Back to the Future: Union Congregational Church celebrates 130 years

by Jim Boyle

Union Congregational Church will look back at its rich heritage on Sunday but not for too long, as it will perform a baptism and also pray blessings on families and their presence for  Consecration Sunday.

The congregation, fresh off a mission and vision process, is ready to turn more of its practical and spiritual resources over to God.

A picture that shows a previous, darker look of the church.

They will celebrate the 130th birthday of the church’s original building, knowing they have just retired the mortgage on an addition made to the church in 2000.

The original church became the landmark and symbol of Elk River religious life when it was built.

Today, Union Congregational is home to about 475 members, and makes itself known for its sense of family that spans across the generations and for being progressive. Its newest members are young families.

When the church got its start it was the center of the community. Its humble beginnings did not include any denominational affiliation, but the connection with the Congregational Church was apparent with the election of the Rev. Levi H. Cobb as moderator of the United Christian Church of Elk River in 1875. He was a Congregational superintendent for home work in churches and Sunday schools when he was selected.

Interestingly, at the close of one of Mr. Cobb’s sermons, charter members came forward and were received into the fellowship with the Christian world.

Union Congregational Church makes quite a statement in the winter at night, when there’s a fresh blanket of snow to highlight its New England architecture.

“The prayer of Recognition and Consecration was by the pastor, the Rev. Mr. Spencer and the Right Hand of Fellowship by Cobb after which for the first time the members of this newly formed church sat down in love to be served from the Lord’s table by their own officers elect,” according to Historically Speaking, a publication of the Sherburne County Historical Society.

This occasion was more than common interest. It had members of different churches, who had been taught to think that division was good as a whole Army, especially if it bore the name of a whole sect, the historical society publication stated.

Religious services were first held in the town’s schoolhouse until the courthouse was built in 1877.
The property of the church site was deeded to the group in 1874 by Horatio and Melissa Houlton for $1, with the stipulation a meeting house for worship be erected within 10 years of time. A church was indeed built and dedicated in November 1881.

The building’s architectural design came out of the tradition of New England from where church founders came.

It was considered one of the “handsomest in any village in the state, and cost about $4,500,” according to the Sherburne County Historical Society. At the time of the dedication, all but $1,000 of the church was paid for.

One of the oldest pictures of the church. The church’s architecture is that of New England style.

“We started out as the center of the community,” the Rev. Dana Mann said. “We have a wonderful and eclectic history.”

The facility was used by the community as a lecture hall, site for kindergarten classes, high school commencements and community religious services.

The church was able to boast the first furnace in a public building in the area and was lighted for evening services with a gas chandelier.

The 10 a.m. service tomorrow will “lift our gratitude for the beauty and hominess of our church,” according to Bonnie Rule, a church historian who has assembled a photo display of the church building in the Fellowship Hall.

Union’s recorded history reveals that this particular weekend — the third Sunday in November — includes the celebration of the building’s 100th anniversary on Nov. 15, 1981. It also includes:
•Closure service of Richard Scheerer Nov. 19, 1989
•Installation of Trish Greeves Nov. 18, 1990
•Century Church Designation Celebration Nov. 18, 1991
•Installation of Dana Mann Nov. 18, 2007

One of the more sobering times in the community of Elk River, as the front of Union Church had a tribute to those who died from diphtheria.

As the church, however, honors its heritage on Sunday, it will also give thanks for its present and look forward to its future.

“It will not be just about the four walls we’re surrounded by,” Mann said.
More than that, it will be about the generations who have come through the church and those who are there now, Mann said.

To help celebrate Consecration Sunday there will be a baptism of a newborn, and Mann is figuring out a way to demonstrate that its monthly mortgage payment will be a thing of the past.

The church congregation has been preparing itself to be used by God in both practical and spiritual ways, as it has completed a mission statement and visioning process.

“The church is larger than this sanctuary,” Mann said.

The church recently completed an 11-day mission project.

It donated $1,111 to the National UCC Neighbors in Need campaign and East Africa famine relief.

It collected 1,111 pounds of non-perishable food donated to CAER.

It also donated 111 items to Minneapolis Avenues for Homeless Youth.

Children passing by at night call it the “Angel Church,” and that’s fine with the Rev. Dana Mann of Union Congregational Church in Elk River, who considers it high praise to be considered messengers of God.

And it wrote 111 letters to senators and Congress members asking that U.S. foreign assistance be reformed to more effectively serve the world’s poorest people.

These efforts will no doubt be talked about again. At the end of the day, however, members of the congregation will no doubt be talking about the future.

“People here care about the church, and they won’t let the historic nature go,” Mann said. “But they’re more concerned about when and how we do things.”

Consecration Sunday will help prepare them for the journey ahead.