EAST CHAIN - Songs, laughter and memories filled the East Chain Evangelical Free Church Sunday as the congregation celebrated its 125th anniversary.
According to Kathy Raine, chairman of the anniversary committee, a thousand rural churches disappear each year, but that is not the case with the East Chain congregation. The Rev. Jerry Bertholet, current pastor, said there are "new faces almost every Sunday."
"It's a revitalized congregation, which is very unusual for a country church," said Doug Peterson, deacon. "The sanctuary seats 220, and we're usually full every Sunday. On Easter Sunday, we had 320 people here."
ROCKING?THE?RAFTERS?— Members and guests of East Chain Evangelical Free Church sing and worship during the service to commemorate the church’s 125th anniversary Sunday. In a day when most rural churches are closing, East Chain’s E-Free Church is usually filled to capacity, said a deacon. (By Judy Bryan)
He noted that the church draws worshipers from Estherville, Sherburn, Elmore and Blue Earth, not just East Chain. He added that a church worth the drive will thrive.
While new members continue to join the congregation, some of its families are deeply entrenched in its history.
"We're up to seven generations in our family in this church," said Kevin Hugoson, chairman of the church board.
When his daughter and son-in-law considered moving back to the area, they asked Hugoson if there were any young people their age in the church.
The nursery is full, Hugoson said, and the Sunday school class of four- and five-year-olds has the potential of 17 students.
The sanctuary was built in 1951, the third such building to house the congregation, and a fellowship hall and kitchen were added in 1987.
"We're looking at options," Hugoson said, referring to a possible future expansion. "We're getting quite full, and we're wondering where God's going to lead us."
"We've got some great problems," he added, smiling.
Former pastors Craig Burton (1984-93), Harry Swanson (1978-83) and Arnold Hammill (1971-78) returned to participate in the celebration. Also attending was Nancy Balmer of the Des Moines area, whose husband, Clarence, served the congregation from 1957-63.
The pastors had high praise for the congregation, recalling special memories and anecdotes of their time at the rural East Chain church.
Burton recalled being a 31-year-old from Chicago when he and his wife began their tenure.
"People just accepted and loved us," he said. "I've never seen that in my ministry - never felt so loved. If you ever get in a church like this, don't leave."