Last call to worship
By KAREN SCHWALLER
Farm News staff writer
MILFORD – A gentle breeze gave life to nearby tree branches, while the mid-morning sun glistened off of the corn stalks that lined the church grounds to the east. Stones in the cemetery on the hill just west of the church reflected that same light, and stood facing the church as quiet testimony to its importance.
It was a warm August morning, and the church doors were wide open, welcoming both a cool breeze, and more guests. Approaching the church, the congregation could be heard singing “Alleluia!” as the organ accompanied them.
The church steeple and cross stood tall and proud as it reigned over the final worship services of Little Sioux Lutheran Church-ELCA, southwest of Milford on Aug. 15.
Inside, the bishop stood before a capacity congregation of more than 100 people seated in pews and standing in the back, and spoke of the beauty and serenity of the church and its location near the rolling hills of the Little Sioux River.
“Who could drive by this place and not see it?” asked the Rev. Michael Last, Western Iowa Synod bishop from Storm Lake.
Glen Savage began the service in his capacity as interim pastor, with his final message to a reflective congregation there. His voice cracked with emotion as he asked his people to “leave behind the experiences of the past, and look forward to an exciting future.” He asked them to remember all that had been done over the years at Little Sioux Lutheran, and to “look ahead at spreading the good Word of God” in a new location.
Church members and guests had a chance to stand and share memories of the life of the church over the years – several speaking of life-long ties, generations of families who attended there since their baptisms, and the strong seeds of faith that had been planted there.
Sunday school antics and chicken dinner stories were also shared as people laughed and remembered.
Shortly after that, Bishop Last spoke to those in attendance, asking them to think about the impact that Little Sioux Lutheran has had over the course of 139 years.
“Think about all the sermons that have been preached here, the thousands of opportunities for the Word to be shared with all the funerals and weddings the number of people who have knelt at this altar to be married and begin their family lives – thousands of them.
“Some of them, your ancestors,” he said. “Just think about the power of the Word that has happened here. It has stood as silent testimony to the Christian faith here.”
Still, as the poignancy of the morning gave way to quiet prayer and reflection, Bishop Last asked the people to rejoice.
“We have much to rejoice over and be thankful for as we take leave of this place,” he said. “Together, we gather for the last time at Little Sioux Lutheran, thankful for the ministry here, for the opportunity for people to be fed and nurtured in the Christian faith. At the dedication of this building it was customary to ask God’s blessings; today we return to that as well.”
The bishop then officially declared the building as vacated in the name of the Holy Trinity, thanked God for the work accomplished there, and a moment later – at 10:48 a.m – he declared the church officially closed, ending 139 years of existence for this small country church and its faithful.
A handful quietly dabbed tears away. Others choked back lumps in their throats. Many pondered the day quietly, without openly showing emotion.
A moment of silence followed, but not before Bishop Last thanked God for the oneness of the people who ministered in the name of Christ, and asked them to find new places to be disciples of Christ. He blessed the congregation as it stood and answered, “Amen.”
They closed their worship service with a song of praise – “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”
As the service ended, members of the congregation shared more memories.
“I was five years old when I moved here,” said Norm Winter, 78, of Milford, his voice struggling to maintain control. “It’s another chapter in life that is closed, and that I will cherish. I hate to see it go, but I know that nothing is forever. When I leave this church, I feel like I’ve been to church. We have to take this step, but I’m not sure where I’ll go now. This place will always be in my heart.”
Contact Karen Schwaller by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roseanna Titterington has also been a life-long member of Little Sioux Lutheran Church, which is named after the river that flows nearby. Her mother, Alice Johnson, was the Sunday School superintendent for many years.
“I was baptized, confirmed and married here, and all 10 of our grandkids were baptized here, along with several of our great-grandchildren,” Titterington said. “I feel so many wonderful memories of how our faith was implanted in usI will always remember Little Sioux Lutheran.
“My fondest memories were all those baptisms, confirmations and weddings. They truly meant so much more because of how involved our faith family was with each other. In our sickness and in our happiness, our church family felt it as well.”
Jeane Tatman and her husband, Ellsworth Tatman, have been members since 1950. She remembered how much work the three-day annual chicken dinners were – one day to dress the chickens, the second to prepare pies and serve the dinner, and the third to clean it all up.
The women there would serve 500 people each year at that dinner, in a church basement that as a capacity of 80, with no air conditioning. A numbering system was used to seat guests at that dinner, and everyone worked together to get the job done to raise money for the church.
“It’s sad to think about. It used to be so much fun to come to church and visit,” Jeane Tatman said.
Marie Welle was a life-long member of the church. She said her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents helped to build the church.
“We (she and husband, Bud) were married here 60 years ago; all three of our kids were baptized, confirmed and married here, and I helped take care of the cemetery when I was growing up.”
Bud added that when he and Marie were married in 1949, the church had just been moved over a new basement, and no steps were in place yet to enter the church, so a board was put in place as a temporary entrance.
“We had to walk the plank,” he joked, adding that the furnace had also just been installed that day, Dec. 31, 1949.
LeRoy “Bud” Welle also remembered when three different farmers used to donate to the church through crop sharing of farm ground. Those farmers included John Anderson, George Ringler and Ed Koep.
E.O Johnson felt it was important enough to have a paved road go past the church that he was instrumental in getting that accomplished. He also remembered when Howard and Roseanna Titterington moved a minister to Milford from Minneapolis.
“The Titterington family owned the (Milford) school busses then and they took the seats out of two of the busses. Howard and Roseanne drove up there to move him here,” he said.
Doug Loerts, president of the church council over the past 10 years, said that as with many small rural churches, declining numbers is what caused them to close the doors.
“We just weren’t getting the people,” he said, adding that they might have 15 to 20 in attendance on Sundays. “The kids who were coming here were growing up. We closed the Sunday School program about 10 years ago, and when we did that, we knew we were most likely headed toward the end.”
Numbers weren’t always an issue, though. Loerts said there would be 15 or 20 kids involved in the Christmas program each year when his kids were attending, and that vacation Bible school would accommodate around 50 kids each summer.
“A lot of families have passed through here,” he said.
For Loerts, whose wife Theresa was a Sunday School teacher and organist in that church, the final day went much as he expected – except for the beginning of the day.
“I got a call from (one of the ladies working on the potluck dinner), first thing this morning to say we were out of propane at the church. So I had to take care of that,” he said as he laughed. But today didn’t really hit me until the declaration of the closing. Then I thought, ‘This was more than I thought it was.’ It put a permanency to it.”
Loerts said he would like to see the church preserved, but that there are no official plans yet for what will happen next at that site. Pastors from First Lutheran Church in Milford/West Okoboji have helped to minister the Word to the congregation of Little Sioux.
The altar in Little Sioux Lutheran Church is the only known piece of the church that is original. Someone carved the altar for use in that church 139 years ago.
Bishop Last said there was a strong attendance in the 1920s, with literally hundreds of people attending at this church. There was also a strong Norwegian population there in its early years, and he said worship services were spoken both in English and Norwegian.
“To be here and to hear the service being spoken in your mother tongue, that was a pretty big deal to those people,” he said. “Back then people would come to church not only for the word and sacrament, but for community. As society has changed over the years, and people have more opportunity for getting together for different events, that need for community through the church has also somewhat dissipated.”
Jack Eichman’s most fond memories of Little Sioux Lutheran Church were those from when he was a child.
“The Christmas programs were always wonderful,” he said. “They were always on Christmas Eve, and it was a really special time. Santa Claus would come up from the basement and bring us all some goodies. Roseanna Titterington was one of my first Sunday School teachers.”
Eichman’s daughter, Karess Knudtson, is grown and attended the final service with her husband, Cory Knudtson, and two small children. She said she will remember Little Sioux Lutheran Church with great affection.
“It was always such a cozy place to be as a kid,” she said. “Easter morning and breakfast at the church was always a really special time for me.”
Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page