Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
Pawnee Rock Bergthal Mennonite Church, May 2013.
Last week, while sorting though a box of my late father’s photographs, I found several pictures of our family church. Had my dad been alive this past year, he would have been deeply saddened by the news of the church’s closing and demolition.
The Pawnee Rock Bergthal Mennonite Church was a red brick country church, located on a paved road about 3 miles north of town. When I was young, the stained-glass windows were raised on summer Sundays, and so the congregation heard the occasional whoosh of a passing car, or, more often, the bright chirp of a western meadowlark.
In late December, my stepmother and I drove to the church to check on the progress of the building’s removal. Headed west from Great Bend on Tenth Street, Betty and I passed mile road after mile road, plowed field, stubble field and pasture. When we reached the paved road, the church road, we drove south three more miles.
Last year, on Memorial Day Sunday, Betty, Dave and I attended the church’s farewell service. The building was in disrepair and the congregation had grown too small in number to have the financial resources to maintain it. Church members chose to have the building torn down rather than let it turn ugly with decay and vandalism.
I had no idea what the demolition schedule was, but on that December Saturday, I guess I had expected to see the church perhaps half gone, with a bulldozer or a wrecking ball standing nearby.
Instead, when Betty and I approached the hilltop intersection, we saw nothing. Nothing. The church was completely gone. In its place was a flat patch of soft dirt. The sandy parking lot had been covered with buffalo grass for decades, so that hadn’t changed much, but the outbuilding, the power pole, and the propane tank had all been removed.
I felt an emptiness in my chest because there was nothing left to show that the church had ever existed at all. The property had been returned to a natural setting.
The empty feeling faded when I began to realize that this was exactly what I would have expected from the church members. They have always been good stewards of the earth.
As farmers, Mennonites respected the land. And they took care of their personal belongings. My dad never left dirt on a shovel. Tools were cleaned and put away. Like many survivors of the Great Depression, my frugal grandmother washed and reused aluminum foil. She saved rubber bands and buttons and fabric scraps. She cut cereal boxes into squares and triangles and used them as patterns for her quilt blocks.
The Mennonites seemed mindful of the work before them. When the older women gathered on Wednesdays to quilt in the church basement, every hand stitch was sewn with attention and care.
In October 2013, an auction was held at the church. Those who felt a connection to the place were given the chance take home a physical reminder: wood flooring, light fixtures, pews, and stained-glass windows.
A newspaper article by Veronica Coons in the Great Bend Tribune told about the auction. Coons interviewed the church treasurer, Jolene Hetzke, who said that tables, chairs and hymnals had been sent to a church in Texas. Hetzke mentioned that a few of the bricks would be used to build a memorial at the Mennonite Cemetery a mile away, and that the highway department at Larned would use the remaining bricks as road base.
So yes, the building materials and its fixtures were recycled, given new assignments on this planet.
The building was not left to decay. And the spot of earth where the church once stood can be used again. I felt a satisfying sense of wholeness and of completion. In an act of reverence, the Mennonites gave the land back to itself.
Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh
Follow Flyover People on Facebook.
Purchase Flyover People book online.
Purchase Flyover People book on Kindle.