Church celebrating 125 years

FAIRMONT – St. John’s United Church of Christ is known for the beautiful, antique stained-glass windows in its sanctuary and chapel, yet it isn’t unusual to find groups of people huddled in the building’s basement, looking over the many artifacts.

The “history room” contains two cases filled with pieces from the congregation’s past, an old organ, photos of every confirmation class that has passed through, newspaper clippings and other papers documenting the church’s history.

“There are always people down here looking for their siblings or themselves [in pictures],” said Pat Abel, wife of Pastor Richard Abel.

The church has had a lot of time to collect the treasures; it celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

St. John’s began in 1888 as Deutch-Evangelischen St. Johannes-Gemeinde, a German-speaking evangelical group that met at the Netz School House, on the property of August Netz, one of the church’s founders.

Two years later, the congregation bought a Baptist church at the site of the current building at 301 N. Main St., in downtown Fairmont.

A fire destroyed the church in 1942. For six years, the congregation met anywhere it could, all over town.

Pastor Abel said the current stone church opened in 1947, but quickly became too small, as churches were growing quickly at the time.

An addition was built in 1964, with space was left for expansion. That never happened, as families slowly became smaller after the baby boom ended.

The stained-glass windows in the church have been commissioned by various groups over the church’s history to represent everything from the apostles to parables honoring war veterans. As new buildings were constructed, the windows were saved and incorporated into the design.

Jeanne Schwieger, Netz’s granddaughter and one of five generations of the family to be members of the church, said the members spoke only German until World War I, when congregants wanted to distance themselves from their motherland, which was embroiled on the opposite side of the war.

The church began having one English service per month in 1914, then switched to one German service per month before becoming completely English-speaking years later.

The congregation has identified as Evangelical, Evangelical-Reform and United Church of Christ over the years.

To celebrate its anniversary, a “history moment” has been added to each Sunday service.

The church’s regular services on Oct. 27 will include time for sharing memories. A catered lunch will follow.