- By Tom Stafford Staff Writer
The Order for Closing a Congregation to be followed in services today at Springfield’s Fifth Lutheran Church is mercifully brief and relatively straightforward.
As the appropriate words are spoken, the candles and vases are removed, then the altar book and missal stand. Next come the paten, chalice and communion cups and the pulpit Bible. Finally, the cross is removed, and the church’s official records are turned over to the Southern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for its archives.
Like other losses, “It’s when it’s over that it hits you,” said Barb Strawsburg, who said her 17-year stint as president and secretary of the 129-year old congregation at the corner of High Street and Greenmount Avenue “has been a blessing to me.”
Just as the congregations of First, Second and Third English Lutheran Churches were busy in the 1890s supporting the Sunday school mission that launched Fifth Lutheran, Strawsburg and other Fifth members have been busy for the past year attending to the details of the closing.
Their to-do-lists have attended to the same kind of details that precede inevitable events of every kind and supply busywork that distracts the mind for a few more moments from the inevitable.
“As a church family, we’ve grown very, very close during the past year,” Strawsburg said. “I’m kind of comparing it to when my father died and we had to sell the family home.
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“It’s going to be a monumental sadness, personally, but (because it will bring to a close a long, worry-filled period) it’s also going to be a little of a relief,” she said.
Strawsburg’s family joined the church in 1924 when her grandmother and six siblings were baptized there the day their 34-year-old father had been killed in a railroading accident.
By then, now 81-year-old Lawrence Wilson’s grandparents had been members for nine years and remained so as they raised Lawrence and a brother and sister on Highland Avenue after their mother died.
Wilson, who was baptized in the sanctuary in in 1937, is resigned to reality.
“We’ve just come to the point where we can’t keep that building up any more,” he said.
It’s the spirit with which they’ve carried on despite their difficulties that led the Rev. Carol Gesalman to change from Fifth’s part-time pastor to full-time pastor in 2000, a position she served in until Nov. 15.
“As opposed to other congregations that (when under stress) turn inward and don’t want to spend money on anyone but themselves, Fifth has always had the outward mission of service to people around the neighborhood and the world,” she said.
Gesalman, the congregation’s 14th and final full-time pastor, saw that spirit at work when she skipped a meeting one day to go home for lunch and returned to find that members had decided to provide supplies for children in two elementary schools instead of one.
“My first reaction was, ‘That’s impossible,’” she said.
She then joined the effort in making it happen.
Over the final years, Gesalman endured “the sleepless nights and the stewing over, ‘What could I have done?’” to save the congregation. But, along the way, she was always comforted by the fact that “people were ministering,” which has continued to the end.
On their final trip to the Parent Infant Center in June, Wilson and his wife, Donna, delivered 421 bottles of baby food instead of the customary 50. The additional donation is roughly enough to last through the end of the year.
Donna Wilson was a Methodist when she married and then joined Fifth. She came to love the musical liturgy of the church and soon found that, in singing the words, “they become a part of you.”
So did the giving ways of the congregation, which in the past six years or so has involved her in working with Mary Parsons, the longtime church organist, in knotting quilts to send all over the globe through Lutheran World Missions.
She’s made 15 to 20 a year, and is glad that the materials they’ve accumulated are now stored at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church so the program will have a future.
Parsons, who has played the piano since age 6 and studied organ in high school, was looking for a church 30 years ago and joined Fifth thinking she wouldn’t be playing because Mary Howell filled that role.
After Howell left, one organist led to another and finally led to Parsons, who not only couldn’t say no but didn’t want to.
“I always was a pharmacist to put bread on the table,” she said, “but I was a musician to feed my soul.”
She fed the souls of others on regular trips to Good Shepherd Nursing Home, where the residents would request their favorite hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “In the Garden” and “Jesus Loves Me.”
“The newer hymns, you may like them,” she said, “but they’re not (part of) your childhood.”
The same can be said of a church.
Perhaps because of her love of music, a few Saturdays ago Parsons invited other church organists in to take what music they wanted. Likewise she and others are happy that the bells and equipment used by the bell choir for the past 20 years have found a home in a church being started in Minnesota by a relative of member Audrey Norman’s granddaughter.
“One of the big things that has come out of” of the impending closing, Strawsburg said, is “our need to share our things with other churches.”
Rev. Ron Green, who agreed to be interim pastor starting Nov. 15 knowing what was coming, said the single biggest stumbling block has been finding a good owner for the church’s most prized possession.
Finding an owner who might help save the original section of the church designed by Springfield architect Charles Cregar and make it possible for the entire structure to continue to serve the community has been the goal.
That the building likely will be taken over with hopes of fulfilling that future is “the silver lining” of the closing for most members, said Donna Wilson, though the paperwork has yet to be finalized.
Stephen Barnes, who, as a neighborhood boy enjoyed the “huge sand table” in the Sunday school; whose youth included the years when the Sunday School had 17 teachers; who remembers a bus full of orphans from Oesterlen Home arriving for Sunday services, just as wagons full had come before; and who has become the church historian, said “We’ve already had several highly emotional moments.”
There will be more today, he said.
“But hey, look, it happens. You have to live with what is,” Barnes said. “Whether I like it or not, this is happening.”
Rev. Suzanne D. Dillahunt, bishop of the Southern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, praised the Fifth Congregation for “holding on to their ministry as long as they could.
“They’ve been faithful servants to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for 129 years, and sometimes that ministry comes to an end,” she said.
Beginning tomorrow, the 18 to 20 regular attendees will be looking for a new beginning, among them Strawsburg, for whom Fifth has been “the only church I’ve ever attended.”
She will look for another, she said, because, “it’s important for us to keep a partnership. It’s important that our lives have that.”
For Lawrence Wilson, who has seen the difficulties of declining membership, a priority will be to find a church “that actually needs people,” a need he’s grown more aware of as Fifth has dwindled.
For Mary Parsons, the sadness notwithstanding, finding a new congregation means “we get to get new friends.”
Gesalman, who has joined First Lutheran Church, is counseling patience.
Making a transition from a long-time church home to a new one, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable at first, she said, particularly when one doesn’t even know where the bathroom is.
The goal is to regain the feeling that’s at the heart of a church family, she said, the feeling that “together we serve our Lord, together we care for each other and pray for each other.”
It’s the same spirit that once turned the aggregation of people who first attended Fifth into a congregation.