BUTLER — It’s the end of one chapter in the life of a church building.
The final service for St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 217 W. Main St., took place Sunday.
Shrinking attendance was the reason for the sale of the building, explained longtime member Ginger Smith.
“There were only about three families attending,” she said. “There were either three, five or seven people at church on a Sunday.”
She had attended services at St. Mark’s since 1973.
Smith now goes to church at St. John Lutheran Church in Hicksville, Ohio. “I have no idea where the other members are going to go,” she said.
“When I started, there were probably 50 people, and it just dwindled over the years,” she said of the decline. “Members passed away, and most likely, the next generation wasn’t attending church.”
The church hadn’t employed a full-time pastor for several years, but shared pastors with other congregations until about a year ago, the last being Amy Albers.
When Albers accepted an assignment with a church in North Manchester last year, services at St. Mark’s were led by supply pastors, Smith explained.
“We’ve always been kind of a small, intimate church, obviously not to the extent it is now,” said member Ruth Brown.
“It’s kind of sad. There’s places you think will be stable forever, that you can go back to it and it’ll always be there,” she said. “Obviously, that’s not true anymore.”
Rev. Dr. William O. Gafkien, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, presided over the final service. Several former pastors were invited to attend as well, Smith said.
St. Mark’s was established in September 1864. According to church history, the local congregation was organized and supervised by Rev. J.W. Henderson, who was pastor at the Wittenberg Lutheran Church northeast of Butler.
The building’s cornerstone was laid on Nov. 8, 1866, with Pastor R.F. Delo of Kokomo presiding over the service. The original brick building was constructed at a cost of $5,000.
With growth of the congregation, a new building was needed. The last service in the original building took place April 7, 1901.
Bricks and many stained glass windows from that building were salvaged and placed in the new structure. According to church history, the stained glass windows were gifts from the Order of Railroad Conductors and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers — both from Butler’s period as a railroad hub — as well as local fraternal groups, the Dorcas Society and individuals as memorials to loved ones.
The building won’t sit empty for long, however, as a new church will soon begin writing its own chapter.
Life Redeemed Apostolic Church, having met on South Indiana Avenue in Auburn for several years, will hold services in the building.
“They’re extremely excited about coming to town, and we’re happy that it’s still being used as a house of worship,” said St. Mark’s member Dick Teets. “That’s good for the community.
“There’s no reason to keep the building for three or five of us,” Teets continued. “I felt bad for the ministers, even though they were getting paid, to justify their time, when there’s options for us.
“It was just a matter of why keep the lights on if only a couple of people are benefiting from it?”
Just as there are steps to creating and opening a new church, there are procedures when a congregation ceases to exist.
“In any church that closes in the ELCA, leftover funds are donated to nonprofit organizations,” Smith explained. “The members voted to keep that money in Butler.” Although no final determination has been made, several options have been discussed.
In following synod procedures, church records have archived at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb.
Four, huge Bibles belonging to the church, one dating back to 1896, have been donated to the DeKalb County Historical Society, Smith said.
In past years, the church hosted a pancake and sausage breakfast each September, she said. The church was a sponsor of the Filling Station Youth Center and contributor to the Butler Community Food Pantry, as well as necessary items to Butler Elementary School.
The church’s beautiful stained glass windows were restored many years ago. To guard from stone damage by passing vehicles, the windows are now covered with exterior protective glass.
“I joined the church in 1977 (and experienced) baptisms, parents, all your friends growing up. … It’s kind of sad,” Brown said. “There were a lot of people who lived a long time in Butler and attended church there.”
While discussions about the church’s future had taken place for a few years, the decision to close the St. Mark’s chapter was reached this summer.
“We’re very happy that another church was able to purchase the building,” Smith said.
“It’s a life cycle,” Teets said. “It’s just the way it is. We’re just really happy that there’s a group coming in that will put some life into it and use it for what it was intended for.”
“It’s your church family that won’t be there anymore,” Brown said. “If something goes wrong, you know who to call, and the ball starts to roll.
“Those people are still going to be there, and I know I can still call them, but I won’t see them every Sunday.
“It’s kind of sad because we’re all kind of going our own ways,” she added. “It’s comforting to know that new people coming in are going to keep it as a church.”