Closing nears for New Rockford church
NEW ROCKFORD, N.D. -- After 124 years, the United Methodist Church here will close its doors for the last time after its final worship service at 10 a.m. Sunday.
"It was a very difficult decision to make. It's hard to say the word 'close' -- it's almost like saying the word 'cancer.' You don't like to think that can happen," said Judy Belquist of New Rockford, treasurer and longtime member of United Methodist.
The church's deconsecration and disbanding marks the end of an era for its members, many of whom were baptized and married in the sturdy brick building on Central Avenue.
Many of them still hope to have their funeral services there, too.
Even after its final worship service, United Methodist Church will continue to serve its local community and a fellow Methodist congregation in need.
Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts has purchased the building to use as a venue for some of its community theater productions, in addition to the black box-style theater in the Opera House.
"It's such a perfect setting," said Deb Belquist, managing director of Dakota Prairie. "... the acoustics are great."
Actors are already rehearsing in the building, with the first show, "Sanders Family Christmas: More Smoke on the Mountain" set for Dec. 2. The final changeover, Deb said, would likely occur the night before.
Promotional material for the first show calls the venue the "Old Church Theatre."
United Methodist Church's legacy will also live on in its last few gifts to people and organizations in need.
First among them is Faith United Methodist Church in Minot, which was flooded when the Souris River overtopped its banks this summer.
Part of the money from the sale of United Methodist Church and its parsonage will go toward rebuilding Faith. Part of it will go to the New Rockford Ambulance Building Fund, part to other community projects and part will be used to pay the church's final bills.
The decision to close the 1912 building, dedicated for worship in 1913, was not an easy one, and it was not made overnight. United Methodist had been considering closure for about three years, and efforts began in earnest this summer.
A slow decline in demographics and decreased financial support were critical factors. Of the 49 members, about 20 people attended the church regularly.
Many of those, Judy Belquist said, are in the nursing home, and the youngest people in the church are in their 40s and 50s.
"When I was growing up here, there were 100 kids in Sunday School," she said.
Now there are none.
"You could see the congregation get older," Judy said. "We've lost some of the pillars of our church, and that makes a big difference."
The remaining members of the congregation will individually decide where they go next and what their next church homes will be.
The nearest Methodist church is a combination United Church of Christ/United Methodist Church in Carrington, and some members have indicated they will attend First Lutheran Church in New Rockford.
A loss for everyone
The members of United Methodist aren't the only ones to be affected by the church's closure, either.
In early October, the Rev. Dale Emery attended an Eddy County Ministerial Association meeting, and told his fellow ministers United Methodist Church would be closing.
They told him they wanted to pay tribute to the church at the community Thanksgiving Eve Service at 7 p.m. Wednesday at United Methodist Church.
"There's been a great ecumenical spirit in this community," Emery said.
There are difficult transitions ahead for the people of United Methodist, some of whom have attended the church since the 1940s.
"Many of them have gone through the stages of grieving," said Emery, who has served as United Methodist's part-time pastor for 39 months.
Emery was referring to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- and said he believes much of the congregation has reached the acceptance stage.
"It's like a dying relative. You get to a point (where) you just want it to be over with," Judy said. "It's a sad time."
It's also a difficult time, with bills to be paid, legalities to be observed and many loose ends to be firmly tied off.
To close, the church had to get permission from Bishop Debra Kiesey, head of the Dakotas Conference, as well as that of Keith Nelson, superintendent of the Sakakawea District.
The church was given a checklist of things it had to do, from making sure its deed was up to date to making sure its religious articles would be properly taken care of.
"We don't have any debts, but we are at the point where within a few months, we would be hard-pressed to pay utilities and the pastor's salary and other expenses," Emery said.
Many of the church's religious items will also go to Faith United Methodist Church in Minot.
Some specific items will go elsewhere, such as the elaborate cut-paper banners on the columns on either side of the chancel. The banners were created by Jim Evanson years ago, and will be returned to his daughter, Emily Hilgers, of Moorhead, Minn.
During United Methodist's final service, there will be a declaration of deconsecration and a declaration of disbanding.
"We've got to make sure we have some Kleenex that day," Judy said. "There'll be crying."
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453
or by email at email@example.com