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Elmore church revs up celebration preparation

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As chief of the celebration committee, Sam Preston and the other members are delving into the records of St. John's United Church of Christ in Elmore.

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Nearly 150 years to the day, more than three dozen Elmore residents organized what is now St. John's United Church of Christ. The congregation - including some descendants of founders - will celebrate with birthday cake after Sunday's 10 a.m. service.

The church, organized on Feb. 20, 1860, will hold various activities this year to celebrate its sesquicentennial.

Among them is a community choir program with singers from other local churches at 7 p.m. April 18 at St. John's.

Decades ago, St. John's had 400 members, roughly double the congregation's current size. But the church is gaining members, including Elmore resident Winnie Chasteen, who is helping publicize the fiscally sound church's sesquicentennial.

"We're starting to revitalize ourselves, and our numbers have been rising," Sam Preston, church council president, said. "It's a lovely thing to say, that we're in the black too."

Mr. Preston is heading up a committee of church members delving into St. John's historical records and coordinating sesquicentennial celebrations.

Other upcoming events include a father/son/child banquet March 18; a mother/daughter/child banquet in spring; a homecoming for former members during the summer, and a harvest celebration in the fall.

A hog roast, a walk to the church from "Piety Hill" where the original building stood, a homecoming of former pastors, and a Christmas program by Sunday School participants are among other events in the works.

The Elmore church's pastor, the Rev. William L. Bartholomew, will celebrate his 25-year ordination in June.

European settlers from Reformed and Lutheran churches founded St. John's. They were unable to find a suitable church in Elmore, and traveling to Hessville or Woodville through wooded areas, developing farms, and mud was difficult.

In 1855, the settlers asked two pastors from Hessville to conduct Sunday afternoon service, and two children - Anna Catherine Sandrock and Anna Barbara Dorch - were baptized two years later. Thirty-eight residents held a meeting on Feb. 20, 1860, to organize what would become Apostolic St. John's Church, which was built that year on Harris Street a block west of West Rice Street.

That building remained the church's home until late 1920, when the building at 448 Rice St. opened to accommodate the growing congregation.

The church continues to call members to worship using a 796-pound bell purchased in 1867, which once also was Elmore's fire alarm.

During some Sunday sermons this year, sesquicentennial committee members are giving talks on St. John's history.

The German heritage of many founders played a large part in the church's early years, and church records were kept in German until 1918, Mr. Preston said.

The ties even survived two world wars, Mr. Preston said.

"We were having church services in German here until 1920, then we went to once a month until 1952," he said.

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