A handful of members of St. John’s United Church of Christ cluster in the first few pews.
The Rev. Brittany Scaringello is the quarterback who leads this religious huddle of 11 people. The church has a few other members, but they are too old or too feeble to attend.
The congregation has aged considerably since it was an “aging congregation” 30 years ago.
The main part of the church building — still used today — was constructed in 1909 at a cost of $2,600; the massive pipe organ was built in 1927, and purchased used in 1937 for $4,500. It has its own website.
Until 1920, services and Sunday School were in German.
End is near. Not of the world, but of congregation
Scaringello preaches. The end is near. The end of St. John’s.
“We know that there has been a lot of pain in this congregation for the past couple of years. But God is still in this story, making things happen. We will continue on as God’s children.”
After the sermon, Scaringello says it’s time. There will be a voice vote. Council President Kelly Kirchoff already is crying.
The result is a sad, foregone conclusion: On Sunday, Oct. 9, the remaining able-bodied members of St. John’s United Church of Christ unanimously voted to close the church and disband the congregation.
It marks the end of a congregation founded in 1887, when Grover Cleveland was in his first term as president.
Final service will be Oct. 23
The decision has been decades in the making. Membership is at an all-time low of a handful. In 1961, the average Sunday attendance was 144.
Revenue is at a trickle. The church is in disrepair; the air conditioning went out this summer and it made no sense to fix it.
The final service will be at the church, 1110 N. Main Ave. — at West Scott Street in north Springfield — at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022.
“It’s very, very sad,” says Rosalina “Lina” Codillo. “It is like mourning somebody who died.”
Obituary for 135-year-old house of worship
How do you write the obituary of a 135-year-old congregation?
This church has had thousands of baptisms, confirmations, funerals and weddings. It’s a place of life and death. Joy and sorrow. The despair of Good Friday. The hope of Easter morning.
Parishioner Codillo is the widow of Solomon “Sol” Codillo Jr., who pastored this church for nearly 20 years. The couple is from the Philippines; he died in 2014 at age 77.
Among so many memories, Codillo starts with the quilters.
Women of the church for years met in the Parish Hall to quilt. (The congregation also owns the two buildings just north of the church. One was once a parsonage.)
“We earned lots of money from selling quilts for projects like Doctors Without Borders,” she says.
Bingo nights, turkey suppers, wedding days
She recalls turkey suppers the church shared with the community.
“Lots of people from the neighborhood attended,” she says.
David Kirchoff, husband of Kelly, fondly recalls nights the church offered not only bingo but dinner, as well, to members and non-members alike.
And his wife, of course, holds fast to their wedding day. It was here in this church with Reverend Codillo officiating.
A great pipe organ with no one to play it
The bells in the belfry no longer chime to start the service. The rope tugged to rock them is off its track.
The worship service no longer has instrumental music, which means all singing is a cappella and all voices — for better or worse — are distinctively heard.
The last time there was instrumental music at worship was when Kay Ann Sherrill played the great pipe organ in March 2020.
No one at the time knew Sherrill played for the final time. Soon after, the church shut down because of COVID and two months later Sherrill died at 82. (She did not die of COVID.)
A plaque memorializing her 43 years of musical service rests on the unused instrument.
Several members have died during COVID the past two years; none from the virus.
Scaringello, a babe at 36, started at St. John’s in 2018, when there were 20 to 30 people at worship. She kept office hours back then.
“But nobody ever came,” she says.
A vibrant church in a vibrant neighborhood
St. John’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s.
For a long time, the church was in a vibrant neighborhood of homeowners, says Byron Sherrill, 85, who was married to Kay, the organ player, for 63 years.
The church was located next to the city’s major hospital.
The large four-story building, made of brick and stone, is catty-corner on Main Avenue. It once was St. John’s Hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy, constructed in 1906. It relocated in 1952 to National and Cherokee.
Then the former hospital became a nursing home and, since 1987, has been Franciscan Villa, an affordable housing community run by The Kitchen, Inc., a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness.
Church will give away its assets
The congregation will give away its assets; it is not allowed to sell them, Scaringello says.
The congregation has no debt. The final mortgage payment on the church was made in the Great Depression.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the property, Kirchoff says.
The likely recipients would be the two area United Church of Christ congregations.
- St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, in Billings, which is older than St. John’s, was created in 1880 and its current church was constructed in 1893. Scaringello is the pastor there, as well.
- St. John’s Chapel United Church of Christ, Springfield, was created in 1971 by its mother church, St. John’s. Its current building, at 4344 S. Fremont Ave., was dedicated in 1984.
It has not been determined if either congregation wants the old, ailing St. John’s properties. Mainline denominations like the UCC are struggling across the board.
Another possibility, Scaringello says, is St. Joseph Catholic Church, a block away at 1115 N. Campbell Ave.
Can memory rest in a place some deem holy?
The morning of the vote is overcast yet the stained-glass windows bracing the sanctuary glow softly with the diminished light.
No choir. No Sunday School. No video monitors rolling with the words of songs.
Yet, there is something greater here.
Can memory rest in a place some deem holy?
Within this church are more than a century of memories of church-league softball games, baptisms and Christmas Eves where families held candles and sang “Silent Night.”
There also are memories of words spoken by someone in a cleric’s robe just as lost as you were who stood in that raised pulpit and pulled off the miracle of making sense of what often is a cruel and disheartening world.
Somehow you left encouraged with the faith that love would prevail and God’s kingdom would still come.
Scaringello looks across the sanctuary.
“There is so much beautiful in here,” she says.