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Congregation reflects on closing of local church

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Ron Addler is the first to arrive at the church, walking through the foyer and into the sanctuary where a painting of Jesus gathering his disciples for the Last Supper looms over the altar.

Taking a seat in front of the altar, he begins the story of fixing the bell tower as Lois Birdsong, who made the communion bread for years, enters the room.

Next comes Vivian Myers-Zentko, who typed up the bulletins and always brought her ceramic Nativity scene to decorate the church at Christmas. Mary Lou Watkins soon follows, taking a seat next to the ladies in the second row of pews.

They are among the last remaining members of Milligan Memorial Presbyterian Church, which will hold its final service in October. The church is closing after years of dwindling congregation sizes and the recent departure of the minister, who is returning for the service.

“There was good Christian people going here … I considered us all a family,” Watkins said.

There were no Presbyterian churches on Crawfordsville’s east side in 1894, when a group of Wabash College students formed a prayer group with the downtown congregation. They began a campaign to start a new church, which opened two years later.

The land originally belonged to Susan Wallace and her sister, Helen, who inherited it from their father, Maj. Isaac C. Elston. A merchant’s widow gave the money for the church, which was later renamed in her daughter’s memory.

Members organized clothing giveaways, noodle sales and craft bazaars, and the church was the longtime home for the Christian Nursing Service’s Well Baby Clinic. 

Watkins had been church-shopping when she arrived in the late 1950s, joining her husband’s family in the pews.

“I was hesitant about going to different churches because I heard that some churches had rattlesnakes in part of their service and I didn’t want to end up in a church where they had rattlesnakes,” she said to laughter.

At times, pastors delivered sermons to a standing room-only sanctuary, opening overflow rooms to accommodate the crowds. 

“I don’t know how many ministers I’ve seen come and go here,” said Birdsong, whose family made the short trip to the church from their Elmore Street home when she was a child.

The last minister, Jene McVay, announced his retirement last year. By then, as members died and children grew up and moved away, the membership had shrunk to a half-dozen people. Along with Addler’s wife, there’s Myers-Zentko’s sister, who’s in a nursing home and could no longer attend services.

The church had just repaired the damage caused when a water leak in the bell tower sent the ceiling crashing into the foyer in 2017, flooding the building. 

Faced with an expensive clean-up bill, the church nearly had to close until Addler’s children recruited volunteers to help. Members raised more than $20,000 for the project.

After McVay retired, the presbytery sent newly-minted and retired pastors to the church as guest speakers. But it became difficult to find speakers willing to drive across the state for the 45-minute service.

Around 60 percent of churches had a full-time paid pastor in 2015, down from 71 percent five years earlier, according to a survey of more than 4,000 churches conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. 

The final regular service was in July. As a presbytery committee holds meetings to prepare for the closing, the congregation mostly stays in touch over the phone.

“You’ve gone here so long, well, [we’re] just like sisters more or less, aren’t we?” Myers-Zentko said to the other women. 

On Oct. 20, members will gather for the farewell service to reflect on the church’s history and donate most of the remaining funds to organizations. The service begins at 2 p.m. followed by a reception.

The presbytery will decide the future of the building. Addler has reached out to an Indianapolis congregation that has planted new churches in vacant worship spaces, including in Thorntown. He said he knows another congregation looking for a building.

“Our hope has always been to keep this as a church,” he said.

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