After nearly 150 years of weddings, funerals and Sunday services, this Clay County church is shutting down
'Society has changed, and it’s hard to fight that.'
GLYNDON, Minn. — One of Clay County’s first churches is closing its doors after 147 years.
Days before the final service, church members gathered to remember, refusing to call the Glyndon Congregational United Church of Christ’s closing anything but a “completion.”
"Completing the ministry they have done and passing on the building as a gift to the future, so the good from this congregation will continue to live on. It’s the mystery of life,” interim pastor Rosanna Walker said.
Inside the church's chancel, the original lectern remains. In the lobby sits a 1980s guestbook, with the last entry dated July 9, 2017. The little-used guestbook offers a glimpse into why the service on Sunday, Jan. 5, will be the church's last.
The lack of youth participation and general declines in churchgoing have brought the church to its knees.
Beginning as the Church at Glyndon, founding members first gathered in an old lime house in 1872, more than a month before the township of Glyndon was organized. Services were later moved to a cloth tent “meeting house” before the church, also called the Union Church for a while, was built for $600 at its current location in 1873, according to the church’s website. The church received its current name in 1921.
While some say the Glyndon Congregational United Church of Christ is the county's first, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County Senior Archivist Mark Peihl said according to his records Grong Lutheran Church in Rollag is most likely the county's oldest.
"But any way you look at it, Glyndon's church is one of the oldest in the county," Peihl said.
After the township’s founding in 1872, Glyndon quickly became a self-contained village, offering all the amenities prospective settlers could want, according to Glyndon's Red River Valley News. “You could do all the essential tasks of everyday life without leaving town,” said Rick Crume, the church treasurer.
According to a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial in 1873, Glyndon had a library with $100 worth of books including “Talmadge’s Abominations of Modern Society,” which was: “A good thing to have out here in Glyndon. Their 'society' consisting as it does for the most part of trappers, hunters, saloon keepers and Swedish servant girls.”
Curtis Burmhan, a nearly lifelong Glyndon resident, was baptized at the Glyndon Congregational United Church of Christ. Both his weddings were held in the church. His parents are buried in the local cemetery.
“Some people moved away, and some people died,” Burmhan said. “It’s kinda sad, but what else can we do?”
With less than a dozen people showing up each Sunday service in recent years, Walker said the church could only afford to pay church staff, and nothing more.
Walker is retired, but agreed to preach at the church and see its closing to the end.
“I was very humbled and inspired by this congregation,” Walker said. “It’s been wonderful to watch and realize that their ministry was to the wider world.”
Gary Miller, a former Sunday school teacher, remembered a time when nearly 100 children were enrolled in Sunday school, and when the church had more than 150 active members. “I grew up in Sunday school since I was 3 years old here. I’m going to miss it,” Miller said.
For Rick Crume's brother, life once revolved around the old church, but there’s “not much demand for a 150-year-old church in a small town,” Russ Crume said. “Society has changed, and it’s hard to fight that."
If the ornate stained-glass windows at the old Church at Glyndon could speak, they might reminisce of times of world war, area arsonists bent on keeping Moorhead the county seat, the Great Depression, the Roaring '20s.
Windows can’t speak, of course, and church records are limited. What is known is that Wednesday night services were cancelled about 25 years ago, and Sunday school classes ended less than a decade ago. The church’s closing has been inevitable for years, members said.
Across the country, churches have seen a “dramatic decrease in younger members,” Walker said.
More than 4,000 churches close their doors and 2.7 million church members become inactive every year, according to the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development . In 1900, for example, the U.S. had a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, but today there are fewer than 11 churches per 10,000 people.
If the trend continues, about 12% of Americans will attend church by 2050, according to the institute.
Walker said she will help make sure the church’s last remaining members are looked after and she will assist them in finding another church. The old church building, still in excellent condition, will not fall to ruin, she said.
“There’s a local group that is in the process of applying for nonprofit status,” Walker said. “When that is accomplished, then the church will be given to them. It is our belief they will maintain the integrity of the building and keep some of the church memorabilia on display.”
The name of the group will reportedly be revealed during the church’s final service. What the group will use the church building for has not been disclosed.
Former church members now living in Minneapolis and others as far as New Mexico have said they may attend the final service.
Rick Crume said pews, the original lectern and other items of historical significance will be donated to the Clay County historical society. Any leftover finances will be donated to charity.
If you go:
What: Glyndon Congregational United Church of Christ’s final service
When: 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 5
Where: 218 Eglon Ave. S., Glyndon, Minn.
Details: A potluck dinner will follow the service. Anyone with questions can call 218-498-2893.