Peggy Keener: The birth of a church

Published 5:51 pm Friday, February 3, 2023

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The scene: the outskirts of Oakland, MN, July 31, 1856. A group of worshipers is gathered under the shade of a widespread tree. They are the first members of the new Presbyterian Church. But, small as their numbers are, their spiritual hunger is such that they increase so rapidly that even the expansive spread of the branches is not enough to contain them. (Well, probably that and their tiring of the all too frequent soaking rains.) As a result, in 1857, the motivated group formally obtained a real “church” building. It is a borrowed schoolhouse.

Historically, this acquisition takes place one year before Minnesota becomes a state and four years before the start of the Civil War. One hundred and sixty-six years ago!

By the end of the Civil War, the most prominent Presbyterian missionary of his time, Reverend Sheldon Jackson, founded a Presbyterian Church in Austin. It was housed in a small building at what is now 5th Avenue and 9th Street, N.E. Later an actual church was built, catering to the growing number of German speaking families on Austin’s east side. The minister was Reverend Henry Hormel, the brother of George Hormel. (And here you thought the Hormels were only about ham!)

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In its time, the modest white wooden church served three denominations. Eventually, the unpretentious little place of worship unceremoniously ended its spiritual calling when it was moved and became a nondescript barn on the outskirts of Austin.

During this time, four pastors had presided over the Central Presbyterian Church. Then a new building was constructed at the hefty price of $15,000. For the ensuing 27 years, seven more ministers served the congregation there. Reverend Reginald Coleman was the officiating pastor when my story began.

In the mid 1950s, even my unschooled eyes could readily see that the 47-year-old Central Presbyterian Church building was on the skids. Repairs were needed everywhere. That was the bald truth even though some members refused to admit it. To them the church was like a comfy pair of old shoes that despite its cracks and worn down heels, still felt just fine.

Personally, I saw the church as a disheartening array of grays. It said to me that God clearly didn’t come in technicolor, as if the joy of color would somehow detract from our reverence.

At the front of the church, the steps were in a poor state. This was especially dangerous on icy winter days. Even though we Presbyterians could rightly boast about our awesome pipe organ, we held our tongues when it came to our front steps. In no way did they hold a candle to the much more impressive Methodist stairs, for example, even though in my estimation there were entirely too many of them. Why, every Sunday a devout Methodist might believe he was heading straight heavenward as each riser brought him closer to God. Presbyterians barely got off the ground.

What you need to understand is that from my earliest years, the Central Presbyterian Church was, next to school, my entire social headquarters. How could I forget the highlights from those long past Sunday School days? Surely the grandest of them all was when we little kids had our brief but shining moment when our birthdays were celebrated. It was almost worth the yearly 365-day wait for this ten-minutes of fame when Miss Cora Dovenberg (a tiny sparrow of a woman whose entire life was devoted to the spiritual molding of us fractious wayward children), allowed the birthday child the privilege of putting pennies (one for each year of his life) into a twelve-inch-tall cast iron lighthouse. As our grubby fingers pushed each coin into the slot (whose paint had been rubbed off decades before), the lighthouse light briefly flickered. (One had to avoid blinking to catch it.) I clearly remember the powerful impact as my birthday coins, though miserly, helped to line the Sunday School coffers.

As I grew older, we teens never had what would have been thought of as riotous bust-ups in the church basement, or even semi-energized shindigs. Our ultra conservative minister would not have suffered such raw behavior. As a result, we resembled stiffly starched teenagers who had no idea that church could be a place of rambunctious—though respectful—joy.

But, then, overnight everything changed! Like a blood transfusion to an unresponsive patient, came the arrival of a new minister. This unplanned shift became necessary when Reginald Coleman, our preacher for the past 25 years, delivered a final prayer at a women’s gathering and promptly slumped onto the pulpit and died. Like a holy beckoning, a good portion of the stunned assemblage felt that, unfortunate as it was, it certainly was a fitting departure for a man of God.

Enter Lyndon Schendel. Reverend Party Central! In the blink of an impish eye, he rolled up the sleeves of his liturgical robe and declared, “Come on, kids, let’s have some fun!” In no time we got our game on with square dances, themed parties and even roller skating at Austin’s sin city roller rink. Moreover, at 14, I fell for my first love while away at summer church camp (get that … away at church camp!) during the moonlight stroll. (Yes, you heard me right. I said ‘moonlight stroll’.) Reverend Schendel was a blast of coolness!

But, as we partied, the controversy over refurnishing the old building dragged on. Even though the organ and its irritating unrectified eeeeeee had not found a solution, plans were nonetheless underway for the addition of some much needed Sunday School classrooms. The estimate was $150,000. Already one third of the money had been collected.

Then on the evening of October 18, 1953, everything came to an abrupt halt.

That is when God intervened.

To be continued.