Crane Chapel to celebrate 75 years

Published 8:22 am Friday, November 19, 2010

There’s a lot of history to be celebrated this weekend at Crane Community Chapel. Around this time every year, Crane Chapel holds its anniversary celebration, but this year’s 75th Anniversary celebration means a little more to church patrons.

It’ll be about remembering how the church was founded in 1935, under tents on Eastside Lake or in Sunday school with John G. Hormel. It’ll be about remembering “The Family Hour,” a weekly cable television program hosted by Joe Matt, Jr., and his family. It’ll be about giving thanks for the church, a mainstay in the Austin area.

“It’s important for us to be grateful for what God has done in our lives,” said the Rev. Dale Christianson.

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As retired Rev. David Matt remembers it, his grandfather, Joe Matt, Sr., was a very rich man from South Dakota who lost all of his money during the Great Depression. After working in the post office and moving his family around, the elder Matt decided to come to Austin in 1935.

“He felt the call of the Lord to start a Sunday school,” the elder Matt said. While the elder Matt was busy organizing a group of people for weekly prayers, John G. Hormel of the Hormel family also felt the need to start a Sunday school, which he ran out of his house at the time. Pretty soon, Hormel decided to leave the preaching to Matt Sr., a Methodist preacher.

The elder Matt had moved a small congregation out to a tent over by what was known as Eastside Lake. Hormel decided to give the elder Matt the house he’d run his Sunday school service in, and from there he could grow a congregation.

In 1936, a chapel of 20 feet by 36 feet was constructed at 1111 Ninth St. NE, the first of several construction projects the church would undergo. People sat on 12 inch boards during services.

The elder Matt’s son, Joe Jr., was already a youth minister teaching Sunday school in the building, according to David, the younger Matt’s son.

“Dick Knowlton was in his Sunday school class,” the elder Matt said.

It was soon the younger Matt’s time to take over his father’s congregation. In the summer of 1945, the elder Matt gave his son the deed to the church property, so he and his wife could work in a mission in Minneapolis. The younger Matt then became the new church leader and was ordained in 1951. At that point, the small congregation of the Gospel Mission of Austin became Crane Community Chapel.

While the younger Matt worked at the Hormel office in the day, he spent his nights and weekends ministering to his congregation as well as visiting hospitals, running a meditation hot line, conducting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other community works. According to David, the younger Matt didn’t get very much sleep because he was too busy helping the community.

“I just picked up an old Austin Daily Herald that said my dad was one of those that could go in and out of the police station,” David said. “He was kind of a community chaplain. He would do anything for anybody.”

One of the largest undertakings the Matt family did was the weekly “Family Hour,” cable television special, which ran on Channel 6. Joe Jr.’s wife, Della, would tell stories and share morals. David, who served as a youth minister for several years at Crane Chapel, gave practical advice. The Froiland family put on a puppet ministry segment. Joe Jr. would speak and give sermons on the air.

“It was all supported by donations, and they never asked for any donations,” David said. “The only thing that was said was ‘This ministry is provided by donations’ at the beginning of the program. They didn’t say it.”

The cable show ran for 45 years, while the meditation hotline lasted for 47. Over the years, the church has experienced its ups and downs, including a fire in 2005 that demolished the building, which police suspect was arson. However, there are plenty of good stories to off-set the bad.

David recalls the time he visited a man by the name of Buster, who was named after Buster Brown shoes, in the hospital. He and his father would minister to the sick and do visitations with the dying. Buster, the elder Matt said, was one of the men whose time was drawing to a close.

Buster had seen the elder Matt and his father on the “Family Hour,” which made him call for the pastors as he felt weaker. Buster asked Matt to preach to his family, to explain to them how “they also could have the insurance of Heaven.”

“I came back with the family, and he couldn’t talk anymore, and passed away with a smile on his face, because he was content that his family now knew,” the elder Matt said. “That’s all because of my dad’s television.”

The elder Matt and his mother Della will be in Austin this weekend to celebrate the church’s anniversary. On Nov. 20, the church will hold an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. followed by a concert featuring the Songmasters from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The church will hold a celebration service at 10 a.m. Nov. 21, where church members will give testimonials of how their lives have changed by being a part of Crane Chapel, followed by a catered luncheon at noon. There will be coffee and rolls at 9 a.m. before the service.

As the church celebrates, the Rev. Christianson hopes to get the church to look forward.

“Our theme for our whole weekend is thanking God for the past, trusting God for the future,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be willing to follow His leading.”