Upland Chronicles: Rev. Melvin Lonas has touched many lives
The first time Melvin Lonas lived in Sevierville, he was a student at the Church of God Bible Training School. Before he graduated, the school swapped campuses with the Church of God Home for Children, which was then located in Cleveland, Tenn. He continued his studies at the Bible institute in Cleveland on the campus of what is now Lee University.
Born Aug. 11, 1924, in Blount County, he married Marilyn Davis, also from Blount County, on April 5, 1943. In the ensuing years they had four children: Marvin, Marcia (Walker), Melissa (Cole) and Myra (Monroe). Lonas entered the Bible college the following year when he was 20.
After ordination as a minister in the Church of God, he began serving as pastor throughout East and Middle Tennessee. With a wife and eventually those four children to support, it sometimes was hard to make ends meet while ministering to the needs of rural congregations that provided only a modest income at best.
In fact, some congregations could not afford to pay a salary, forcing Rev. Lonas to find employment outside the church in order to pay household expenses. He worked in various capacities, including mail carrier and carpenter, and he stocked and sold merchandise in a grocery store.
The 1950s were particularly lean times, and Mrs. Lonas would sometimes write a grocery list and hand it out to members of the congregation, who in turn brought the family needed groceries, including farm-raised produce, for their table.
While he was pastor at Townsend Church of God, the first church in which he served in that capacity, Rev. Loans experienced an unsettling situation. It was the hot days of summer, and since the little church did not have air conditioning or fans for cooling, the doors and windows were wide open.
As he stood at the pulpit, prepared to deliver a sermon, Rev. Lonas spotted about a dozen Ku Klux Klan members wearing white robes and hoods, standing outside the church. One by one they entered the worship space and found seats among the startled congregation.
One of the Klansmen quietly approached the pulpit, handed a folded piece of paper to the astonished preacher and politely asked him to read it. Shaken, the young minister unfolded the note and, much to his amazement, discovered a $20 bill.
The note contained a message which stated that the church was respected, thanked them for the good work in the community, and declared, “If anyone gives the church any trouble just put the word out and we will take care of you.”
Some 40 years later, Rev. Lonas was summoned to Blount Memorial Hospital to pray for a man who was a cancer patient and didn’t have long to live.
After the patient introduced himself, Rev. Lonas remembered hearing the names of some of the Klan members who had lived in Townsend. He asked the man if he recalled the time the Ku Klux Klan came into his church. The man replied, “Yes, I do, because I was the one who handed you the note.”
In 1955, while Rev. Lonas was serving as pastor in Spring City, a train collided with a school bus in the middle of town, and 11 children were killed. Rev. Lonas was asked to officiate at the funeral services for four of the young victims. Two were brothers, 6 and 7 years old.
Through faith and perseverance, Rev. Lonas moved forward, preaching and teaching the Gospel. By the time he returned to Sevierville in 1962, to serve as pastor of the Sevierville Church of God on High Street, he was 38 and had already served as pastor at churches in Townsend, Mount Pleasant, Spring City, Columbia and Newport.
When he took over the reins of the fledgling congregation in Sevierville, Rev. Lonas immediately recharged members of his flock by suggesting they purchase a new organ. They began raising money by selling doughnuts made by the ladies of the church, using Mrs. Lonas’ secret recipe.
Mrs. Lonas played the new organ once it was installed. In addition to preaching, Rev. Lonas often sang solos, and she accompanied him on the organ. On occasion he played the saxophone while the choir was singing. He also sang in a trio with Boyd Franklin and Louise McMahan. Over the years, the trio could be heard at numerous church services and funerals. Mrs. Lonas was also the organist at Rawlings Funeral Home chapel for several years.
Meanwhile, Rev. Lonas, with the assistance of choir director Bobby Helton, stayed busy, introducing himself to the community members and learning their attributes as well as their idiosyncrasies. He spent countless hours and drove hundreds of miles visiting the sick and shut-ins.
To promote fellowship, Rev. Lonas initiated potluck gatherings called church suppers, in which members gathered at the home of a host church member for the purpose of dining together, socializing and strengthening the church family. Mrs. Lonas’ fried chicken was a big hit at these gatherings.
In a short time, he endeared himself to his church and community at large. He performed weddings, after counseling the couple. He officiated at funerals, and he provided compassionate guidance to those in need.
He was pastor at the High Street church for 16 years, longer than any other tenure. Before leaving the Sevierville church, Rev. Lonas oversaw the construction of an addition which included new classrooms and a fellowship hall, and plans were underway to build a new church building on Oak Street.
Rev. Lonas’ last assignment was at the Maryville-Alcoa Church of God, where he remained until retirement due to advancing eye disease, which affected the retina and prevented him from operating a vehicle. He has battled the disease all his life.
After his retirement, Rev. and Mrs. Lonas decided to remain in Sevierville. He performed wedding ceremonies at a wedding chapel in downtown Sevierville, and she worked at the Apple Barn.
To the shock of everyone, Marilyn Lonas died suddenly on April 13, 2002, at age 76. The loss of Rev. Lonas' loyal wife of 60 years was hard to endure. Fortunately, he later met Dianne Sellers Temple, and they married. Dianne has been a devoted companion for the past decade.
Rev. Lonas will celebrate his 90th birthday tomorrow. In addition to his wife and children, he is a proud grandfather and great-grandfather. Affectionately called Pappy by his family and many of his countless friends, Rev. Melvin Lonas can proudly reflect on his many years spent spreading the Gospel through his preaching, praying, and counseling, while building community and friendships.
Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email@example.com.