A Visionary Call and a Vital Heritage

Heritage Ministries began 136 years ago after a young man had a train-wreck conversion and then received visions about meeting the world’s needs. As needs have shifted over the years, Heritage has adapted and expanded into a leading provider of senior services from New York to Washington states.

Walter Sellew wasn’t known as being particularly spiritual during his initial time as a Dartmouth College student. That changed after spending Christmas break in Dunkirk, New York, and boarding a train for the return trip to Hanover, New Hampshire.

“On his way back to college, the train that he’s riding on begins to derail. He’s in the middle of a train accident, and the train is going rather quickly into the Connecticut River,” said Heritage Ministries Senior Chaplain Larry Petry in a conversation with Brett Heintzman on a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast.” “He’s in the middle of this train wreck, and he does what any of us would do and just has this moment where he cries out, ‘God, get me out of this, and I’ll give my life to You. Just help me out, and I’ll follow you.’”

Sellew survived the terrifying experience.

“The train goes into the water of the Connecticut River. The car that Sellew was in gets slightly submerged, but his part of the car does not go underwater,” Petry said. “He comes out of the train through an open window, and he walks away from this train wreck unscathed, and then like any of us he tries to go on with his life.”

A few weeks later, Sellew woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep.

“He’s probably disturbed by this promise He made to God and the state of his soul,” Petry said. “He kneels beside his bedside, and he has a real encounter with God transforming his life, beginning a real relationship with Jesus and then the call on his life.”

Sellew finished his law studies and worked for his family’s business before becoming ordained. He served as a Free Methodist bishop from 1898 until his death in 1929, according to biographer Richard R. Blews. One of his most enduring accomplishments resulted not from his time as a bishop but from visions he received during his earlier years of serving God.

“He has these visions, which really break his heart for the needs of the world at his time,” Petry said. “In his visions, as he recounts it, he sees a road marked ahead of him, and it’s just filled with young people who are marching off to destruction.”

Sellew saw himself crying out to persuade the young people to turn away from destruction, but they kept marching so he lay in front of them.

“They end up climbing over him, around him, through him,” Petry said. “He is just so heartbroken by this vision, by this call that he has, that Walter Sellew felt compelled practically to begin meeting the needs of his world.”

In 1886, Sellew and ministry partners founded the Orphanage of the Free Methodist Church, which soon became known as the Gerry Homes.

“The work of caring for orphans began with Sellew’s train wreck conversion story,” said Petry, who added that Heritage Ministries’ Gerry, New York, campus is located on the orphanage site. “One of our current office buildings was actually the infirmary.”

As the Gerry Homes cared for orphans, its leaders realized that senior citizens also needed care. For a time, children and older adults simultaneously received care on the property, which gave the site an intergenerational family atmosphere.

Petry said the Gerry Homes cared for a total of 1,300 orphans before evolving needs and regulations led to its leaders “closing the operations of the orphanage and shifting primarily to focus on senior care.” Heritage Ministries’ services have since expanded within New York state and also to the states of Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington.

Some of the Gerry Homes orphans’ sons and daughters are still alive, and Petry also encounters senior citizens who knew orphanage workers. He sees Sellew’s actions as an example for us.

“We can follow God’s call in our times today, and God only knows the legacy that we can leave,” Petry said.

Click here to continue reading this story where it was originally published by Jeff Finley by Light + Life. 

Click here to listen to the Light + Life Podcast, which aired April 4, 2022 with Larry Petry hosted by Brett Heintzman.