Will Purvis and his wife, Paula, have been members of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Vernon Center for more than 40 years. But several years ago, the church had no full-time minister and services consisted of just a couple of dozen people.
“We were kind of on hospice,” Purvis joked.
A temporary pastor, Monte Meyer, gave the dwindling congregation some advice.
“He said we needed to do community outreach and we took his word and did it,” Purvis said.
The outreach worked wonders.
“We worship to 90 to 110 people every Sunday now and have about 150 members. We’re truly blessed, we have a lot of young families coming,” Purvis said.
Purvis, recently retired, spent more than 45 years in public service, including 31 years as a deputy sheriff in Blue Earth County and parts of Iowa and most recently 14 years as a Blue Earth County commissioner. Throughout most of his adult life, he’s been deeply involved in the church and the community of Vernon Center.
“I loved my jobs as deputy sheriff and I enjoyed my time on the board, too. And, of course, it was nice they don’t shoot at you when you’re a county commissioner,” Purvis said.
“It’s fun being retired. I love having time to do this stuff.”
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church’s outreach encompasses the entire community.
“It’s important to support the town, especially in a small community. At Easter we dropped a big egg on everyone’s doorstep full of goodies and inviting them to church.
“One day the women in the church made plates of cookies, and we delivered a plate of cookies to every house on Christmas. That’s easier to do when you have 120 houses in town,” Purvis said with a laugh that comes easy and often.
Earlier this month the church had a community Christmas celebration.
“We had a Christmas parade — all 12 floats — and a living Nativity that our confirmation kids did. They read the Christmas story, and we had a soup and cookies meal for everyone in the basement.”
This year he and his wife made Advent wreath kits with Purvis cutting up pieces of firewood and Paula preparing decorations for them.
“Paula affectionately refers to herself as one of the church-basement ladies.”
The kits, containing instructions on assembly and the written meaning of the Advent wreath, were given to every family in the church.
The Rev. Adam Finney, who came to St. Peter’s in spring 2019, said he’s served at three other churches and said Purvis is a blessed rarity.
“If I ask, there’s very little where he won’t say, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.’ He and Paula work as a team and have a bunch of people they can call on to help. They’ll do just about anything to help show God’s love,” Finney said.
He said Purvis has a cheerful and kind personality that no doubt served him well as a deputy and commissioner.
“Even if you disagree with him, he’ll talk to you. And if you have a need, he’ll come and take care of you.”
Finney said the rebound at the church has been dramatic in recent years. “You get some young families in and our leadership here is about not saying no. If someone wants to try something, they’ll try it.
“It’s really about bringing back the joy (at church). We’re glad to see people even if we haven’t seen them for a while.”
Saving the Fourth
Purvis and the church also have been instrumental in saving the annual Fourth of July fireworks.
“It was on the verge of the fireworks going away, so a group of us pitched in. It’s a problem finding a licensed person to do it.” Purvis and some others took training to be able to assist the local guy who was licensed to shoot off fireworks.
“But the main problem, of course, was money.”
The church and residents have come together in recent years to raise enough money to keep the fireworks going, with the church recently holding a bake sale that raised $2,300 for the fireworks fund.
“We have $9,500 in our fireworks fund, which is more than enough to put on a 25-minute show,” Purvis said.
While many small towns struggle, Vernon Center has kept a fairly steady population of about 350.
“One thing that drives our population is we have a lot of young families moving in because housing is cheaper, and we’re 25 or 30 minutes from Mankato,” Purvis said. “Houses are selling quickly.”
He is also active in the local sportsman’s club, doing youth firearms training classes and supporting the area trap shooting leagues and the youth bass fishing clubs.
“We support getting kids outside. I’ve had a lifetime of enjoyment from fishing and shooting sports.” He still deer hunts on land around his home.
“I’m blessed to live on the farm I grew up on. It was my playground as a kid and it’s still my playground.”