Sitting on a wooden pew just inside the door, Connie Weirup still envisions the large cedar Christmas trees that flanked the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Andrew.
“Christmas was always a big thing around here,” Weirup said, a smile spreading across her face as the memories flooded back. “Parishioners went out to get the tree and we’d decorate it.”
The Christmas tree ornaments still sit in a box, pulled out when artificial trees were set up, she said.
That memory led to visions of oranges and a box of chocolates and ribbon candy provided to the congregation by the Ladies Aid group, not to mention the Christmas pageant.
“If you got to be Mary or Joseph, that was just about the best,” she recalled.
But soon, those cherished memories are all Weirup and other congregation members will have of the church.
Dwindling membership and finances forced the congregation to make the tough decision — to permanently shutter its doors.
“Like all small churches, our membership just runs out,” Weirup explained, noting that the church membership rolls list 23 members, with only about 10 active. “It’s very difficult to be financially secure, and when the numbers aren’t there, you can’t continue.”
Now, Andrew’s First Presbyterian Church will close Dec. 31.
A celebration of its life and ministry worship service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, at the church. All members, former members, friends of the church and community members are encouraged to attend the service and stay around to reminisce afterward.
“We had a good history,” Weirup said.
171 years of history
Presbyterians settling in the Andrew area gathered for the first services on a farm near Cedar Creek, about 2 miles west of the town, according to church and town history. It was known as Church of Cedar Creek at that time.
The growing congregation moved into a brick structure located on what is now the preschool building on the school campus and became First Presbyterian Church, organized by Michael Hummer of Iowa City.
The first Presbyterian services were held near Andrew on Nov. 2, 1845, a year before Iowa achieved statehood. There were about 25 members at its height, according to church history. The minister there was paid $156 for the year in 1873; it had increased to $50 per month by 1891.
In 1857, immigrants from Western Pennsylvania formed the United Presbyterian Church and constructed the church at 207 W. Emmet St. — the same building used today — in 1861.
In 1928, the two congregations unified under the name First Presbyterian Church. They had met numerous times to iron out concerns and merge their differences, such as one congregation singing hymns and the other reciting psalms as well as which of the two church buildings to use. They alternated buildings every six months for a number of years, church history says. The white 1861 building became the service building and the brick one was used for social events for a while.
Weirup recalls the original brick church building being used as a hot lunchroom in the 1950s after it was purchased by the Andrew Community School District. That building was torn down in the 1960s to make room for an outdoor play area for the district.
Weirup, who serves on the commission in charge of closing the church, vividly recalls the annual Lord’s Acre sales and popular church suppers.
“It was all for donations to the church, our basic revenue for the year,” she explained. “The Ladies Aid handled the lunch stand, handmade quilts were on sale. Everyone donated stuff for the sale. You tried to get everyone — young and old alike — to donate so they felt like part of the church family. And our church really was a family.”
Weirup recalls a sanctuary and pews filled with people waiting their turn in the packed basement for church suppers. She recalled getting out of school to attend the church dinners.
She said the Bible School and Sunday School always were well attended over the years, and achieving perfect attendance consumed children’s thoughts.
“We’d go to Chicago to visit our family and stay over, and we kids would make sure to get our paper signed by their minister so we’d keep up our perfect attendance,” Weirup said, laughing.
By 1975, the congregation numbered about 80 members, many elderly but few between the ages of 25 and 55, according to church records.
In the 1950s or so, Weirup remembers the center aisles of pew filled with parishioners, with stragglers in the fringe rows. But back then, families also traditionally had more children compared to today.
Pastors and student pastors from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dubuque ministered to the congregation’s spiritual needs. But times are changing, Weirup said, noting that even getting student pastors challenged the small-town church, which sold its pastor residence to extend the life of the church.
In the 2000s, Andrew’s churches joined forces to provide ecumenical worship and educational opportunities for their congregations “to keep all churches alive,” Weirup explained. “We really felt that Christ was alive in Andrew.”
But St. John’s Catholic Church closed in the last 15 years.
About 10 years ago, discussion began about closing First United Presbyterian Church. The writing was in the hymnal by that point, and about eight years ago the active congregation members decided to initiate closing protocols, Weirup said.
The 1861 building at 207 W. Emmet St. now is for sale by Nemmers Realty.
Other area churches are being invited to come in and make use of whatever items they can for their congregation.
The future of what remains inside the church is in limbo until a buyer is found for the building, Weirup said. If the building’s future use is not a church, then the contents will be sold at a tag sale or auction.
She unwrapped a signature quilt handmade by member families in 1991. The white quilt blocks connected with sky-blue fabric strips featured embroidered, markered, and painted names of each member family.
Weirup gently ran her fingers over the block she made for her family. Next to it was sewn the block for her Butterworth family.
“We’ll really miss our time here,” Weirup said. “But now it feels like our mission has been completed here in Andrew and we’re basically to go out in the community and spread the word.”