People & Places

After 130-plus years, Cedar Rapids congregation to gather for last worship before merger

Trinity United Methodist joining with St. James United Methodist

A lower level doorway and the bell tower remain standing after the first day of demolition work on Trinity United Methodist Church on Friday, April 10, 2009, in Southwest Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A lower level doorway and the bell tower remain standing after the first day of demolition work on Trinity United Methodist Church on Friday, April 10, 2009, in Southwest Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Nearly 10 years after floodwater fatally damaged the Trinity United Methodist Church building, the congregation will gather one last time to celebrate family and community before moving into a new worship era.

At their last service, set for Sunday, members of Trinity, the first Methodist church on Cedar Rapids’ west side, will “share our memories, sing all the songs we like to sing and feast together” to celebrate more than 130 years of worship history, Pastor Carol Sundberg said.

The congregation will gather at 10 a.m. at the Trinity UMC building, 400 Third Ave. SW, to welcome former staff members, share a meal and “pass on the stories of faith into a new history,” Sundberg said.

Although they support the decision to merge Trinity with St. James United Methodist, which was started by members of Trinity after large crowds attended a revival led by evangelist Rev. Billy Sunday during the winter of 1909-10, the consolidation is bittersweet.

“We’ve seen it coming for a long time, especially since the flood,” said church member Marsha Otto. “We knew it was going to happen, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Trinity, which once counted 1,300 members, cites a number of reasons for its decision to merge with St. James, 1430 Ellis Blvd. NW. Average Sunday attendance has fallen to 30 to 40, Sundberg said, adding St. James averages about 70 on Sundays.

Otto and others talk about Trinity as family.

“This has been my church home since 1946,” said Bill Bascom.

Baptized and married there, Nancy Cram is the third generation of her family to worship at Trinity. Otto, her niece, is the next — and last.

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Otto’s husband, Jon, describes Trinity as “home, a gathering place for family and friends.”

“It’s not a giant church, so it’s very close knit and you get to know people like family,” he said. “It’s hard to let go of the meeting place even though we lost the church in the flood.”

Even though the merger was inevitable, “It still sucks,” added Chris Swiser.

The congregation was never more united than after the flood, Bascom said. Members pulled together and became closer as those who remained shouldered the responsibilities. In some ways, Bascom said, the responsibility became a burden.

“Rather than being fishers of men, we were keepers of the aquarium,” he said.

Trinity’s 1908 church was razed on Good Friday 2009 nearly a year after it was damaged by flooding. The congregation now meets in the office-type building on Third Avenue SW. Before 1908, members met in a church located at 357 Second Ave. SW.

Trinity members said they are looking forward to the opportunity the merger will present.

“The prospect of growing is exciting,” Marsha Otto said.

Other members said they are looking forward to joining with St. James to form a vocal choir and a handbell choir.

Sundberg has been serving as pastor of the “cooperative parish” Trinity and St. James for the past two years. The leadership and members of the parishes have come to know one another and when it came time to vote on the consolidation there were only three “no” votes between the two congregations.

On top of the other factors affecting Trinity — changes in the neighborhood, an aging congregation, the widespread drop-off in church attendance and the impact of the flood — the church was approached earlier this by a real estate company. Sundberg didn’t tell anyone about the interest until she was approached a second time. Adjacent property had been put up for sale and the possibility of acquiring a full block was attractive to developers. No sale is imminent, Sundberg said.

Given all those factors, “it was the right time to merge,” Cram said.

Although the loss of its church building due to the 2008 flood and developers’ interest in the property may have been the catalysts for Trinity’s “what next?” discussion, the roots of Trinity’s situation is not unique, according to Mark Stoffer Hunter, a historian at The History Center in Cedar Rapids. The construction of Interstate 380 from the late 1960s to 1973 through the southwest quadrant neighborhood may have been the beginning of the decline in attendance.

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“There has been such a depletion of residential property around these church sites and they have not been replaced effectively,” Stoffer Hunter said. “They have transformed into neighborhoods that don’t necessarily conform to the type of attendance they would normally seek out for their congregations.”

He called the Trinity-St. James merger “a very interesting early 21st Century situation” as churches faced with declining numbers join forces.

Central Park and Kenwood Presbyterian merged to form Echo Hills in Marion, Hunter noted.

Trinity will live on through its members and in some cherished items from the church — a cross members will take with them to St. James and, if it can be moved, a mural from the sanctuary wall.

“Many times, churches, when faced with these circumstances, choose to die,” Sundberg said. “Rather than give up, Trinity asked ‘What can we become?’ ”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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