It was a last goodbye.
It was equal parts memories, prayers and hymns, tears, laughter and smiles.
After 131 years in New England, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was closing its doors with a final service, a celebration and a meal Sunday.
It was a time for old members and those from neighboring churches to make one last visit to the little white church on 11th Street.
For Janel Kolar, it was the final step in a 16-year journey with the church in New England.
She had taken over the duties of former pastor Jerry Erickson and later, she also took over the same duties at the Dickinson UCC.
She will remain in Dickinson. Some members of the church may follow her to Dickinson, but both Kolar and her predecessor, Erickson, reminded the people attending the final service that a building was not the church. The church was made by the people who attended it and pumped their spirit into it.
They both asked the members to find a new home for their worship.
According to Kolar, time and membership had just run out for the church after 131 years. “There were fewer and fewer people here,” she recalled. “In the last two years, we had lost 10 to 15 members who moved or lost to death.
If you have a church that normally has between 15 and 25 people on Sunday mornings, that is really devastating. It just got to be where there were fewer and fewer of us. Sometimes, there would be three. Sometimes, there would be six or seven,” she said.
Although the interior of the church was immaculate, there was still things that needed to be repaired on the outside, she explained. Financially, it would be too much of a burden on the small group of people.
“The exterior of the building needs to be painted. Every time some little thing happens, it is a major cost and there just aren’t the people to support it. We just don’t have enough people to support maintaining the building,” she added.
She also recalled that the church had changed in recent years to adapt to an aging membership and make it handicapped-accessible.
“We had a member. She was having a harder and harder time getting up and down our steps. We have a really steep stairway where we used to have our meals downstairs. She just couldn’t… one day, I saw her just crawling up the steps and I said ‘okay we are done with this. We need to make our building handicapped accessible.’” she recalled. The church then removed several rows of the pews and moved the dinner upstairs and also put a handicapped ramp outside.
“We could have our meals up here. We had to replace the carpet anyway. So we have had all of our meals up here since.
The woman ended up in a wheelchair and was still able to attend the church because of the changes, Kolar added.
The final service brought more than 60 people to the church to say their last farewell. “That is amazing,” the pastor said when she found out the number of people at the service. “There were people from not only the church, but from the community, from the Lutheran Church across the street. We have always had a very special ecumenical relationship with the churches in this community. There was once an Assemblies church … their former minister was here. The Catholic priest was here. There has always been ecumenical services in our community in New England. Our churches are close. The people know each other very well.
“They sing together during the Christmas in New England time. We have meals together and are in service organizations together.
“Some of the people were from the Pierce church, which is in the country between Scranton and Highway 21. That church was yoked with this one at one time. They had meetings together between the two places.
“When Jerry retired, the Pierce church was able to go on its own and get a minister,” she added.
The “Service of Thanksgiving and Farewell” started with a hymn, then it was time for people to remember their time in the church.
They remembered the time one of the boys was slapped in the back of the head when another saw a mosquito there.
Then there was the time when another dropped something on the floor and hoped no one would notice. They did.
One woman recalled adding the word “elk” into a passage in church, and hoping people would not notice. She was later told that they didn’t know that there were elk in the Middle East.
There were memories of many generations coming to the church at one time and recognition that the youngest members would be the last to hold onto those memories.
Not an ending
Rev. Ken Trana, a representative from the Northern Plains Conference, reminded the people at Sunday’s ceremony of the church history with a Recognition of the End of Ministry. “In 1887, a faithful group of Christians founded Union Congregational Church to serve people of the new community of New England. Over the years, this church has changed many times, but remained faithful in serving Jesus Christ by providing worship, education, fellowship and love to members and friends alike,” he said.
The members responded with “We are thankful for the love, kindness and support shown to us in this place. We ask forgiveness for the mistakes we’ve made. As we close our doors, we carry with us all we have learned here and memories too numerous to mention.”
Rev. Trana responded with “We receive your gratitude, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now must close this church, We too ask forgiveness for our mistakes, We pray for every church that will nurture you in the faith as you move forward. Rest assured, your influence on this community, this Conference, and the United Church of Christ will not end at your departure.”
The service also had a comment for the friends of the church, both in the community and in surrounding nearby communities. “We are grateful to the First Congregational Church for your 131 years of ministry in New England. We offer support and love as you end this ministry and move on. We open our doors and our hearts to you and pray that you find a new church home and encourage you without pushing, recognizing that your hearts are broken and you need time to heal.”
The members responded with “We are grateful for the support of our Conference and our community. We know that God sees our pain and heals all wounds. We know that this building is not where the heart of God resides, but rather within each of us. We continue to be the church, whether gathered or scattered.”
The church building on 11th Street was built in 1914 and was dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1915 by Rev. J.E. Jones.
In 1948, it became a yoked parish with Pierce Congregational, which remained paired until 2002.
Some of the property of the church will be sent to the state historical society, while other items will go to the Northern Plains Conference, according to Kolar.
“Most of our archival material will go to the state historical society, where they will digitize all of that information and keep it there. People may want to know where people were baptized or who the minister was at that particular time,” she explained.
The large bell which once was in the belfry and later moved to a brick platform in front of the church, is now destined to be moved to the local cemetery. It had been donated to the church by Helen Hanson in the memory of her husband, Harold.
“It is going to the New England Cemetery because the family who donated it asked to put it there,” Kolar explained.
As for the building itself, there are no immediate plans for it, Kolar said. The church as a congregation owns the building. “As of January 1, any assets of the church will be transferred to the Northern Plains Conference of the United Church of Christ. That is our denomination,” she added.
According to the pastor, there were members of the congregation who had fears that it would be come a garage. “There were some fears as to what would become of it. But we kind of reminded them that the building is not the church. The church is the church because of the people who are in it,” Kolar added.
“This building will be long gone before the work and the memories the people have here.
“God never intended for buildings to be his house.”
The church had survived a brush with closing years earlier, but losing so many members in such a short time sealed its final fate this year.
When she started 16 years ago, Kolar said the church was planning on closing.
“This church actually though it was going to close because they just couldn’t see being on their own. They hadn’t prepared a budget or anything that year. The conference ministry asked me to come out and meet with them and they were totally shocked and happy that they could keep on going.
“It was a near miss, but we did some important work . A lot of the elderly members of the church were able to be buried here and have their funerals here.”
The service had a guest choir from Dickinson United Church of Christ performing the songs “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Saying Goodbye.”
The organist, Jackie Hope, was also from the congregation in Dickinson.
The final Benediction in the church was provided by Rev. Trana. “Go now, surrounded by our love, and led by the presence of Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
And with a final “Amen” Trana closed the door on the church on 11th Street, 131 years after it started by sharing one of the few buildings in the town.