THE GOSHEN NEWS
The members of Eighth Street Mennonite Church have been celebrating the centennial anniversary of their church with different activities and “moment in time” segments and they’re looking forward to upcoming events this month with the culmination of the celebration slated for November.
In February 1913, a group of about fifteen people met at the home of Alvin K. Ropp to discuss organizing a new “town” church. Ropp was pastor of Silver Street Mennonite Church, a rural congregation in eastern Elkhart County and the people who gathered that evening were Silver Street members who lived in Goshen and wanted to form a congregation in the town where they lived rather than commuting to the country. The decision to separate from Silver Street (now Silver Wood) was amiable, with the parent church endorsing the formation of a new church in the county seat.
College Mennonite Church had already been established in Goshen in 1903 and was part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, but this new congregation, like Silver Street, was part of the Central Conference of Mennonites, an Illinois-based group of churches that was somewhat more progressive in outlook.
The first worship service was held on Sunday morning April 20, 1913 in a house-turned-meetinghouse at 616 South Fifth Street. Within six years the group was outgrowing that space and purchased a lot on the corner of Eight and Purl Streets. They constructed a brick building there during 1919-1920 and Fifth Street Mennonite Church became Eighth Street Mennonite Church. In 1957, the building doubled in size with the addition of a wing including Sunday school rooms, offices and a fellowship hall.
A few of the congregation’s long-time members—including the oldest member—104 year-old Rachel Kreider, shared their thoughts on the church’s history.
Evelyn Bushong was born into the church and has remained a member ever since. She was the organist for 40 years. Her husband Nelson, who declares himself “a bit of a historian”, joined the church in 1954 when he married the organist.
Kreider was 12 when her family joined the church around 1921. She was a member for 10 years and then moved away. She returned in 1982 and wrote the history of the church for its 75th anniversary. Melba Bechtel was five years old when her family moved to the area and she and her sister, Arlene Christener, like Evelyn have remained members ever since.
When asked what’s kept them at the church all this time, their answers varied but they all agreed the people of the church and the respect they show one another has been key. Kreider said the feeling and spirit of support at the church along with its “handling of diversity” is what she most appreciates.
Nelson said an example of that handling of diversity could be seen in the “peace thing.” During World War II the congregation had several men serve in the war despite the Mennonite’s pacifist beliefs and he said their decisions for or against was accepted by the congregation. “That speaks to how well everyone got along,” he said. “Eighth Street is on the more progressive side.”
Bechtel added she appreciates, “The strong music program. We have so much talent in the congregation—vocal and instrumental—young and older folks. And we’ve had great leadership over the years, too.”
The group recalled difficult times in the history of the church and how it prevailed. Nelson said after the current church was built an economic collapse in the country made it difficult for members to pay their contributions, plus the cost of the church was double the estimate so they were having a hard time paying the debt.
The congregation started holding community suppers in the late 20s and 30s to help pay off the debt.
Evelyn said her mom always made angel food cake and egg noodles. “I can still see her cutting those noodles so fine and with the leftover egg yolks she’d make angel food cake.”
Melba’s mother-in-law Rose Bechtel and several others also helped with the suppers. The group thought they charged $1.25 for the meal that included scalloped chicken, mashed potatoes, noodles, angel food cake and pies.
Lois Bare, a member of the centennial planning committee, said they recently tried to duplicate that legendary menu for one of the year-long activities.
When a group of people from College Mennonite Church merged with their congregation that was a help in paying the debt as the congregation doubled.
The group had great appreciation for Pastor Bob Hartzler. They recalled his family had a lot of personal tragedies and his wife Emma was in an iron lung.
“I think that’s what anchored him to this area,” Nelson said. “He was so talented he could’ve gone anywhere.”
Hartzler started as pastor in 1945 and was a driving force, along with other church members like businessman John Jennings and some from the greater community in launching Greencroft Retirement Center and Oaklawn.
Historically since its inception, the people of Eighth Street Mennonite have desired to contribute to the well being of the community. One way that has been carried on over the years is what the congregation calls The White Gift. The White Gift project started in the early days of the church. A charitable project is chosen each year and as part of the Christmas Eve service a white box is placed in the manger and typically between members and visitors $3,000 to $4,000 is raised. Then each month they have a giving box and funds raised also go to a charity and reportedly about $40,000 is raised.
Current Pastors Brenda Sawatzky Paetkau, who joined the pastoral team in 1994 while still in seminary and Kevin Farmwald, who joined in 2003 co-pastor 221 adult members.
Paetkau said, “For Mennonites our worship service is more liturgical, more structured, but it’s also more progressive than other Mennonite Churches and broader denominations.”
“For a congregation to do more than survive, but to thrive over 100 years it continually needs to re-invent itself,” Farmwald said.
The pastoral team appreciates that the congregation is spearheading this centennial celebration. “It speaks to the type of leadership here that they are willing to step up and use their gifts,” Farmwald said.