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'Twas the night before Christmas . . .

Staff writer

. . . or maybe it was early Christmas morning when the Gnadenau Mennonite Brethren Church two miles south of Hillsboro burned to the ground.

It was December 1956, and just hours earlier the sanctuary had been filled with the sights and sounds of a traditional Christian Christmas program.

The church had a large group of young people, and they were spending the night traveling from one parishioner’s residence to another singing Christmas carols, bringing “glad tidings of comfort and joy.”

According to one participant, the caravan of carolers was singing at a nearby farm home when they noticed the church windows lit up and smoke coming from the building.

They drove to the church and watched in dismay as the building burned.

Choir director John Wiebe of Hillsboro was the leader of the group.

“It was pretty traumatic,” Wiebe recalled. “Our first reaction was fear, not fear for our lives, but, ‘Oh, my, that’s our church’!”

Jerry Plett had left his new suit hanging inside and made a move to go into the building to retrieve it.

Wiebe grabbed his arm. “Don’t go in there,” he said. “If you open the door, the fire will explode in your face.”

Wiebe sent his wife of one year, Caryl (Friesen) Wiebe to town to call the fire department. He also asked her to stop at his parents’ home, the Rev. David Wiebes, and get their camera to record the event.

Someone called church members to tell them about the fire, and soon a large group of parishioners had gathered at the scene. By 4 a.m., there was nothing left but the basement.

“We never did finish caroling, and we didn’t get any chili, either,” recalled Joyce (Thiessen) Kessler of Lehigh. She was a student at Tabor College at the time.

Wiebe said his father contacted Tabor College, and the congregation was granted permission to hold the Christmas morning church service in the Tabor College Chapel. They continued to meet there until a new church was built.

The country church had a long history, with a direct connection to the first group of Mennonites who settled in Marion County. They were of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and arrived in Kansas from southern Russia in 1874.

They established the village of Gnadenau to the south and east of present-day Hillsboro and built a sod church which stood in the center of the mile-long, village street.

In the 1880s, people from the village began spreading out to the west, and in 1895, the original building was torn down and a wood-frame building was erected two miles south of Hillsboro.

Wiebe said in a sense the fire was a blessing because the congregation had been discussing rebuilding and were debating whether to build at the present location or in town.

He said after the building burned, the members of the congregation seemed to be in agreement to build in town.

They erected a new church building at 610 S. Main in Hillsboro and renamed it Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church. It was completed in March 1958.

The congregation remains strong today, but the memory of that church building and fire so long ago remains fresh in the minds of the young people who discovered it.

Last modified Dec. 23, 2008

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