Doors close on historic Luverne church; hope remains for house of worship
LUVERNE — Standing on a solid foundation at the corner of North Cedar and East Luverne streets in the city of Luverne is the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Built in 1891 of Sioux quartzite harvested from the Blue Mounds just north of town, this beautiful beacon has beckoned parishioners for 125 years. It’s the oldest standing church in Luverne, and the only church in Rock County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, with just three members left in the congregation, the diocese is offering the church for sale. It wasn’t an easy decision, but one the parishioners made after many months and much thought.
“It’s been something that’s been weighing on our hearts and our minds for a long time,” said parishioner Roni Feit. The St. Paul-based diocese had encouraged Roni, her husband Lowell and a third parishioner, Bob DeYong, to consider the church’s closure.
“There were a lot of tears — a lot of praying,” Roni said.
“We were kind of pushed into making the decision,” Lowell added. “Nobody wanted to. You have to kind of face the facts.”
The facts were that a church building takes a lot to maintain. With the building’s age, there are costs — costs a trio of members just can’t keep up with. For the past couple of winters, the group conducted services in Hilger Commons, a church-owned building located directly across the street from Holy Trinity’s front door.
“It didn’t make sense to heat up the church because we came over here for coffee,” Roni said.
The congregation had numbered three for the past year. Before that, the membership included Emily Lodine, a professional opera singer who provided the music for the services.
“Once Emily was gone … it just kind of took the wind right out of our sails,” Roni said.
Going back a decade, the church’s membership was approximately 15. Roni said membership at Holy Trinity started to decline after the church lost its priest. The diocese then arranged for someone from Marshall to serve as visiting priest, leading services once per month at the church in Luverne.
In between visits by a priest, the Feits took turns leading worship. Both had completed a Total Ministry program to become licensed preachers.
“We were small, but we were mighty,” Roni said. “All three of us are in our 60s. You just lose your steam after a while.”
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was built in 1891 as a Bishop Whipple church. Bishop Henry Whipple was the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, elected in 1859 and serving until his death in 1901. Holy Trinity is one of few remaining churches formed under Whipple’s guidance.
The church’s construction in Luverne was led by R.B. Hinkly, a stone quarryman and owner of the quarry that is now part of Blue Mounds State Park. Hinkly also constructed the Hinkly House in Luverne, which is now owned by the Rock County Historical Society. The house was built in 1892 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1975. Holy Trinity, a Gothic Revival style church, was added to the registry in March 1980.
According to a brochure on Holy Trinity’s history, the Sioux quartzite used in the church’s construction was sawed by quarrymen into rough blocks at the quarry. As the blocks were cut, they were dragged to a stonecutter’s shed adjacent to the church site. The church’s cornerstone was laid on Aug. 18, 1891.
“The blocks were then laid with an artistry and precision that eclipses masonry techniques of today,” the brochure states. “The woodwork is hand-planed and turned oak. Each piece, the cathedral beams, the chancel, the communion rail and the oaken floor reflect the craftsmanship of the bygone era.”
On Dec. 13, 1891, the oak doors of the church were opened for the first service, although a dedication ceremony did not take place until six years later, when the $6,000 construction bill was paid.
The stained glass windows in the church were made and shipped from England, and the altar, church pews and woodwork are original to construction. Furnishings — including a chancel chair, lectern and baptismal font — were all gifted to the church by parishioners in 1892 and also remain.
As time went on, parishioners maintained the church’s beauty. While the outside appearance remained much the same — a handicap-accessible ramp was added in later years — the interior went through a couple of transformations.
At one time, thought to be in the 1950s, painters came in and painted the entire interior of the church pink — woodwork and all. The Feits said Ann Rinkel — “a rock of the church” — spearheaded a fundraiser to restore the woodwork to its natural oak.
“She knocked on every business door,” said Lowell. “She raised enough money to hire this crew to strip the woodwork back down.”
In the process of the restoration work, crews covered up the pink paint. In doing so, a drop of paint fell from one of their brushes, landing on the stained glass window above the altar. It wasn’t discovered until they began to clean the stained glass.
The drop of paint had landed just below the eye of Jesus, as though it were a tear drop. The cleaning crew decided to leave the dried paint in place, and it is now a feature pointed out to visiting guests.A spirit within
The Feits say when they first entered Holy Trinity, they felt the presence of a spirit. Their children felt it, too.
The Feits joined the church about a dozen years ago after being guests for a few years.
“I worked weekends, so Lowell and the four kids walked down here to church,” said Roni, whose first visit to the church was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on American soil.
“The first time I walked down was that Wednesday (Sept. 12, 2001). They had a silence at noon for all the lives lost,” Roni said. “I was struck by the beauty of (the church) and the sadness and all that happened. I walked in there and found peace. It helped.”
“I think that brought more people back into church,” added Lowell.
Prior to moving to Luverne, the Feits were Episcopalians living in the Twin Cities.
DeYong, on the other hand, said it was Holy Trinity’s greatest supporter, Rinkel, who convinced him to attend services at the church. He’s been a member there for the past 20 years.
“Ann was definitely the best evangelist ever,” said Roni. Rinkel was Russian Orthodox and believed the preachings of the Episcopal church to be closest to her beliefs.
“One of the things of the Episcopal church, it’s accepting of every belief,” Roni said. “Lowell was raised Catholic, and I was raised Methodist. When we first went to an Episcopal church in Burnsville, we both felt at home. We’re just all accepting of anybody and everybody.”The gathering place
In recent years, the congregation hosted some creative fundraisers to help raise money for church maintenance.
Roni mentioned the oatmeal buffet Lowell coordinated on Saturdays during the winter months, serving up oatmeal and an array of toppings for guests. It was one of their greatest fundraisers.
“We had two tables that came in every Saturday,” said Roni. “It was an amazing experience and a great fundraiser for us.”
One of their faithful attendees was Lowell’s mom, who at age 96 would come and wait for Lowell to finish making the oatmeal.
Christmas concerts featuring the music of Emily Lodine also helped bring in revenue, and the church’s members offered pie and music at the church each July during Luverne’s annual Hot Dog Night celebration.
The fundraisers helped pay for a new roof on the church and new air conditioning in Hilger Commons. Money left over went toward maintenance and utilities for the church.
“Medicare just doesn’t take care of it,” Lowell joked.
“With a church of that age, there’s just a lot of maintenance that we aren’t able to handle,” added Roni.Waiting on fate
Dozens of people attended the last worship service in the church on Oct. 23.
“We held a beautiful eucharist service,” Roni said. “It was open to the public.”
A priest traveled from Marshall to lead the service, and the church’s former priests, Coleen Tully and Judy Wiley, were both in attendance.
Because of the church’s historical significance, the Feits say they would like to see the Rock County Historical Society take ownership of the building. At this time, that isn’t financially feasible. What the Feits really want is to see the church continue as a place of worship.
“It’s such a beautiful church, it would just break my heart to see it sit there empty and not be used to its full potential as a church,” said Roni.
She and the other members would like to see it become a non-denominational church, though that may not be so easy.
“People in this community are either established with their church or church community,” Roni said.
“It just seems like these days it’s harder to get people to go to church,” added DeYong. “You’d probably have a better chance of getting it to remain a church (if it was non-denominational).”
In a recent conversation with someone at the State Historical Preservation Office, Roni said while the church is on the national registry, it doesn’t necessarily have to be used as a church once it’s sold.
“If someone wants to purchase it for their own private reasons, they can do that,” she said. “The steeple, the stained glass windows need to remain. They have to preserve the inside and the outside of the building as much as they can to keep it on the historical registry.”
For now, the building is under the control of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s Mission, or council, which will decide the building’s future.
“There are people that want to have their funeral there — also baptisms,” said Lowell.
If anyone has an interest in reopening the building for worship, Roni said they can contact her and she will provide them with contact information for the diocese.
Meanwhile, the Feits and DeYong continue to worship together at Hilger Commons. The Feits are in the process of purchasing that building from the Mission.