The ladies and gentlemen of St. Paul United Church of Christ are very matter-of-fact.
After 140 years, the church — one of Lincoln’s first — is closing its doors for good, and parishioners stoically acknowledge it is inevitable.
"All these things with our faith, it's all part of life," said Mel Schroeder, who has attended St. Paul since the early 1950s.
Membership at the once-vibrant church on the corner of 13th and F streets has dwindled from nearly 700 people in the late 1950s and mid-1960s to a mere 18.
All of the remaining members are older. Most are senior citizens. Their health and their ability to care for the red brick house of worship with its imported Italian stained glass windows, bell tower and full-size kitchen and fellowship hall are waning.
Once big enough to employ two ministers (albeit co-ministers, the Rev. John and the Rev. Jeanne Tyler, a married couple), the church now has a “very part-time minister,” the Rev. Gwen Hurst who was hired in May to help the congregation settle its affairs and sell the building to Northern Lighthouse, a Christian Reformed Church.
Saint Paul United Church of Christ will hold its last service on Easter Sunday — April 20, 2014.
A fitting day to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and celebrate the end of a devoted and dedicated congregation, Hurst said.
Until then, it’s business as usual.
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, the church's Women’s Fellowship gathers for lunch and gift-making.
The Fellowship — once large with seven women’s “circle groups” for quilting, Bible study and fundraising — has just five remaining members.
Lunch is bring-your-own brown bag, but one member has made a pumpkin torte for dessert.
All are longtime members of St. Paul. Donna Hoxie is president. She was elected in 2006. There hasn’t been enough members to bother with another vote since then.
She and her fellow members persevere, bringing treats and gifts to shut-ins and church members in frail health.
* * *
Originally called St. Paul United Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed Church, the congregation was organized Feb. 3, 1873, by the Rev. G.W. Regier.
Over the next 80 years the name would change several times as Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian denominations across the country merged.
In 1957, the church became St. Paul United Church of Christ.
Its original building, a white wooden structure measuring 36-by-20 feet, still stands just behind its brick counterpart. It's Lincoln’s only surviving original church building.
Over the decades, the old church served a variety of functions, from parsonage to the custodian’s house. In recent years it has sat nearly empty — occasionally being used for anniversary Sunday services when the weather is pleasant enough not to require heat or air conditioning.
The new building replaced the old one in 1877. It was remodeled and expanded multiple times over the next century, including the addition of a red brick veneer to its outer walls. It remains in use today.
Congregants have long been the church caretakers. Longtime members Byrl Shear and Steve Statton reminisce about shingling the roof.
“The church always had a strong drawing of people to do the projects,” Statton said. “We did things together.”
Schroeder, who joined St. Paul as a youngster in the 1950s, remembers the controversy over installing the church elevator. Some women were dead set against it, he recalled. In recent years, those same women learned to appreciate it, as age and health issues made the church’s wooden staircase too challenging.
Shear and his wife, Sue, the church’s longtime secretary, were married at the church on Sept. 1, 1971.
“I was late to the wedding,” Shear said with a laugh. He had been repairing a vehicle, trying to save some money, and time got away from him.
“My best man rolls up 10 minutes before the wedding,” he recalled, recounting how he took a quick shower, jumped into his best man’s Camaro, raced to the church, got stopped for speeding by a cop, and walked into the church only to realize he had forgotten his shoes at home. When he finally walked down the altar, his shoes still had the price-tag on the bottom, and Shear’s hair was still wet from the shower.
Cheeseburgers and onion rings at King’s was their big honeymoon dinner, he said.
The church was home to thousands of baptisms, confirmations and weddings. Over time younger members found jobs in other cities or moved to bigger and more contemporary churches on Lincoln’s outer edges, Schroeder said.
These days funerals are the most common services, outside of Sunday worship.
* * *
The neighborhood has changed. Its residents are more transient. Many are immigrants or the working poor.
As recently as 18 years ago, there were five United Church of Christ congregations in the neighborhood — Zion, First German, Ebenezer, Faith and St. Paul — only Ebenezer remains an affiliated UCC church.
But back in 1979, the five churches created a co-op, sharing ministers and sanctuaries for Advent and Lenten services. Zion and St. Paul held joint Sunday schools and hired the husband/wife ministerial team of John and Jeanne Tyler. Ultimately, the Rev. Jeanne Tyler switched over to co-minister at just St. Paul as Zion went through changes.
At one time, there was talk of merging — but no one wanted to give up their church, Hoxie said.
“With time, everything just kept getting smaller and smaller," Schroeder recalled. "First German and Zion eventually hired ministers outside of the United Church of Christ."
* * *
Although times have changed from 1873, St. Paul’s ministry has remained steadfast — help people, help children. The mission — once a powerful influence in the city — has never wavered.
“UCC became a legacy program,” Statton said. “We are there to lend a helping hand.”
It was St. Paul’s second minister, the Rev. Henry Heiner, who helped establish Tabitha Home, then an orphanage. He left the ministry in 1890 to manage Tabitha, which had expanded its outreach to homeless adults and the elderly, as well as orphaned children. In 1960, Tabitha ended its role as an orphanage.
It advocated for and helped turn the old F Street firehouse into a recreation center. Members mentored students at McPhee Elementary School, raised funds and supplies for service members overseas, helped people with developmental disabilities, worked with The Gathering Place, adopted families and children in need locally and abroad and started a Farmers Market — one of two in Lincoln that accepts SNAP (food stamps).
At the crux of St. Paul’s service and spiritual guidance were the women and men. They ran rummage sales, sold and raffled hundreds of handmade quilts, made oodles upon oodles of homemade noodles and angel cakes (from the leftover egg whites) and staged chocolate fairs and famous mother-daughter dinners.
“When it (the church) was going well, (the dinner) had over 100 ladies and daughters,” Statton said, one of the many husbands and fathers recruited to serve the meal and clean up afterward.
“Over time, it just got smaller and smaller,” recalled Phyllis Watkins, “until it just wasn’t worth it.”
Many other traditions have succumbed to time and declining membership.
“We used to have to come (to worship services) so early so we could get a seat,” Watkins said.
“On Easter Sunday we would arrive 20 minutes early in order to sit on a (folding) chair in the aisle,” added Ruth Westling. “Boy, it was full.”
Watkins shakes her head. “We used to have 600 members. Now we have 18 — on a good day.”
Westling recalled how the church bell used to ring every Sunday morning.
“They don’t ring it anymore,” she said. “I’m not sure anyone is (physically) up to the task.”
Back in the heyday, ushers took people to their seats.
Today, the remaining church members seat themselves — in the same spots they have sat in for decades. They acknowledge it must look funny to see them scattered throughout the mostly empty pews.
But to them, it is home.
At least through Easter.
* * *
Where will these faithful 18 worship when St. Paul United Church of Christ ceases to exist?
Shoulder shrugs are nearly unanimous.
“My wife will only go to a United Church of Christ church,” Shear said. “I go where there are people I like.”
Others say they may attend churches closer to their homes … maybe.
“As a congregation I hope we stay in touch through Bible studies and coffee groups,” Statton said.
“The church was like a big family,” Hoxie said. “We were concerned about everyone’s well-being.”
That hasn’t changed.
“We do care about everybody that’s left," Watkins said.
Which is why four of the five Women’s Fellowship members are sitting around a table in the church basement, rolling decorative paper into cone-shaped cups and filling them with mixed nuts.
They are Thanksgiving gifts for longtime church members and 40 others living in Tabitha’s GracePointe assisted living community — a small something to let them know they are not forgotten.