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Death of a Church

June 4th, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Bergthal Mennonite church



I knew I would feel sad, but I didn’t expect to cry. Nevertheless, tears filled my eyes as soon as the congregation began singing the doxology.

Every Sunday morning during my childhood, as the ushers carried filled collection plates to the altar, the congregation sang “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

On that morning of May 26, I knew it would be the very last time I heard doxology sung at the Pawnee Rock Bergthal Mennonite Church.

“If it feels as if you’ve come to a funeral today, well you have, kind of,” Pastor Lynn Schlosser said as she began her sermon.

In the 1870s, hundreds of German Mennonites immigrated to Kansas from Russia, many at the invitation of the Santa Fe Railroad which wanted to populate the region. A group of 21 families settled in the Dundee-Pawnee Rock area of Barton County, and in 1875 they began the Bergthal Mennonite Church. Among them were my father’s ancestors.

The cornerstone on the current church has a 1915 imprint. Ninety-eight years. Soon, this structure will be dismantled. Leaks in the roof have caused mold to grow in the basement. An abandoned church would either cave in over time or be subject to cruel vandalism. Watching that decay would be doubly tragic, so the congregation made the difficult decision to raze the structure.

The red brick church stands at an intersection on a slight hill about three miles north of Pawnee Rock. The sanctuary, nursery and a classroom occupy the main floor. The basement holds additional classrooms as well as a kitchen and a large meeting space.

Rural depopulation has dropped the attendance to about 14 on any given Sunday. While this church once represented a large farming community, those family farms have diminished and the families themselves have disappeared. Kids, including me, went off to college and started lives elsewhere. Church elders have passed on.

I knew these folks to be kind people, dedicated to service. The congregation was comprised of sturdy and stoic Germans who didn’t waste resources or words. And they held to their principles; you were unlikely to see a farmer cutting wheat on a Sunday afternoon even though his ripened crop might be ruined by that evening’s storm.

Each Sunday morning my family parked in the sand-and-sticker parking lot. During Sunday school my friends and I memorized Bible verses and drew maps of the travels of Jesus in Judea, Samaria and Galilee. During the service, I sat with my friend Amy and we played “Dots and Boxes” in the margins of the church bulletins. When we were about 14, my classmates and I gave testimonials and were baptized, sprinkled with water – the Mennonite way.

On this recent Memorial Day Sunday, the church was packed, every seat taken. Stained-glass windows were raised to let in the gusty wind, a constant on this hill. Families reunited – brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins. The Mennonites came to say goodbye to the building.

“I am thankful so many of you have come home one more time to this people, this place, this church, to tell her how much you have loved her and how much she has meant to you,” Pastor Schlosser told the congregation.

“Two and a half years ago, rather than to deny the church’s condition any longer, we faced reality and acknowledged the condition was terminal, and began a really emotional journey preparing for the end while simultaneously working to live and serve fully throughout our final years.

“I promise you, Bergthal will live on, does live on, in a myriad of mysterious and holy ways,” Rev. Schlosser said.

“We’ve dealt with such a mix of emotions these last few years: grief, anger, shame, disappointment, relief, confusion.

“Surely we’ve let all these good people who labored hard to build this church, surely we’ve let them down,” she said.

“We see through a mirror but dimly. But if we listen closely, we might just hear their voices raised in a song of triumph. I believe they stand together this day, singing a song of hope and faith. They see what we can only intuit.”

Soon this house of worship will be taken down with due respect. Those of us whose lives have been touched by this church and by its people will carry its story and its love with us forever.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

For more photos, see Dave Leiker’s Closing Ceremony – Bergthal Mennonite Church.

churches, columns, nostalgia, small towns

  1. Ralph
    June 4th, 2013 at 12:41 | #1

    Thank you for writing this Cheryl. It is sad but also beautiful. And thanks to Dave for the beautiful photos.

  2. Cheryl
    June 4th, 2013 at 13:23 | #2

    Thanks, Amy.

  3. Patricia
    June 4th, 2013 at 13:35 | #3

    This building housed the gatherings of faith-filled, friendly people through the years. I remember “guest” attending about once a month through the 80’s–usually when the congregation held one of those delicious potluck lunches after service. Even though I was Catholic and would never be a member of this church, I was always welcomed like one of their own and even attended Mennonite camp.

  4. Flips
    June 4th, 2013 at 14:51 | #4

    Sad– but what a great way to close the church with grace & respect for the building & those it represented & most important- “who” they came to worship!!

  5. Donna Boese
    June 4th, 2013 at 17:25 | #5

    A beautiful tribute to a great group of people. Surely, those in heaven are rejoicing for the many years this church touched lives and families. It will live on, as the pastor noted. In the lives of those who are left behind. Those whose lives were changed because of faithful people and faithful pastors have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who will continue the legacy. Maybe in a different church, but certainly changing peoples lives with the gospel and love of Christ.

  6. June 4th, 2013 at 19:19 | #6

    “Rural depopulation has dropped the attendance to about 14 on any given Sunday. While this church once represented a large farming community, those family farms have diminished and the families themselves have disappeared. Kids, including me, went off to college and started lives elsewhere. Church elders have passed on.”

    How very, very heartbreaking. How Kansas is changing. Right before our eyes.

    When a church is razed, what happens to our history? What happens to our lives?

    The same with the First Baptist Church on Constitution Street in Emporia ruled by the great officials of the City of Emporia to be razed and turned into a Parking Lot.

    Kenyon Hall was saved. Lowther and EHS was saved. The Granada was saved. Why is it a constant Battle to save the Past?

    Why can’t historic renovation be an integral part of saving our disappearing Midwestern heritage and history?

    Especially now, as Kansas and Emporia the great Athens of the Midwest shrinks as the New Depression looms over us?

    What happens to God when a Church is razed?

  7. June 4th, 2013 at 19:49 | #7
  8. June 4th, 2013 at 21:46 | #8

    Beautiful, Cheryl.

  9. June 4th, 2013 at 22:39 | #9

    Thanks so much Cheryl. Your article holds much of what my heart keeps in a safe place of precious memories.

  10. 1206SWMO
    June 10th, 2013 at 15:58 | #10

    A very touching story..Its always sad to see a church close thats been around as long as that one..In my trips across rural Kansas I find quite a few empty churches..Some are in great repair and some are in disrepair..They all have a story to tell..When you drive 3 miles between farms its easy to see why they closed….I was in Pawnee Rock on May 31st..

    Even in my area 3 rural churches have closed in the past 4-5 years,all due to the fact that farms that were once 320 acres are now 2000-3000 acres..

  11. roger hanhardt
    June 17th, 2013 at 06:52 | #11

    I too fell your sadness. I was there Memorial Weekend and was so thrilled to see the huge crowd. I always admired the Mennonite Community of Pawnee Rock; in high school they seemed so pure, smart, gracious, talented, and kind. It was their heritage. Pawnee Rock as I knew it, is no longer there. God’s graces to it.

  12. Gary D. Harms
    September 19th, 2013 at 12:52 | #12

    I am a grandson of Benjamin Siebert, a child among the immigrants that came to the Dundee-Pawnee Rock area. I attended the Bergthal Church from birth to age 5. My father, Harold Harms, and mother, Addie Alice Siebert, moved in 1942 to Great Bend. We continued to have connections with the Bergthal Church mainly through my uncle and aunt Otto and Malinda Siebert Schmidt. As a young child I remember witnessing the baptism of my first cousin Frances Siebert Rempel. For many years our family attended Christmas Eve services at the church. The church has been most influential in my life and spirit.
    Gary Harms, Wichita, Kansas