The oldest church in Custer County officially closed its doors Sunday. The congregation voted unanimously last January to decommission the church.
It was time they said. Their congregation was getting older and the upkeep becoming hard. It wasn’t a decision that came easy, many grew up between its walls, as did their children.
“There have been a lot of lasts this year,” said Denise Kaelin, “the last Christmas Eve service, the Last Lords Supper auction … We knew it was coming.”
Sunday, the congregation celebrated their last communion together as a congregation. That’s when the tears, just hiding under the surface, made their presence known.
What they wanted to do, said Scott Kaelin, was finish large. And that they did, with 50 people or more joining their voices in song, and offering their prayers together for the last time. The membership will be seeking out new church homes. Sunday morning was a celebration of their faith, their heritage and of the community that was to be no more.
Celtic hymns resounded outside as the parishioners arrived, and the smells of the pot luck lunch to come made its way up the stairs.
Organized in 1879, the Westerville Methodist Church carries the distinction of being the oldest church in Custer County. The first services were conducted in dugouts, sod homes, and a sod schoolhouse. In 1880 when the town was platted and families started to take root, church services moved into the businesses, the hotel, flour mill and parishioners homes. The Rev. George Brooks was the first ordained pastor.
This particular church also boasts of building the first frame church. It took three years to build and nearly every settler in the valley helped out. The lumber was hauled in by horse and wagon from Grand Island with the cedar logs coming from the canyons. It was completed in 1883.
The first bell (another first for Custer County) was shipped from Omaha but it arrived cracked. It spent the next several years upside down in the parish yard as a flower pot. The second bell is still preserved and will be moved to a new location beside the flag pole.
Record books from 1910 show a Sunday School attendance of 90 and an offering of $1.41.
In 1947, the old church building was taken down and Sept. 1, 1947, sod was broken for a new building with some of the lumber from the older church incorporated into the new. After nine months the new building was completed at a cost of $7,000.
Doris Kaelin remembers that her mother’s funeral service was conducted in the Westerville Baptist Church at that time because the Methodist Church was under construction. There were five children in her family.
“I remember when one of the ladies in the congregation came up and asked my father if she could hold Betty, the baby, during the service. The church family helped them so much,” she added.” The people here mean a lot to us.”
Donnah Peterson, one of Doris Kaelin’s sisters, also talked about the importance of the church family. “We were so thankful to be a part of this congregation as young children.
Linda Emert grew up next door to the church. Her happiest times were with the Sunday School classes. The kids were so enthused, she said.
One of the enthusiastic was Diane (Mills) Farran. She says she remembers sitting on the front pew during confirmation. Her confirmation teacher had told her class it was important to marry someone of your faith. She said she looked around thinking, ”O dear, there’s not much of a choice.”
Marvel Mills, Diane’s mother, said it makes her sad, she hates to see it go, but understands the reasoning behind the decision. Wayne’s mother, she said, “was such a devout Christian, I can see her in heaven wondering what in the earth is going on.”
Wayne Mills and Gleasnor Porter taught junior high Sunday school as team teachers, At one point there were 15-16 kids in the class. It’s not that way today.
“I remember most when our children were really small and the front of the church was full of children at Christmas, now there are none,” she said.
Carolyn Lane said she is a newcomer. She joined in 1966 when she and Garyln were married. “You bloom where you are planted,” she said.
In 1963 Custer parish was formed with seven United Methodist Churches in Ansley, Broken Bow, Berwyn, Merna, Anselmo and Mason City becoming partner churches. The partnership was dissolved in 2005.
On Jan. 8, 2012, a meeting was held and the members unanimously voted to close the church in June 2012.
The church building has been sold. A parishioner purchased the building with promises to keep up the property. The furnishings, et. al., will also be sold, being offered first to its parishioners before being offered to individuals. There won’t be an auction.
Moneys earned will go to do good, decided by a special trustees committee. An inventory has been taken.
“We just didn't have the heart to have an auction,” said Denise.
Remembrance letters were read from former pastors.
“For everything there is a season, and the time has come for the last service of the Westerville church,” wrote the Rev. Reynolds of Sargent.
Pastor Bill Hunter said it was at Westerville where he first ventured to preaching without a manuscript.
The Rev. Douglas Gibson, a U.S. Army chaplain came closer to the point.
“This is a sad day in my heart.” He said he remembered running to the little brown building behind the church before indoor bathroom facilities were added, but mostly he will be eternally thankful for the seeds of faith planted in each of its members.
He said that through his time at Westerville he learned to have a Godly conscious and to have a weekly habit of church attendance, that it is this habit that has provided him with a resilient soul.
He is thankful for the training and teaching at Westerville, and that while he was there he learned to recite the 23rd Psalm while at Westerville.
“I count it as a blessing to have been a part of your community. The doors may be closed but the effects will be felt forever ... I have learned a lot and received a lot of grace from you. You made me feel like this was home.
The District superintendent Allan Davis spoke of the memories that the members will retain … “memories are a part of everything. They can give us joy and bring us pain, a wedding a funeral service, an anniversary. They can be positive and they can cause us to become stagnant and stale. They can cause us to live in fear.
“Remember the days of the past. We come together in joy and celebration, but we also come in sadness. This church was built on your relationship with Christ, but it was also built with your relationships with each other.
“There will be change, but may Christ still be at the center of your lives. You need to work hard at moving forward and continue to do God’s will. Know that God gives thanks for all that you have done.”
Sunday was difficult, change doesn’t always come easy, but for many, this coming Sunday will be even more so. That is when the change in their lives, the change in norm will be most evident.