By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
LE CENTER — What’s surprising isn’t that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Le Center has closed. What’s surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner.
“We held out a long time,” church warden Harold Sladek said of membership that had dwindled to seven. “But we just got kind of tired.”
Which is understandable, given the youngest members are in their mid-60s and the oldest is 85.
In fact, of late the church hadn’t been used for services at all. Sunday worship two months ago moved to a local nursing home to accommodate two members living there.
“Nobody wanted to close it,” Sladek said. “But the writing was on the wall.”
The 147-year-old congregation had its beginnings in 1866, when services were held in the woods just north of town. In 1890 a church was built on the farm of current church member Bill Fickling’s grandfather.
A few other locations subsequently served as a church before the cornerstone for the existing building was laid in 1910, the ceremony attended by Minnesota’s governor at the time, Adolph Eberhart.
In its heyday during the 1940s, about 80 members would pack into the church on Sundays. But by the 1970s, membership had dwindled to 40 or so with fewer than that attending services.
In recent years the congregation has limped along with members performing routine building maintenance and rationing church savings and donations to pay the bills.
Fickling said the church’s demise is a matter of simple arithmetic.
“The older people are passing away, and a lot of young people just don’t go to church.”
Tom Harries, pastor of the Church of the Holy Communion in St. Peter, had been serving as the Le Center church’s “supply priest,” conducting services and delivering communion to congregants.
He said church members’ faith and zeal kept the church going despite its daunting challenges.
“It’s remarkable, but they’re all very committed.”
He said members now will likely attend services at the St. Peter church or other Le Center churches.
The church building has been sold for about $7,000 to a Hispanic Pentecostal group that will meet there. St. Paul’s “survivors” said they’re grateful for that.
“It’s nice that it’s going to be used as a church again,” Fickling said.