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St. John’s closes its doors, but still hopes to stay together

| July 31, 2014

COSHOCTON – A local church that can trace its roots back to 1856 closed its doors July 27, but the congregation isn’t going to let the lack of a building stop it from spreading the word of God.

Over the years, St. John’s United Church of Christ at the corner of Eighth and Orange streets has gradually seen its congregation go from being in the hundreds to less than 40, and the decision was made to close it and put the building up for sale.

“I’m sad to leave here, but at the same time, it’s kind of exciting to do something new,” said Kay Dunfee, who was the church secretary and a council member. “We know God is with us wherever we go because the church isn’t the building, we (the people) are the church.”

She joined the church in 1982, but said some have been there much longer than that.

“Some of our members have been here all their lives and are now in their 80s and 90s,” Dunfee said.

The first minister of what eventually became known as St. John’s was the Rev. J.D. Nunemaker, who is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery. He ministered to a congregation that wasn’t officially organized and didn’t have regular services. The congregation was organized and incorporated in 1882, with the Rev. M. Schleiffer as its first resident minister. The building that St. John’s now stands in had its cornerstone laid on Nov. 28, 1909, and the dedication service was held on Sept. 11, 1910.

John Leppla, who served on the church council, has belonged to St. John’s for at least 50 years.

“We were like family and have always been that way,” he said. “It was a close German church that was founded by German people.”

Suellen Husted and her husband Jon, who was on the church council, also have roots with the church.

“My ancestors pretty much built it,” said Suellen.

Jon and Suellen were married at the church, their children were baptized there and married there.

“We are pretty connected with it and I’m going to miss the camaraderie and seeing everybody every Sunday,” he said.

Suellen’s great-grandfather Heinrich Ehrig was on the lot committee that looked at land to build the church where it is now.

Growth in membership is what spurred the church to build at the corner of Eighth and Orange streets and for years it used to be filled, especially for Christmas and Easter services.

“I think our sanctuary holds 250 people, but the balcony also would be full and we’d have to set up our overflow room,” Dunfee said. “Like many other churches, people just don’t attend like they used to and children aren’t brought up in church.”

She believes that on most Sundays they only averaged 30-35 people, but those who did attend were very important to each other.

“It has been a second family to me,” Dunfee said. “Everybody cares so much about each other through happy times and sad times. I wasn’t raised going to church, but I joined here not too long after I started coming here. I’ve grown a lot as a person. I used to never ever get up in front of a crowd no matter how small, but I’ve been a worship leader at times and gained a lot of confidence. When I do get up in front of people, I feel like I’m talking to family.”

For the time being, a group of members from the church will attend services at the Central Christian Church, but still technically belong to St. John’s.

“Under our association, we can do that as long as we have a weekly worship,” Dunfee said. “It can be at someone’s house, a restaurant or anywhere.”

The congregation was invited to attend Central Christian Church by its pastor the Rev. Phil Hunt. The Rev. Joanna Lance had previously led the congregation at St. John’s, but she split her time between Coshocton and Glenmont Church and will now be full time at Glenmont.

“They (Central Christian) are like a sister church to us and we’ve done a lot with them over the years,” Dunfee said. “We know a lot of the people and when our pastor was off sick, he (Hunt) came over here every Sunday for us so we are real familiar with that church. It will be like having two congregations under one roof. Some people may decide to join their congregation, but we can have dual standings as long as we want to.”

If the St. John’s church building is sold, Dunfee said the members may rent a space and go out on their own again.

“We are just feeling our way along for the month of August,” she said. “There are about 25 or so of us who really want to stay together and explore all our options.”

The Central Christian Church, however, has already done a great job of making the members of St. John’s feel welcome.

“They’ve put announcements in their bulletin and newsletter for us and events on their calendar,” Dunfee said. “They just opened their arms to us. I’m sure any other church would have done the same thing, but we just already had a connection with them.”

While Dunfee is looking forward to new experiences, there are definitely some things she will miss about St. John’s.

“I’ve had people tell me that we were the first church in town to have a bazaar,” she said. “They also say one of our ministers, the Rev. Rezash and a couple of others got the Lenten Luncheons started.”

According to Dunfee, the bazaars were always a good time.

“They were hard work, but we laughed a lot and worked together,” she said. “They were wonderful and we loved having the community in our church.”

In May 2013, St. John’s also started a mission project called Caring Essentially for Coshocton and they are hoping to continue to do this.

“Once a month, we give away things that people are not able to purchase with food stamps like personal care items, cleaning supplies and a couple of baby items, but not diapers,” Dunfee said. “People come in, signup and we give away what we can. We really want to keep this going, but we need the community’s help. On average we had 50 households come, but the month before last there were 83.”

She believes they have already given away close to 9,000 items and welcome donations, especially cash ones (so they can buy what they specifically need). Anyone interested in helping or finding out more information can still contact Dunfee at the church office at 622-2781 or call her at 294-8017.

Those who might be interested in purchasing the church also can call the office or phone Jon at 622-1251.

“We would love for it to stay a church,” Dunfee said. “It is beautiful and there were beautiful weddings here.”

Leppla also hopes the building can stay a church.

“It’s beautiful, but it needs a congregation,” he said. “I hope it stays a church, but if not it’d be nice to see it become a homeless shelter, a cafeteria thing for people that don’t have money for meals or something charitable.”

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Category: Faith

About the Author ()

I started my journalism career in 2002 with a daily newspaper chain. After various stops with them, I am happy to be back home! I graduated from Coshocton High School in 1998 and received a Bachelor of Arts in Communication in 2002 from Walsh University. I also earned several awards while working for daily papers, including being honored by Coshocton County’s veterans for the stories I wrote about them. I am honored and ready to once again shine a positive light on Coshocton County. I also am the proud mother of a little girl named Sophia!

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