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First Mennonite Brethern Church in America thrives near Hillsboro

Staff writer

Ebenfeld is one of those communities established in the early days of Marion County that still exists today.

The community never had a commercial center or a post office. It is centered around the Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church at 150th Street and Kanza Road, southeast of Hillsboro. The congregation was the first organized Mennonite Brethren Church in America.

A school existed just west of the current church site before the congregation was established there. The District 20 schoolhouse was built in 1873. It was known as Fairview School. Later, the school became known as Ebenfeld School.

In the early years, church leaders conducted German school there in conjunction with or after the regular school season. When the school closed in 1960, the Ebenfeld congregation bought it. They use it for Sunday school, Wednesday evening meetings, and vacation Bible school.

Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren studies at Tabor College, researched and wrote a book about the history of the Ebenfeld community, “Miracle of Grace at Ebenfeld, (1876-2001).” The hardbound book provides an in-depth look into the founding of the community and church.

The nucleus of the Ebenfeld community was a group of families who migrated to the area from the Molotschna and Volga regions in southern Russia. They were part of a congregation established in Russia by Mennonite Elder Peter Eckert.

Eckert was a church leader who left the mainstream Mennonite Church in Russia to join the Mennonite Brethren. He was baptized in 1869.

Facing opposition, Eckert moved east from Molotschna to the Volga region and made many converts. Many of them were not Mennonite or Low German in background. They came from Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed traditions. Prominent names included Suderman, Loewen, Eitzen, Seibel, Hiebert, Leppke, Penner, and Dalke. They were organized into a Mennonite Brethren church.

The Mennonite Board of Guardians in the United States was persuaded to help Eckert’s congregation of 300 members to migrate to America. They came in small groups over six months beginning in June 1875.

Those who initially settled in Marion County lived in the Gnadenau area, among Krimmer Mennonite Brethren. The M.B. and K.M.B. immigrants worshiped in schoolhouses a half mile apart. Eckert believed in “unity despite diversity,” and his desire was that the two congregations be merged into one. He was disappointed when that did not happen.

Eckert’s church was known officially in the conference yearbook as Gnadenau M.B. Church.

The first church building was constructed in 1883. There were two entrances, one for men and one for women. Women sat on one side of the sanctuary, and men on the other.

In 1888, the name “Ebenfeld” (even field) was adopted by the congregation. It reflected the open flatland of the area.

The congregation attracted people of many persuasions, and at least two-thirds were of non-Mennonite background. Some of the Gnadenau K.M.B.s joined the church. This diversity among the membership caused some friction, but under the guiding hands of its leaders, the congregation endured and grew.

A new building was constructed in 1904. It burned three days before Christmas in 1924. In 1925, a new building went up. Later additions included a 1956 classroom annex and a 1997 fellowship hall and education modules.

According to current pastor Gaylord Goertzen, church membership peaked in the late 1930s and 40s, “probably exceeding 300.” He said the first original membership book found listed 82 heads of households. That number did not include spouses and older children who might have been members. The church currently has a membership of 273 and an average attendance of 220.

“People at Ebenfeld have always had a strong sense of commitment to one another,” Goertzen said. “It has been that strong sense of being a spiritual family that has helped keep Ebenfeld going all these years. People have been faithful, but behind it all is God’s great faithfulness and grace.”

Goertzen has served the church for 23-and-a-half years.

Last modified Dec. 14, 2011

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