On Sunday, August 18, friends of the former Stilwell Community Church gathered for a last service in the old church.
Posted on 8/24/13
By Rita Maisel
Even those who did not recognize all the faces realized that this was a service with no strangers, only friends whose memories would overlap. So we filled the pews, sang, prayed, had communion and remembered.
Adrian Olson, one of the four pastors leading the service had asked me to write about the church’s history and while the notes for previous stories never surfaced, I do know that Stilwell had several beginnings. One of those began with Rev. Ransom Waite, a Presbyterian who served in the early 1880s at Oak Lawn on the corner where later we would turn to go to Concrete. Rev. Waite knew no denominational boundaries. “We are all here. Let us praise the Lord,” is recalled as an early greeting whether he was preaching in a farmyard with worshipers sitting on logs from the woodpile or later in a drafty court house, a crowded living room or even a small wooden church constructed on land that we think was homesteaded by his daughter who taught near Elkwood. Her married name was Radford and the Elkwood Cemetery is near that spot. Rev. Waite’s elderly wife died while they were living there and a long ago news item says she was the first person buried in what is now the Elkwood Cemetery. Other settlers moved into the area and by 1898 a Baptist pastor from Langdon (one listing says originally from Canada) held services in the same community. His Langdon church was demolished in the 1909 cyclone and he left town not long after that event. There are also memories of services at the Lyle school house in the northwest corner of Harvey Township – very near where the Stilwell church first stood. After the original Baptist pastors left, several Presbyterian pastors from Langdon began to serve the community. In winter the families gravitated to the Langdon Presbyterian Church, especially if they had sons or daughters attending Langdon High School. Some of the families are still members of that congregation. In 1984 Bud and Ila Murie did some research on this era and found lists of pastors they or family members remembered. Besides the pastors the notes included the Murie, Hope, Radford, Witzel, Jennings, Payne, Field, Faris, Hennager, McDowall, Olson and other families.
Frank Jennings has traced many of the generations of his heritage and in doing so wrote the story of the Jennings connection with Stilwell Community Church which was formally organized as a legal entity after purchasing the former Baptist building in 1936. As a result I am using the time-line Frank developed. A Jennings nephew, Elsworth Moritz, served as their first resident pastor. Moritz, raised in the Evangelical Church at Cavalier, was from a family who provided lay pastor services to a number of Cavalier County churches down through the years. At that point in time Elsworth also served another church with a congregational background – the Nekoma Presbyterian Church. In fact he met his wife (Caroline Hefta) at Nekoma where she was teaching. They moved to Minnesota in 1940 and continued to serve churches for many years.
The “congregational” form of government appealed to the group at Stilwell since it is the type of church organization used by both Baptists and Presbyterians but they wanted the church to be open to the community rather than only one denomination. On Bud and Ila’s list of pastors Rev. Thomas Lindsay, a native of Ireland, serving the Langdon Presbyterian Church was called to serve Stilwell after Rev. Moritz left. Rev. G. W. Bergland, pastor at Zion Evangelical church east of Langdon, filled in from time to time and when both Pastors Lindsay and Bergland left following World War II, Rev. Leonard Kruckenberg, also from Zion, added Stilwell to his circuit. Rev. Kruckenberg also served Emmanuel (later EUB) in Langdon. Rev. Ardell Aleson followed Rev. Kruckenberg at the EUB churches and many memories of Stilwell include stories of Rev. Aleson. It was during his time that the basement was added, the church was remodeled and formally dedicated in 1952. The Salmann picture of the Good Shepherd was known as a favorite of the Alesons and magically appeared in most of the churches they served. Yes, on August 18 it was still hanging in Stilwell.
The EUB connection remained through the pastorates of Rev. Monette, Rev. Ackerman and the early days of Rev. Janezki. During Rev. Ackerman’s time the EUB denomination merged with Methodist to form United Methodist congregations. In 1970 the two United Methodist pastors in our area who had prior to that time served as many as nine affiliated congregations were reassigned and several of the smaller churches closed. Stilwell did not belong to the denomination and was free to call a pastor of their choosing. Several pastors served with Rev. Bruce Fish, at that time serving Emmanuel Evangelical Church of North America in Langdon, remembered as pastor until the final service on their old location in 1981.
There are two sides to the story of moving the church to Mt. Carmel. One is that the board planning the recreation area knew a small church was often part of camp ground settings and here was a church just a couple of miles away in good shape that would fit their needs. The other is that the former members wanted their church to continue to be used within the community as a spiritual witness. The picture accompanying this story was taken when the church moved to Mt. Carmel.
After the closing service families and former members who had ties to gifts given to the church were allowed to remove items they wished to keep or could use. In the mean time the rest of us gathered outdoors over refreshments and learned the story of how this one got something their father had built or that family got the pew where they always sat. I even got a hymnal – in better shape than similar ones at our church today and from the old Zion church my grandparents had helped built. Stilwell memories will linger on for a long time and special thanks are due Adrian Olson, Sue Mackey, Judy Banwart and Joe Moutria the four pastors who helped to plan the service.