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Heatherdowns Church of the Brethren is preparing to close—for good. Rather than dwindling away until nobody shows up on a Sunday, Jeanene Pifer, the church organist who has been a member there since the 1960s, said, the congregation has made a conscious decision to have a celebration, try to do some good with the funds it has left, and close on a positive note.
The Rev. Horace Huse, who was minister at the church from 1973 to 1978 before becoming a hospital chaplain at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, is head of the closing celebration committee.
This is not the first time that the church at 3510 Schneider Rd. was seriously thinking of shutting down.
About 10 years ago, Ms. Pifer said that during a board meeting, “we were all sitting around here talking about closing the church, and the phone rang.”
“We learned about this bequest that we had received, $450,000,” Chaplain Huse said. “Wow. Now what do we do?” They tried to keep the church going. After giving $45,000 to the Church of the Brethren denomination for its ministries, they invested the money and hired a full-time pastor for the first time in about 20 years. “Well, we tried, but to no avail. I think we ended up more united, more spiritually alive than we were, but we just couldn't get the bodies. The full-time pastor left us three years ago, and he could see that he wasn't making the results that we were looking for. And our money was going to run out shortly; we had enough for maybe another year or two.”
The church has gone from a high point of more than 200 members in the 1960s to only 17 families and a part-time pastor, the Rev. Timothy Rothfuss, a Lutheran minister who is also a chaplain at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio. The nearest continuing church in the denomination is Lakewood Church of the Brethren, 27009 Lemoyne Rd., Millbury.
The Heatherdowns church, which started meeting in homes about 1905 and had been on Woodville Road in East Toledo from 1920 until it moved to Schneider Road in the '60s, is using its funds to continue its memory. The buildings and property, including all contents including the collection plates, are for sale for $495,000, and there are congregations interested in buying (another congregation, the Toledo Church of God Seventh Day, rents space there on Saturdays). The balance of the church's bequest and the cash from the real estate sale will go to a Brethren church camp in Burbank, Ms. Pifer said.
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“They're in great need of updating everything, and new pipes and new whatever,” Ms. Pifer said, “and so to bring it up to code, they're going to need a chunk. We decided to send our money that way. We want to continue the church, and that's one place where a lot of times kids will make a decision to go into the ministry, or it just enriches their lives. That was our goal, to leave some kind of a legacy that would last.”
But first comes the living legacy. Former members have been notified of the closing celebration, and people are making plans to be there. Ms. Pifer said the congregation hopes 75 or 100 will attend. The church hosts a banquet with a prime rib dinner Oct. 26 (“We decided to splurge,” Chaplain Huse said); reservations are requested by Monday to 419-491-8820. Following the dinner, the celebration moves to the sanctuary for a microphone time for people to share memories. And “Brethren are noted for their singing,” Chaplain Huse said, “so we'll do some singing.”
October 27 will start with a continental breakfast buffet instead of Sunday school so the visitors can continue their fellowship. Then at the 10:45 worship service the Rev. Paul Myers of Fostoria, a former interim minister at Heatherdowns, will speak.
The congregation's final Sunday morning service will be Nov. 10 at 10:45 a.m. John Ballinger of Ashland, Ohio, the Brethren district executive, is the scheduled speaker.
After that, Ms. Pifer said, plans are forming for continued fellowship. Closing the church “isn't like goodbye; it's so long but we'll see you, and I want to schedule a dinner by the end of November or the very first of December,” Ms. Pifer said. “We can get together either at different restaurants or different homes, but keep the group going. Even if it's just a social type of thing, at least we're together.”
What will Chaplain Huse and Ms. Pifer do about church after Heatherdowns closes? Both have said they will move their formal membership to another Brethren church, but Ms. Pifer will become the organist at All Saints Lutheran Church. Chaplain Huse is “going to feel free,” he said, and he might attend other churches; but even the thriving ones won't last forever, he said.
“Some of these churches that are going gangbusters are going to die someday,” Chaplain Huse said. “We don't know when, and we hope that it will be a long time, but it's wise when we're able to to plan ahead, and I'm thankful that we've been able to take the bull by the horns. It's not easy. This is hard work, to face the grief and loss that this congregation has represented over the years to this congregation and to this community.”