WORTHINGTON — By day, the artistic stained glass windows of Emmanuel United Methodist Church, located at the southeast corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue in Worthington, still filter sunlight onto the sanctuary’s 19 main-floor hardwood pews in dramatic fashion.

But it’s been years since those pews were filled to capacity with worshipers, and at 7 p.m. today the congregation will gather for the last Christmas Eve service they will ever hold there.

“Christmas Eve is always an emotional time, but it will be more so this year,” said Brenda Desmith, Emmanuel’s choir director, accompanist and Sunday school coordinator.

“I was born into this church, and I raised my own family here — and we’re celebrating Emmanuel’s 130th anniversary this year, too.”

Its founders paved the way in 1889, and Emmanuel’s congregation has worshiped since 1923 in the intimate sanctuary of the classic brick structure with striking stained glass windows situated in the heart of Worthington’s historic district, only a stone’s throw from the Historic Dayton House.

“I know a lot of people are curious about it [the building],” said Desmith. “They’ve seen ‘that church on the corner’ but have never been inside.

“If they attend [tonight’s service] at 7 p.m., they’ll have an opportunity to enjoy it for 45 minutes to an hour.”

Declining but dedicated membership

As recently as 2012, Emmanuel’s Sunday services averaged 23 attendees; in 2019, that average has dwindled to 11.

“It’s grown hard for church leadership to sustain all that must be done to keep the church operating,” said the Rev. Dr. Daren Flinck, who has led both Emmanuel and First United Methodist since July 2013.

“The work tends to fall on the same three or four people, and even though they’re willing, that becomes taxing after a while.”

Emmanuel was founded as an Evangelical United Brethren church. In 1968, that denomination merged with the Methodist churches to form the United Methodist Church.

“It’s not an uncommon tale,” said Flinck. “The two churches have worked together since then.”

Emmanuel and First United Methodist (located a scant three blocks west of Emmanuel) began partnering for pastoral leadership and some administrative duties in 1985.

Despite its dedicated membership, Emmanuel’s congregation couldn’t deny the toll deaths and a dearth of members were taking, and a few months ago the remaining congregants voted to dissolve their church at the end of June 2020.

The traditions of Christmas Eve

Letting go of the church’s Christmas Eve service is one of the hardest aspects of the impending closure, Desmith and Flinck observed.

“Christmas Eve at Emmanuel is all about tradition,” said Desmith, who began coordinating the service 35 years ago as a young adult; she remains busy finalizing details and music for tonight’s service.

“One of the reasons it’s a little different here is that we still have the children’s Christmas program that night. The kids act out the Christmas story, and we have lots of special music and traditional carols.”

Typically, between 50 and 75 people slide into Emmanuel’s pews on Christmas Eve, enjoying the festive yet holy atmosphere that is nearly palpable.

This year’s service will include Desmith and her daughter Sarah singing a vocal duet (“No Room”), a trombone solo from Flinck, a cello solo played by Aryah Marsh and at least one choir anthem.

“And the Sunday school kids will sing ‘Away in a Manger,’” assured Desmith.

“It’s not always a polished program, but everything is sincerely felt and from the heart.”

Another throwback feature on Christmas Eve at Emmanuel: “Everyone who attends gets an apple as they’re leaving,” said Desmith, noting that tradition is more than 50 years old.

But Emmanuel stopped distributing paper bags filled with candy and peanuts to the children in 2017 — and switched from Red Delicious to Honeycrisp apples a few years ago, too.

Flinck said the service is meaningful, perhaps in part because it is entirely lay-driven.

“As pastor, there is very little for me to do in terms of planning,” said Flinck.

“Brenda does a nice job of incorporating different people who have been connected with the church over the years, and it results in a very cool dynamic.

“Every year I look forward to the deep sense of community that creates.”

The building will, of course, remain after Emmanuel’s doors close next June; a Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist Church has been meeting in the basement for the past three years, and while that body has expressed interest in purchasing it, no agreement has been finalized.

“The Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church owns the building — the church members are its caretakers — so it will be the conference’s decision,” explained Flinck.

The final Christmas Eve

For service coordinator Desmith, the Christmas Eve hour is always a bit nerve-wracking with so much music to perform and moving parts to coordinate, but she knows tonight will hold extra meaning.

“To me, the most touching part is when the lights go off, the candles are lit, I’m playing ‘Silent Night’ and everyone is singing,” said Desmith.

“That’s when I can sense the unity of the congregation, the connection everyone feels and the importance of the season.”

She and her family are wondering how, in future years, they’ll find another place to worship on Christmas Eve that will be as satisfying to them as Emmanuel has been.

“I’m sure I’ll shed a few tears at the end of tonight’s service,” said Desmith.

Added Flinck, “This is going to be one of the most high and holy moments of the year.

“Emmanuel will tell the Christmas story with joy, grace and integrity, and I look forward to being a part of it one last time.”

Christmas Eve at Emmanuel United Methodist, 1400 Fourth Ave., Worthington, takes place at 7 p.m. today. The public is welcome to attend.