Members feel sadness, relief over church closing
Dorothy Kinney hasn’t cried much, but she expects tears to flow Sunday, when St. Peter Evangelical United Church of Christ in Granite City holds its last worship service.
She and other Leadership Team members made the decision in January to sell their buildings and “dissolve” the 118-year-old church, which was founded by German immigrants and served 350 members at one time. Only about 15 people are active today.
“This has been foretold for a long time,” said Kinney, 89, a retired legal secretary who has attended St. Peter for 70 years. “But when it really came down to saying, ‘We’re going to close the church,’ I thought we had failed, that we had let down the generations before us. I never thought I would be one of the people to close this church. It’s sad.
“But now I feel the time is right, and we have been blessed to have this go as smoothly as it is going, and this really worthwhile organization has chosen St. Peter as its home, and the sanctuary will house a new church start. Every portion of our property will be used for the good of many.”
Kinney was referring to Family Treehouse, a non-profit organization that provides summer lunches to children in 43 communities, groceries to at-risk families in 14 school districts and hot meals, fellowship and entertainment to senior citizens in Granite City. It also operates a mobile market.
The organization bought the St. Peter sanctuary building, parsonage and two-story education annex on Cleveland Boulevard for $1.
“This will allow our programs to continue to grow,” said founder the Rev. Lisa Guilliams, 57, former pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Granite City for 16 years. “We’ve never owned our own property where we could expand or add a new building if we needed to.”
Methodist pastors join forces
The St. Peter sanctuary will be used by a new non-denominational church called “Thrive.” It was started last spring by the Rev. Mike Rayson, 45, a native Australian, musician and former directing pastor of Nameoki United Methodist Church in Granite City for five years.
Both Guilliams and Rayson left their Methodist churches to join forces as co-pastors of Thrive, which has been meeting temporarily at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church.
“He’s the teaching pastor, and I’m really going to focus on outreach and missions,” Guilliams said.
Thrive will hold its first service in the St. Peter sanctuary at 10 a.m. Aug. 11. Family Treehouse already is moving into the education annex, and Guilliams has been renovating the parsonage, where she plans to live.
Family Treehouse has two main programs: Twigs, which battles childhood hunger; and FIGS (Fellowship Involving Granite Seniors). Both formed as Trinity outreaches and evolved into non-profit organizations.
“We’re funded by grants and donations,” Guilliams said. “We don’t get any federal or state money at all. We don’t have any paid staff. We have over 600 volunteers.”
Money will go to 16 charities
Kinney isn’t the only St. Peter leader trying to look on the bright side of the church’s closing. Vice Moderator Bob Braundmeier, 80, a retired letter carrier, noted that money left in the church’s bank account will be donated to 16 local charities.
But Braundmeier admits that his life will change dramatically after Sunday. He’s been attending St. Peter for 69 years. His wife, Carol, also serves on the Leadership Team.
“The phrase ‘man without a country’ comes to my mind,” Braundermeier said. “I’m a man without a church.”
Other leaders are Hedy Mees, Wesley Doolittle, moderator and treasurer; and Church Secretary Carolyn Anders, the only paid staff member.
In the early 2010s, St. Peter became a “training church,” where young pastors-to-be got practice before their ordinations. More recently, the United Church of Christ has provided “supply pastors” (substitutes) to lead Sunday morning services.
The Leadership Team gathered in the fellowship hall this week to reminisce and look at old photo albums. The stage was stacked with furniture, books, wall hangings and other items that will be distributed to church members who want them.
Family Treehouse will inherit folding tables and chairs, pots and pans. Records will go to the archives department at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri.
“I’m not sure what we’ll do with our memorial wall,” Kinney said of wooden plaques in a hallway honoring members who have died over the years. “I guess we’ll leave them here.”
Early services held in German
German immigrants organized St. Peter Evangelical Church in 1901, according to a church history. The first of 16 pastors was Paul Viehe, identified as “Mr.” instead of “Rev.” on his official portrait.
Members held worship services in a school, built the sanctuary in 1903 and parsonage in 1910, enlarged the sanctuary in 1925, added the education annex in 1955 and merged with Congregational Christian Church in 1957 to form a United Church of Christ.
“We had about 350 members here (in the 1950s),” Braundmeier said. “... We had overflow crowds for Christmas and Easter services. They had to put folding chairs in the aisles.”
St. Peter was known for its homemade apple butter and sausage suppers that regularly attracted a thousand people. It later operated a preschool.
In recent years, the church has followed a pattern that’s common across the country: Older members die, children move away and leaders struggle to attract young people, who join non-denominational congregations with fewer rules and rituals, more kids activities and contemporary Christian music.
St. Peter hasn’t had a choir for about 10 years.
“People are still on the rolls who don’t come to church,” said Anders, 73, the church secretary. “In the official count that goes to the United Church of Christ, we have 147 members. We did an unofficial count of people who attend two or three times a year, and it was 45.”
Leaders expect a crowd Sunday
The last St. Peter worship service will be at 3 p.m. Sunday in the sanctuary, which has stunning stained-glass windows designed by a French artist and installed in 1972.
Next week, St. Peter members plan to start shopping around for churches on their own rather than transfer as a group. Kinney used the word “liberating” to describe the idea of no longer having to worry about maintaining the three buildings or paying the electric bill.
“It will be a trial-and-error period for us, trying to find a church that we fit into and that worships in a way that makes us feel comfortable,” said Doolittle, 70, a retired Boeing employee.
Leaders only half-jokingly mention that they will be leaving behind the ghost of Walmer Brummer, who built the church’s first pipe organ. They believe he’s checking on it when they see flashes of light going into the choir loft.
Brummer was a perfectionist, and that has led to the running joke, “What would Walmer think?” Braundmeier has even asked the question in regard to the closing of St. Peter.
But Doolittle is confident that everything will be OK.
“It’s not a sad day,” he said. “It’s a day to rejoice. This facility will be utilized and continue to serve the area. It is not going to be dormant. It’s not going to be sitting here deteriorating.”