MENNO — It’s a small church, but it’s hard to miss.
Nestled in the James River Valley about six miles south of Menno and constructed out of area field and river stone, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church occupies a picturesque spot on the north shore of the river at the corner of 431st Avenue and, appropriately enough, Stone Church Road.
The small congregation that calls the unique structure home will observe the 150th anniversary of its establishment this Sunday, and Theresa Jacobson, who serves as pastor for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and its sister congregation, Grace Lutheran Church, said it will be a celebration of the perseverance of faith in the face of changing times.
“It really gives a sense of hope,” Jacobson said. “(The congregation) has seen a lot of ups and downs in its time.”
The Our Savior’s Lutheran congregation traces its origins back to Norwegian settlers who homesteaded the James River Valley in the 1800s. In December of 1871, a group of those settlers organized a Lutheran congregation, becoming known as The Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, or The James River Congregation.
After years of meeting in members’ homes, the group first dedicated a specific church building in November of 1885. Over the years, some members of the church branched out to form another congregation, the Norway Congregation. In 1920, that congregation re-merged with The James River Congregation to form Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.
That congregation then forged ahead, and in 1935 it began planning for a new church building to be located on the banks of the James River south of Menno, located at the midpoint between the two previous churches. An architect and stone mason were hired and, with the help of many local men, native rocks were split with stone hammers and joined with mortar.
The building, which continues to serve as a place of worship as well as a local landmark, was completed in 1950 and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Despite its small stature and membership, the church building rarely fails to impress those who happen to be passing by, its stone construction setting it apart from other roadside structures in the area.
For Jacobson, it’s a treat to show the church to pastor friends visiting from out of town. While Grace Lutheran Church in Menno is a large, modern structure with modern amenities and a large congregation, the Stone Church harkens back to another time.
“It catches me off guard every once in a while. I can’t believe I have the privilege to serve a church like this, not just the location but the uniqueness of it,” Jacobson said. “It’s one of the first things we show our pastor friends when they visit, and they’re always impressed with the size of Grace. And then we take them down to (the Stone Church). It’s just so beautiful.”
The church has not been immune to the challenges faced by many rural churches across the country. With a dwindling and aging rural population, attendance is down. For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, which can hold over 100 people in its sanctuary, those gathering for worship Saturday evenings sometimes number as few as a dozen.
Jacobson, who took over pastor duties at the church when she and her family moved to Menno 10 years ago, said the relatively small worship group has had to deal with low attendance numbers, COVID-19 and then mother nature itself when record flooding hit the river area in 2019, though the structure was spared any serious damage.
Jacobson said those challenges strengthened the church’s resolve to continue holding services for as long as it is able.
“When we got here, they were worshiping with five or six people. It was a very humble-sized congregation, that’s for sure. It saw some ups and downs with attendance. Then we had the flood in 2019, which is the worst that this area has seen in a very long time,” Jacobson said. “I think after enduring that flood we kind of had the fire reignited in us. There is some purpose we’re serving, whether it's just for a few or not.”
The church serves its members, but it also has a reputation for welcoming travelers off the road. Jacobson said people who happened to be passing by will notice the church and stop in just to take in its beauty and architecture. Some stop to pray, whether services are underway or not.
“We would get notes by the guest book or the altar from people who would stop by and were looking for a place to pray and the door was open,” Jacobson said.
It all serves as a reminder that milestones like the one to be celebrated Sunday are rare and to be cherished, Jacobson said.
“We realize that no one in the congregation is getting younger, and any chance of a 175th is not very good. That could change, but with what we have right now, there will be a time when eventually it will come to a close for that congregation,” Jacobson said. “But there is a legacy that will be left. The church building will never be fully closed because it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places, but I still think that’s an opportunity for people to come together.”
Church members, pastors both past and present and community members will definitely come together at the site on Sunday. Over 100 people have already reserved places for the afternoon meal. A descendant of the family that donated the property on which the building stands is expected to be in attendance. Morning worship will begin at 10:30 a.m. with the lunch following. There will be congregational hymns and likely lots of reminiscing.
Jacobson said it will be a time to give thanks for the journey of the congregation and the unique building that it calls home. She said they will continue to hold services as long as possible, but whatever the future holds for the church, it will continue its service to God in one form or another.
“We don’t know what the future ultimately holds, but there will be a legacy left and there will be some sort of purpose that we can’t even imagine. But it will serve into the future,” Jacobson said.