Do you remember when we first started, we told you about “that road”? You know, the road around the corner that catches your eye for some inexplicable reason? What could be down that road? A farm? An old forgotten house? Maybe a church! It turns out that down that small quaint dirt road pictured in our previous blog post, there was a church that had been the cornerstone of the community since 1880 when German immigrants came and settled there. The church is St. John’s Lutheran church, the place is Owensville, MO, and the stories were definitely worth the drive.
Kezia and I have always shared a love of driving and talking. I have many fond memories of being stuck in Chicago traffic with her when we were dating. Our best conversations take place while we’re cruising around in a car. Several months ago we were driving back from a visit with my sister and her boyfriend in northern Missouri. It was a long drive, but thankfully, the boys fell asleep (If you are parents, you’ll understand why that is noteworthy. Sleeping children make any drive more enjoyable). We talked about our future home and land, and surmised about the stories behind the country homes we were passing. And eventually we passed not one, but two churches! The second of which is St. John’s Lutheran Church.It was late on Sunday afternoon and church had long since let out, but there was still a sense of community. The well kept church yard was welcoming, the sign invited us to join them for worship on Sunday mornings, the two room school house beckoned to a rich history of Christian education, and the well loved grave yard showed a history of those who have lived and died as part of this church and all of them have stories. One of the things I like to do when I visit a church is to look for family names which have been around for the most generations because that family probably has the most to say on the subject of that church. This way, if I ever came back, I would know who to ask.We were able to return for worship with them on Palm Sunday of this year. When we woke up that morning we shook our heads and scoffed when we heard our two year old announce that it was snowing. It had barely snowed all winter! It had been 60 degrees the day before. But like Mark Twain once said “If you don’t like the weather in Missouri… wait 5 minutes.” But, he was right.
As foolhardy Sunday drivers we always worry more about whether or not their will be weather rather than what the weather will be and of course we decided to strike on down the road regardless. It was nearly white out conditions at several points. But, we made it the 1.5 hours with just a little time to spare to ask the usher the procedure for communion. The tiny church was packed! Everyone was singing, and the children of the congregation eagerly participated in the traditional procession of the palms. Kezia and I enjoyed singing the liturgy (from the Red Hymnal) in four part harmony and afterwards Clarence enjoyed the fresh baked cookies while I learned the story of the church.
Remember when I was telling you about looking for family names in the cemetery? On our first visit to the deserted churchyard I had noticed one name which (by observing the dates) had been there since the beginning in 1880. That name showed up again that Sunday morning. I met a man named Lee Wehmeyer who was tickled to share his knowledge of his home congregation. He said that the church always had a one room school house and decided to expand it to make a two room school house for the growing number of students. In 1949 they laid the cornerstone for St. John’s Lutheran School. In 1950 the pastor and school master took a call to another church and no classes ever took place in the new school building. Now the building is used for bible classes, spaghetti suppers, and voters meetings. But school or no school, the church is still alive.
Mr. Wehmeyer, apart from being a pillar in this congregation comes from a long line of carpenters. In 1929 the economy was depressed and there wasn’t much work for a carpenters in small town America. So given the extra time his father and grandfather offered to remodel the church. They expanded the sanctuary and by 1929 had added a beautiful hand crafted altarpiece that rivals (at least in beauty if not in size) any you would see in the big cathedrals.
Unfortunately, this church is falling victim to the current reality that people are not only leaving the country for jobs in the city, but are often leaving the church altogether. Though this small church still has 40-50 people in the pews most Sundays, part of their stability is due to the loving service of Rev. Landgraf who serves not just one parish but another a few towns over.
The countless stories found in many of these small churches are still out there and perhaps if we channel a little bit of the spirit of those Wehmeyer carpenters from the great depression we can help shine some light on them.
Do you have a story that you would like to preserve? Tell us about it at Comments@drivingonsunday.com.