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Historic church still used for worship

Staff writer

Every Wednesday evening during the school year, Tabor College students in Hillsboro meet for worship and prayer in the historic Mennonite Brethren Church located on the college campus.

The building is thought to be the oldest Mennonite Brethren church building in America still being used for worship.

The building was sold and moved two times before it was purchased by Tabor College and moved to its campus. The renovated building was dedicated in 1993, 100 years after its original construction and dedication.

A history

The church congregation, originally composed of immigrants from the Russian Polish region of Europe, was organized in 1881 and met in homes and a schoolhouse until they erected a church building.

According to Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro, the decision to erect a church was made in 1890 but the project wasn’t completed until 1893.

During the intervening three years, funds were raised to pay for materials. According to the German literature of the time, the lumber was transported by rail from Texas. The building has sometimes been called a mail-order church.

The simple, country-style church has a three-sided raised platform, arched windows, and a balcony. The walls and vaulted ceiling are covered with rich, oak wainscotting. A potbellied stove originally sat in the middle of the sanctuary. On either side of the entryway were a cloakroom and a nursery.

The building stood at the corner of Washington and Grand streets in Hillsboro. In the fall of 1908, Tabor College was slated to open its doors. But construction was delayed, and the church leaders opened the church building to provide classroom space for two months until the college was completed.

The congregation outgrew the building by 1910 and sold it to the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdemans), who moved it to the corner of present-day 180th and Goldenrod roads, southwest of Hillsboro. It was commonly known as the Alexanderfeld Church.

For practical purposes, the Holdemans installed insulating material on the walls and a lower ceiling.

That congregation also outgrew the building. In 1971, when Raymond Wiebe of Hillsboro learned the building was slated to be razed, he bought it and moved it to a farmstead in the area.

Wiebe, who is 84 and lives at Salem Home Apartments, said he purchased the building because of its sentimental and spiritual value. It was his mother’s parents’ home church. He said his uncles talked about how Grandfather John Frantz helped build it.

Wiebe said others, including the Alexanderfeld brethren and some faculty members at Tabor College, encouraged him to buy the building and helped keep it maintained.

“We’ve got to hang onto it,” Vernon Wiebe, a teacher at Tabor College, told him.

Using cement blocks, a firm foundation was established for the building to keep the floor from warping.

As the time of the building’s centennial drew closer, interest in its preservation and restoration grew. A restoration committee was organized to raise funds and plan improvements.

In 1989, Tabor College bought the building through donations from the Hillsboro M.B. Church congregation.

In 1990, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the selected site along D Street, across the street from the Tabor College gymnasium. The building was moved onto a basement made for it. Many hours of volunteer labor were donated during the next few years to restore it.

The Celetex material was removed from the walls and ceiling and the original wooden wainscotting was stripped down to expose its natural beauty. The floor also was restored.

Dedication of the renovated structure took place Oct. 24, 1993, 100 years after its construction. It had arrived at a fitting resting place.

The basement has a small kitchen and restrooms, making the building usable for small weddings, reunions, and other public occasions. An endowment provides funds for maintaining the building.

Wiebe is overwhelmed when he thinks about the preservation of the building.

“It was beyond my hopes the way it all fell into place and all the hard work that went into it,” he said.

Last modified Sept. 1, 2011

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