Saving churches (this week's newspaper column)

A couple of years after closing its doors, a local country church held an auction recently to get rid of the tables, chairs, pews, fixtures, anything movable of value, in preparation for the destruction of the building.

Country churches have been closing at a fast pace for the past twenty years. It usually is only a couple of years after services stop before the building falls.

Sometimes the congregation saves the steeple and puts it up in the cemetery. Sometimes the church is moved to a local Pioneer Village, where it looks sort of out of place but at least is preserved. One area church put up a scale model of the old building in the cemetery as a monument.

The logic is always the same. They tried to sell the building, even give it away, and a lot of people expressed interest, but nobody came through. So, rather than watch the building fall apart, the committee, with regrets, voted to tear it down.

This is sad. The old churches are beautiful. They are landmarks. We have so very few graceful buildings out here on the prairie. Churches and barns are about it, and they’re going down fast. The only buildings going up are ugly tin sheds.

Most of the old churches were put up by the pioneers, or their children. Times were tough, money was tight, yet they put up buildings which were not only functional, but elegant. Often, they built the church themselves.

I have been told that the style of steeples on the old churches is an indicator of the origin of the immigrant pioneers. Fifty miles east of here the steeples become squatty. Perhaps the immigrants who settled that area came from a different region of the Old Country.

Few people attend services in Europe any more, but somehow they find the money to preserve their old church buildings. In England, a taxpayer-funded organization called the National Trust preserves old buildings, a tremendous expense in a country with a two-thousand year history.

But it’s almost impossible to raise even a fraction of that amount of money to preserve old things in the New World. In the absence of a National Trust of our own, the tiny remaining membership of the old churches is faced with the expense of preserving an old building they don’t use.

But the old churches have value, even for those who never attended services there.

To preserve the buildings, somebody with money, or some outside organization, is going to have to step in and set up a trust fund to keep the buildings in decent shape. Ideally, the building will remain on the original site as a reminder of the pioneers who broke up the land around the church and cooked egg coffee in its basement.

Perhaps somebody who grew up in the congregation but moved away to the city to seek their fortune will have a soft spot for the old place and throw in some cash. Perhaps one of those big foundations can be prevailed upon for a grant.

But for any one church to be preserved, it will require somebody local with a determination to find donors, scare up the grants, and fight off the inevitable opposition of people without sentiment whose idea of a good time is pushing over something old with a big machine.

Far be it from me to harangue the beleaguered church committees who have to decide these matters, or who have decided them already. But let it be said that anybody who tries their best against all odds to preserve an old church is attempting something noble, whether they succeed or fail.