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For First Presbyterian Church, it's a Christmas farewell

Session member Deena Mahowald shared a picture showing the construction of the bell tower in front of the First Presbyterian Church of Farmington. It was buried in a time capsule, which was pulled up after the congregation decided to close the church. 1 / 2
Membership at First Presbyterian has dwindled in recent years. Only about 20 attend services now.2 / 2

The Christmas season has always brought joy to the hearts of the members of First Presbyterian Church of Farmington. But this year, that joy is bittersweet.

On Sunday, Dec. 22, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Farmington will say goodbye to more than 150 years together. The church is closing, just days before Christmas.

Closing, for good. When the final service is finished Sunday morning, the congregation will say goodbye to more than just a building. They’ll be saying goodbye to the life they’ve always known.

It’s not been an easy decision. The church elders, members of the governing board known as the church Session, have struggled with the decision in recent years. Membership has dwindled, and maintenance of the building has become physically challenging for some of the members and financially challenging for the church.

“I’m sad, but I know it’s reality,” said Session member Rosemary (Gibbs) Swedin. “When you only have 20-some people in church on Sunday, it’s hard to hold on.”

The early church

The roots of the church date back to Nov. 25, 1865, when a number of early settlers gathered at The Vermillion Presbyterian Church at Eureka to organize The First Presbyterian Church of Farmington.

“Just why Farmington was chosen as the site of the church, we do not know,” Mrs. Howard Pflaum wrote in the church’s centennial history booklet in 1965. “Perhaps it was because a group of Scotch-Irish felt a deep concern over the spiritual needs of their children in a fast growing community.… Possibly deep snow and bitterly cold prairie winters discouraged travel in horse drawn vehicles to the nearest church, the Vermillion Presbyterian Church in Eureka.”

In any event, The First Presbyterian Church of Farmington was established on that November night.

A site for the first church was acquired in October, 1867. It was located on the northwest corner of Spruce and Fourth streets. The church was dedicated on June 20, 1868.

“The congregation held their first service in the new and nicely furnished church on March, 27, 1869. It was 32 feet wide and 40 feet long,” Mrs. Pflaum wrote.

A number of additions were built onto the church over the years. By the time the congregation reached its centennial year in 1965, it included 230 members, according to Mrs. Pflaum’s account. At the time of the centennial, the congregation was in a growth phase and needed to plan ahead to meet future needs.

Ultimately, that growth resulted in the construction of a new church on Heritage Way. That church was dedicated in December, 1971. A time capsule was buried in front of the building.

That same church now sits with a “for sale” sign in front of it. The time capsule has been dug up and opened. Its contents are inside now, being shared with the few remaining members.

Hard decisions

The struggles within the church arose slowly over time, but have been there nonetheless.

Still, it’s not an easy process, closing a church. The church elders have years of experiences and memories wrapped up in the building. Austa Harmer, for example, has been Presbyterian all of her life. Many of her ancestors were part of the foundation that built the Presbyterian presence in Farmington. Naturally, this is a difficult process for her.

“I can’t think of anybody in my family who is not Presbyterian,” Harmer said. “I’m sad about the church closing, but I’m not bitter. I’m going out with a good feeling. We’re going out with our heads held high.”

Deacon Phyllis Kelly and her mother, Myrtle Kelly, also have long-standing ties to the church. Myrtle raised her two daughters in the First Presbyterian Church of Farmington. One was married at the old church, one at the present site.

Deena (Lomas) Mahowald, too, grew up in the Farmington Presbyterian church, as did all of her siblings.

“I’ve never belonged to any other church. All of my brothers and sisters grew up here, too. I was married here, my daughter was married here,” Mahowald said.

These days, the congregation members are sharing a lot of memories with one another. There were Christmas pageants and parts played by the elders when they were children. There were the roast beef dinners that drew hundreds to the basement of the old church.

The memories are good, and they bring comfort in an unsettling time. The reality, though, is that today’s small congregation simply cannot continue.

Prayers for peace

The only thing they know for sure is that the last service will be Sunday. Beyond that, the future is largely unknown for the congregation’s members.

“A lot of us are concerned about where we are going to have our funerals,” Harmer said.

The Session would like it if another congregation bought the building, and a few might think of attending those services.

At one time, the group talked about joining the nearest Presbyterian church, Spirit of Life in Apple Valley, but some of the older members are not comfortable with making that drive.

Others have considered attending services at other denominations in Farmington. Harmer thinks she may try attending Methodist services, but “I will never join another church.”

There are still a lot of hard decision to be made, Mahowald said. Under the guidance of two Presbyterian pastors who are helping the Session through this process, an administrative committee was appointed to help with the closing. It really is a step by step process, she said.

“Closing a church isn’t something too many people have done. It’s been frustrating at times. It’s been a hard process because it’s not something that’s done every day,” Mahowald said.

“There is a lot of sadness, but we’re going out as positively as we can,” she added.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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