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First Lutheran Church Closes Its Doors

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OSSIAN, Iowa With its dozen or so spots, the gravel parking area at First Lutheran Church in rural Fayette County is usually ample on Sunday mornings.

On this most recent Sunday, though, cars overflowed to fields across the road, maneuvered into ditches and blocked one another in.

Parishioners past and present gathered on Nov. 4 All Saints Sunday to say goodbye to their church.

"Thank you for joining us today as we celebrate 162-plus years of history," says the Rev. Ginny Olson as she greeted people sitting in the pews before her and those up in the balcony. "I want to welcome all of you faithful, faithful people who have been in these pews for many, many years."

In many ways, First Lutheran's story isn't a unique one.

At its peak, the congregation at the First Lutheran Church exceeded 500 baptized members. As the community aged, though, membership dwindled to fewer than 100 people.

It is, however, a church that, in many ways, has stood the test of time.

First Lutheran Church, located near Ossian, was Fayette County's first Lutheran church. It also was the state's first Norwegian Lutheran church and is possibly the oldest Norwegian Lutheran west of the Mississippi River. Organized by the Rev. Elling Eielson in 1850, church records show that a Mr. and Mrs. Torger Madsen were admitted to membership on Aug. 1, 1850.

The crowd of people that filled the pews on Sunday was an anomaly. At most services in recent months fewer than two dozen people filled the pews of the historic church.

So in April, faced with declining numbers and strained finances that put the long-term viability of the church in question, the congregation voted to close the church.

In many ways, the last service was a typical Sunday worship. Babies fussed in the pews as their older sibling fidgeted. Friends greeted each other warmly, catching up on each other's lives after the service. The organ played and the church bell's clang echoed in the quiet countryside, but a few tears and some sniffles gave way to the solemnity of the day.

Bishop Steven L. Ullestad told the congregation it's OK to feel sad, to weep for what was lost before looking ahead. The important thing to remember, he said, is that God's love does not, will not, ever change.

"God cares for and loves you, no matter where you go," Ullestad said.

While some First Lutheran Church families have already joined other Lutheran churches the area, many memberships will be transferred to St. Peter Lutheran Church in Eldorado. Bruce Ehler, chairman of the First Lutheran Congregation, signified that transfer near the end of Sunday's service, handing the church records to a representative from St. Peter.

"I didn't think it would be tough," Ehler said. "I live close, I get to see the church every day, but when we got to that point, it just hit me."

Still, there were no tears as he stood near the church's doors at the end of the service, joking with others who, like him, grew up attending First Lutheran.

"Looking at these faces they bring back a lot of memories," Ehler says. "All good memories."

The congregation's assets, including the church building and the land, have been given to First Lutheran Church Cemetery Inc. A building preservation committee has been established and the church will remain available to those who want to use it for weddings and funerals.

Sunday's final offering will be evenly divided between the building preservation committee and the Fayette County Food Shelf.

A commemorative service to mark the founding of the First Lutheran congregation is already planned for Aug. 4, 2013.