The last words of the biblical Sermon on the Mount rang out across the church on the hill. Gathering to say goodbye to the building, the faithful received their next command: Find new expressions for the divine love that will not end.
An hour before the final worship service at Milligan Memorial Presbyterian Church, elder Ron Addler wanted people to find a parking space.
Addler helped his son and a man from a partnering church arrange orange cones in the parking lot. The closing rituals had been planned out for days and, even this morning, Addler was finding more parts to tweak.
“My wife said leave it alone, but I can’t leave it alone,” he said.
Soon a line was forming in the lobby. Members who’d moved away and came back and members who’d stayed to the very end signed their names in the register.
Members of a Presbyterian flock in West Lebanon helped prepare the 123-year-old church for what may be its last audience. A quilt given to a retiring minister in the 1930s was displayed in the foyer, with the names of the women who made it carefully stitched into the fabric.
In the sanctuary, twin white candles glowed under a picture of the Last Supper. A silver communion service was laid out at the foot of the altar.
Thank you notes from Haitian families who’d received concrete floors donated by the church were displayed on a side table. “God will always be with you and your family,” one note read, “and you already have your place next to him for your wonderful effort. Never stop helping.”
Sandra Salazar, who attends Wabash Avenue Presbyterian, and her 10-year-old granddaughter Lindsay Young settled into a pew near the front.
Milligan joined forces with Wabash Avenue decades ago to launch the Christian Nursing Service, home to the Well Baby Clinic.
“This is the church that was responsible for providing health care for the children of this town that didn’t have insurance. It’s a wonderful ministry,” Salazar said.
Behind the pulpit, Rev. Jennifer Lewis, an executive of the Presbytery of Wabash Valley, reviewed the notes for her sermon.
“Jesus said wise people build their house on a rock so I’m going to be talking about firm foundations of faith,” Lewis said.
“The life of a congregation is not much unlike the life of a person,” she added. “It’s a living entity.”
For Mark Strothman, the church was the beginning of a decades-long career in ministry. After the postcard invitation arrived in the mail, he and his wife, Sharon Maddox, drove from their home near St. Louis for the farewell service.
When Strothman first arrived in the 1980s, a pair of senior citizen Sunday school groups was instrumental in the congregation of about 60 people.
“One was the Faithful Helpers and the other was the Willing Workers, and I had trouble keeping them straight,” Strothman said with a laugh.
But in recent years, the regular congregation had dwindled to a handful of people. Those who were left took on multiple roles: Addler, who’d learned how to play organ in high school, dusted off his old lesson books to take over the longtime organists. Pastor Jene McVay scaled the belfry to plug the massive leak that almost led the building to close in 2017.
The church began the process of shutting the doors earlier this year after McVay retired in December. The presbytery will decide the future of the building.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been up here,” he said, stepping into the pulpit Sunday for final remarks. “It feels funny.”
The congregation learned to be patient when McVay first arrived. During his first communion, he started to hand out the cups of juice before the bread. (“He’s doing it backward!” a longtime member whispered.)
But he spent enough time at the church to baptize most of his grandchildren. And when his older brother was dying of cancer, the congregation raised enough money for a final rent payment.
“This building, as much as we love it, is not the church. The church will continue to live on in our hearts. The church resides within us,” McVay said. “As long as we remain faithful, it will live on.”
Three local organizations will benefit from Milligan’s remaining funds. The church presented checks to the Montgomery County Youth Service Bureau, Crawfordsville Police Department K-9 support fund and the Dr. Mary Ludwig Free Clinic.
Money was also presented to a Rochester interfaith summer youth camp program and the Haiti mission project.
“Peace be with you, Milligan Memorial Presbyterian Church,” Lewis, presiding over her third closing service in the 77-member presbytery, said at the end of her sermon. “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
Lewis returned to her seat and the congregation rose from the pews. “Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,” the crowd sang together, “it is well, it is well with my soul.”