Membership dwindling, Minnesota congregation makes decision to sell old church
HINES, Minn. - Even the Bibles changed hands. For the people who lost the place they prayed, that was about the best arrangement imaginable, that this little church would still host baptisms and weddings and funerals, even after the congregation ...
HINES, Minn. – Even the Bibles changed hands.
For the people who lost the place they prayed, that was about the best arrangement imaginable, that this little church would still host baptisms and weddings and funerals, even after the congregation had dwindled to a dozen, even after they had decided to sell their piece of heaven.
"It was our church," Cindi Wiebe said. "We never tried to join another."
First Lutheran in Hines stands old and white on a road that bends around crumbling buildings. Mass hasn't been held here for three years, but the new owner plans to live in the basement, hoping to keep the church open for families wanting a special service, what families remain.
Half the old congregation can fit around a corner table at Countryside Restaurant in Blackduck.
They pass the coffee like they passed the wine, catching up on grandchildren now that the place that binds them no longer does.
"I need," Connie Staudinger said, "to see their pictures."
The six couples of the old congregation were as much a part of the place as the stained glass.
They kept the church going for almost 10 years, vacuuming the floor and checking the heat so they could spend an hour every Sunday inside the faded white walls. They paid a retired pastor who lived in the neighborhood to lead services, and they tried their best to come every week, because someone needed to read the passages and collect the offering and pass the wine, because in this congregation, everyone knew if you skipped a Sunday.
"It was nice and close, and the people were friendly," Wiebe said. "It forced you to do things you normally wouldn't. It forced you to teach Sunday school."
The old congregation is losing touch, settling into different churches in Hines and elsewhere.
They drive by First Lutheran now but don't stop.
At breakfast the wives do most of the talking. They remember how the church once was packed, how the balcony started to go unused, then the pews in the back, creeping toward the altar.
The congregation made important decisions at supper clubs. The dinner table seemed the only appropriate place for church business, so recently they talked and ate, wondering what to do with the $42,586.24 in the church bank account.
Checks started rolling in this month at local shelters and charities and church groups:$1,000 to First Presbyterian Youth Group in Blackduck, $6,000 to Evergreen Youth and Family Services, $10,000 to the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless.
The loss hurts only a little less.
First Lutheran had been bookends to some lives, a place where they were baptized and mourned, where children visiting as adults were still made to read, where religious borders broke like bread, dissolved in the holy water.
"Heck," Wiebe said. "We were Methodists."
The church had its own funeral, a last service before it went up for sale.
"It broke my heart," said Donna Hendrickson, who attended First Lutheran for 70 years. "It always felt so homey."
Chuck Allen is fixing up the basement now so he can retire there and host the occasional service. Allen is the properties director at Oak Hills Christian College, and when he bought the old church, the congregation didn't so much mind handing over keys because they were handing over Bibles.
Most people, the congregation knows, would say they held on far too long, that when communion was complete halfway through the first hymn, they should have taken the hint.
"It was a miracle," Hendrickson said, "we kept it open."