Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sentimental Sunday - Goodbye to an Old Church - Bergthal Mennonite

Church dedication 1915
This almost feels like it should read "Sunday's Obituary." It makes me sad. Some of my cousins called me today because they saw an article in USA Today and the Wichita Eagle about a small church closing in Kansas.

It was the church that our Mennonite ancestors helped start in Pawnee Rock, Kansas.

I looked the article up online and then followed the link to the original article that was in the Great Bend Tribune.

"Landmark Bergthal Mennonite Church closing its doors"
[this link now requires a subscription to see all of it but you can still see a photo as of May 22]

You can read some of the story there - it has some great photos -  but let me just add to it.

I did not grow up in Pawnee Rock. My grandfather, Harvey Schmidt, was born there. His parents grew up there. His father immigrated when he was a year old and they settled in this area with a group of immigrant Mennonites from Russia.

I never attended the church in this story - Bergthal Mennonite. But it has always been a part of the family story. When we lived in Kansas, it was a frequent road trip to go to Pawnee Rock for an afternoon of family history.

The first church was the stone church:
The old stone church that my ancestor Benjamin Schmidt helped build.
In later years, a monument to this church was built and placed at the side of the highway. It was a small model of the building made from the stones of the original building.
Plaque on the monument naming the immigrant settlers

Aunt Judi at the monument around 1960

Arlin and Nancy by the monument - around 1960
Later the roadside monument was damaged by vandals and moved to the basement of the church building.

The congregation built a frame church in 1899 and then a brick building in 1915.

Frame church 1899
 The brick structure won't make it to it's centennial year. Like many rural congregations it has been dwindling in size and currently only 14 people regularly attend. They have decided to close and to tear down the building.

A few years ago - 2004 I believe - I went to Pawnee Rock and met with the church historian and distant cousin of mine by marriage, Ruth Deckert. Ruth had many stories to tell and gave me a tour of the church and the town of Pawnee Rock. The church is a ways outside of town - to say it is a rural church is more than accurate. It has a cemetery with it and I think I am related to almost everyone in it! I took lots of pictures and lots of notes. Ruth was a great guide. She has since passed away and I know the community of Pawnee Rock misses her.

I do know that small rural churches have a difficult time. It makes me sad that it will be torn down but I understand their decision. Watching it fall down would be even harder.

Perhaps I will be able to make it to their memorial service on May 26 - or sometime in June before it is torn down. I have a feeling that the history shared in these last days will be worth the trip.

June update: [See the new memorial marker here and my follow-up blog here, regarding the memorial service in May.]


  1. Well, I should have known those links would go bad quickly. I thought I had a little time to get those articles copied and I didn't get it done! There was also an article in USA Today which I purchased. And the church has a Facebook page. I am going to the memorial on the 26th and will have more to post about that when I return.

  2. Thank you for this post, Rita. I, too, was at the service this Sunday and have blogged about it here:

  3. Thanks, Charlotte. I am on my way to Portland, Oregon and may not get anything posted for awhile so I would encourage everyone to check out Charlotte's post and her great photos.