nearby city of Haines. Partly in lieu of pay, the Terwilliger’s were given title to two lots in Ft. Seward which Wendell used as a church site.
In 1954 Wendell completed a small home on one of the lots, reserving the neighboring lot for a church building. This home is the present church parsonage although it has seen several additions and modifications. Late that year, 1954, the Terwilliger’s started a Bible study and worship service in the home – a group which formed the nucleus of the later chartered, Port Chilkoot Bible Church. The group soon outgrew the house and moved to temporary quarters in one of the Fort buildings. Construction of the church building started in 1957 and was completed around 1961. Some time in the 1970s, the church officially chartered as Port Chilkoot Bible Church.
Until this time, the Terwilliger’s had been working on their own without affiliation with a denomination or a mission organization. It was during these early years of construction that they were approached by Gospel Missionary Union (GMU – now called Avant Ministries) about joining with them. GMU in the 1950s was involved in several ministries in Southeast Alaska including a boy’s home in Juneau and church planting in a half dozen Southeastern communities. GMU inherited property in Berner’s Bay to start Echo Ranch Bible Camp. They also started a number of Christian book stores several that are still in operation now in private hands. was also conducting an aviation ministry to serve logging camps.
Being of like doctrine, Wendell and Pat became GMU missionaries and received some assistance from the Mission which had a good missionary network in the area. All of the GMU-started churches are now autonomous being independent of the Mission. The major work GMU (Avant) now conducts in Southeast Alaska is Echo Ranch Bible Camp.
The last GMU missionary supported pastor was in the mid-1980s with Pastor Dick Oldershaw who began the process toward the long-term goal of bringing the church to be self-sufficient from Mission support. The next Pastor, Jim Miller, was supported completely by the church and Pastor Jim continued the process to move the church toward independence with release from Mission control in 1996. Because of a debt on the parsonage owed to GMU, title to the property did not transfer until 2002 when the church became its own non-profit organization under the corporation laws of the state of Alaska.
Port Chilkoot thus joins the rank of several other Protestant churches in town. Haines has a significant Presbyterian history with the Haines Presbyterian Church being the oldest and largest in the community. The Terwilliger’s and GMU saw enough doctrinal differences between the Presbyterians and some of the other Protestant churches, many of whom were charismatic in worship expression, to provide a conservative, non-denominational, non-charismatic church fellowship in town.