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Friday, July 28, 2006

The church moves on--Morrowville United Methodist Church to close its doors

There was little in Ken Price’s sermon last Sunday at the Morrowville United Methodist Church that would lead a visitor to suspect that the venerable church, over a century old, would soon be just another vacant building on a long dusty street littered with vacant buildings. The opening hymn was sung, the voices of the nine congregants barely audible above the roar of the furnace. The advent wreath was lit. A prayer of thanksgiving was recited. The late December sun filtered through the blinds on the south windows, igniting the dust motes roving the air.

Near the end of his sermon on Psalm 148, as Price expounded on the virtues of praise, he dropped a hint but put it in such a way that the onus wasn’t on what was being lost but what had been found.

“We praise the Lord for our church—for this church,” he said. “We don’t praise God that it’s closing. We praise God for all of the years it was part of this community, and for all of those people who were brought up in this church, and changed in their Christian beliefs and formed into the person they are today.”

Of course, those nine congregants knew it was coming. They knew that the church had but one more Sunday service and then it would be closed for good, except for one final service sometime in the spring, when members of four Washington County United Methodist Churches would converge there for a closing ceremony. Those nine congregants, “the people close to His heart” as Psalms 148 says, would see it through to the end, when the church so close to their hearts would become only a memory of what once was.

***

“It’s not been an easy decision,” said Reverend Phil Morris.

Morris, the pastor of the four United Methodist Churches making up the Mill Creek Parish—Washington, Haddam, Linn and Morrowville—said that closing the church on January 2, 2005 was a two-part determination, one economic—the high cost of heating the building through the winter months, insurance, upkeep—and the other a steady decline in participation. Sunday attendance averaged between eight and ten people, he said. Compared to the three other churches in the parish, the Morrowville church was by far the smallest. Washington averages 65-70 people, Haddam between 20-25, and Linn 18-24, he said. The date was chosen due to an aversion to shutting down on the Sunday after Christmas.

“The realization was that we can’t continue on, we have to do something,” he said. “It’s difficult to cut ties to a community when you’ve been there so long. The Morrowville church has been there for 118 years. The connection is really deep to the community.”

Overall, the congregation is taking it well, he said. It was tougher on some than others, and then there were the Elliotts. “The Elliotts especially,” he stressed. “They were members of the old Throop Church north of Washington. They’ve already been through one closing already. They know the feeling.”

***

“My wife and I grew up in a little country church about ten, twelve miles southwest of here in a little community called Throop,” Norman Elliott said. “It used to have a store and a blacksmith shop and a school and a church, a lot of things. Now there’s a marker where it once was.”

When going through some of his parents’ belongings, he came across a report written in 1957 entitled “Regarding the Continuance of the Throop Evangelical United Brethren Church.” It listed population trends of the two townships nearest to the church, Coleman and Strawberry, where most of the parishioners lived.

“There had been a tremendous decrease in population of those two townships that pretty well paralleled the decrease in membership and attendance at that church,” he said. The parallels were similar to that of Morrowville nearly 50 years later.

But what caught his eye was a statement near the end of the report. “’There’s no disgrace in closing a church when you just run out of people,’” he said. After a pause, he added, “That’s essentially what we’ve done.”

That same statement was put to the Morrowville congregation in a series of letters sent to each member. The last letter said that on the 10th of November a decision would be made whether to continue services at the Morrowville United Methodist Church.

“I think people have become accustomed what’s going on with the demographics of the area,” Elliott said. “This is kind of a barometer to go by. In 1968, when Janet and I first got married and started living here, there were 120 students in high school. There are now 30. There’s been a general decline in the population over the last thirty-plus years, as with every county from here to Colorado. It’s just what’s going on in this part of the country.”

Not one person questioned the closing of the church. “It’s probably not a real shock,” Elliott said.
“We’re not closing a church, we’re closing an attendance center,” he added. “The church is the people, not the building.”

***

“There’s a lot of things missing when there’s not a lot of people in church,” said Mary Sawyer. She tilted her head toward the room, empty now except for the small knot of parishioners congregating at the back. The other churches in the parish have more families and children, and the addition will be welcome, she said.

From the vestibule the entire sanctuary is visible, a one-room affair with a small balcony and belfry up a cramped flight of stairs. Helen Elder, who’s been attending the church since she was six years old—that would have been in the 1930s, she says—pointed to the balcony and said that’s where Sunday School services were once held. They were all boys and one girl, she said. And there—she pointed to the front of the church, near the podium—was where the ladies met, and the men were here, near the back, and the junior high kids were on the platform. Some kids even had Sunday School in the belfry.

“In that little room?” asked Nancy Tice, one of the youngest members. Elder nodded.

“We saw it coming,” said Junior Sawyer, a member since the 1950s. It was just like the rest of the rural experience, he said. “We just have to adjust to it as it weakens.”

After a short visitation, the remaining members of the church filed out into the crisp December morning. The sun shone wanly from a clear blue sky and shadows were long in the street. One by one, they started their vehicles and drove off, leaving the street abandoned all the way to the edge of town.

Inside, sunlight spilled through the blinds, warming the wooden pews worn smooth by the posteriors of generations of worshipers. A banner on the wall read “Morrowville United Methodist Church—1886-1986.” All that remained were the dust motes shining in the still air and the silence. The church was gone. Only the building remained.

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