By Joann M. Ringelstetter
There’s something about the little country churches that we encounter on our backroads journeys -- something that gives me pause.
They come in all shapes and sizes. Some have steeples, some don’t. Some have open bell towers, and often the bell has long since been removed. Some have cemeteries next to them with gravestones from the 1800s through today.
Some of them look more like old-fashioned schoolhouses and, in fact, were used as both the school and the church for the small rural community surrounding them. Often, there are words from long ago and far away etched in the stone or glass -- words that came from the old country, like “Kirche,” a German word for church. Sometimes they are locked up tight and sometimes they are open for private prayer.
A large number of these country churches were built during the mid- to late 1800s or early 1900s, and many of them have had active congregations since they were built. Others no longer have an active congregation, but have been lovingly cared for over the years and are used on special occasions or at special times of the year.
We have also seen numerous churches that have been repurposed. Some have been converted to homes. This is more common with country schoolhouses, but we have seen a good number of churches now being used as homes. Some now sit lonely and dilapidated at the edge of private farmland, with stacks of hay inside or outside, or with cattle mulling about. Some have been donated to or purchased by historical societies and are now church museums. The Salem Ragatz Church in Sauk County, Wisconsin, was built in 1875 and is now a church museum.
The ones that really make me stop and think, though, are the ones that have been completely abandoned -- the ones that have broken windows and peeling paint, rotting roofs and overgrown shrubs.
In spite of the state of ill repair, these are the churches to which I am drawn. A long time ago, a rural community built a church with their own hands. They felled the trees and sawed the boards. They erected the timbers and pounded the nails. Someone carved the pews and poured the bell. Someone cut the glass and soldered it together to make beautiful windows. And when they were finished, they came together to worship.
In these simple, yet beautiful structures, they prayed for their crops, they gave thanks for their bread, they begged God to be spared from the epidemics, they celebrated the birth of their children, and they mourned the death of their loved ones.
But then, at some point, they stopped coming and they stopped caring about a building that once meant a great deal to them or to their ancestors. And, as time wore on, the roof began to sag and leak, the windows began to shatter, and the shrubs overtook the entryway.
This leads me to ask, “How does a congregation just disappear?” I’m sure the reasons are as varied as the abandoned churches we’ve encountered. It could be that the railroad bypassed the town and the inhabitants dwindled to a point where the small congregation could no longer be supported. It could be that the congregation needed and acquired a larger church. It could be that there wasn’t a priest or minister to lead the congregation.
Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate that these beautiful churches, which once echoed the voices of a sacred community joined together in hymns of praise, have fallen silent and, oftentimes, into a state of disrepair.
On February 13, 2010, Ruth and I visited Otter Creek Church in a rural area of Iowa County, Wisconsin. It is a beautiful stone church that was built in 1872 and it is surrounded on all sides by the church cemetery. After photographing the outside of the church, I discovered that a member of the congregation was inside cleaning. I took advantage of this opportunity to learn a bit about the church.
She told me that the current congregation consisted of roughly 70 total members, with only about a dozen attending the one service held each Sunday. There isn’t enough money to heat the church, so winter Sunday church services are held in the meeting hall downstairs, which is heated only for the short time needed on Sunday mornings. This small congregation cannot support a full-time minister, so a minister comes from a nearby town to conduct the Sunday service.
As I trudged through the snow on my way back to the car, I couldn’t help but wonder what will become of this beautiful country church as time goes on. I hope you have enjoyed my musings on country churches. When you’re on the backroads and you pass a country church, take the time to consider the part it played in our heritage.
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