This is a very special, personal blog.
Today, I went to church at Trinity Lutheran Church for the last time. Not because I won’t go back, but rather, because it will be gone.
The church that I grew up in, Trinity Lutheran Church, in Appleton Wisconsin resided right down town, snug up against the, all be they small sky scrapers of the little city. I was baptized there, confirmed there and even married there and I fully expected the possibility of my funeral there.. It was eternal in my life. Something that would live long past me. Only last year I learned that this was not to be true, and today, that fact came to be.
Almost 100 years old, expanded and rededicated in the 1960’s, this ELCA Lutheran landmark of the city had been in decline for several years. I know I was not being spiritually fed when I left it in the early 1990’s, but always went home for special events and showed support to my parents who were for much of their adult life heavily involved there.
I sang with the Appleton Boy Choir for four years in the 1980’s and through this door, I spent many hours practicing. Often, I wished I was elsewhere, but came to love this room as I had spent so much time there as a boy, either singing, or playing (they had wonderful chalk boards in there)
Or hiding in those big cabinets. Yes, with the choir risers and chairs that you see, this is the view that I had so long. My youth group once had dozens of faces painted on the wall across, but those have long since been painted over. The cubbyholes to the right filled with the choir member’s folders. A choir my father directed for almost 30 years. He put on so many concerts there. The Christmas concert was a highlight of the entire year which often had a full orchestra.
I used to sit in the choir loft for services under these monstrous pipes, loud enough your ears would ring if the organist really got into it with thundering glee. I was surrounded by the members of the choir, watching my father direct as I squirmed around with them singing away for communion or some other part of the service. Without someone to buy it, it is relegated to storage, awaiting the day someone would want to play it again.
How does one measure such a place in one’s life? I really can’t answer that well. All the pizza fund raisers, the bell choir rehearsals, the youth group plays, the running about the hallways and in the basement. Your entire youth going through Sunday school classes and even for a few weeks out of the summer. The church… this building will always be that iconic first impression all other houses of worship will always be measured against in my mind.
But efforts to save the church had been thwarted by the passage of time and apathy. The congregation dwindled away. The repair costs for the building mounted and struck horrible complications which made it impossible in the end.
So when I learned today was to be the last worship service ever to be performed here, I knew I had to come. Praise God I had taken vacation this week so I had a chance to push my internal clock onto days and come.
The service itself was nice, but a little ungainly at times. The Bishop actually showed up to deliver the last sermon. I think that’s the first time I ever saw a Bishop in that building, though I would expect it had happened more than a few times before.
What makes the building’s passing so bitter sweet is what’s to come after. The property and building was bought by one of its own members who owns an architectural company who will be tearing the whole thing down and building new condos on the site. Some are furious about it for what they see as crass commercialism. I cannot think of a better person to do the job though since no one is able or willing to pony up the money to renovate it for a congregation that has all but evaporated.
It’s a very sought after site. It made up a large part of the skyline as you crossed into downtown Appleton over the Oneida Street bridge, high above the Fox River. It’s actually a grand sight for someone coming to town the first time.
The eternal flame as I always knew it in the red glass. It used to hang from the ceiling in the upper right, in the era before projectors and high tech AV wizardry. On rare occasions when I was in the church at night for a youth event or some other stuff going on, and occasionally I would walk into the pitch black chapel, and there it would be, hanging high, glowing red. I knew what it represented, but I always felt it was like an eye, watching me. It always scared me even though I knew it should not. To see it now reduced to being nothing more majestic than a candle on a table was pretty sad for me, despite the converse being true and knowing what it really was and what it represented to my emotions in the past.
Seeing that little plate in the floor was actually the most spiritually ironic thing I could think of. I knew of pastors that had tripped, but this also, to my adult mind served as a reminder of something else. We should always watch our step when approaching God at His alter. That is my father in the far back ground discussing some things with a good organist whom he worked with for many years. I always enjoyed listening to him play.
After a brunch next door, post service, I was able to come back and take some last pictures, as you’ve seen here. I may put a few of them into a memorial video in the future. I haven’t decided yet. But this was my chance to say good bye. A chance to see a piece of my life, like many funerals, signify the end of an era though the world kept on going. I do not like leave-taking like this. Particularly when I believed that something might have been able to be done to save it. I am sure this is a sentiment felt by millions of Christians all over the world when it came time to see their church end, or worse, come back to find only its remnants or ashes.
So I took my time leaving. I faced my memories, my personal demons. All those things good and bad. I walked the old parts of the church. Saw the renovations done in my long absence from when I was a member. One by one, I ran those down, remembering the smells and the hopes, nightmares and dreams. You do not spend 20 years of your life in a place without many of all building up in you.
I now take my leave of Trinity and leave her to her fate. A date with the bulldozer and architectural reclamation. She had left her indelible mark on the history of the city, but now, failing to provide what she once had, and becoming a husk of her former self, it is time to let go with dignity in what she had done.
I remember an interview with Brandon Lee just before he was killed while filming “The Crow”. He waxed prophetic about how many more times you would see a sunset, or a full moon, or visit a friend’s house. How it all seemed so seamless, but somewhere out there was the cosmic counter, ticking off one more visit in the countdown to the last one.
Today, the last worship service was marked off, and an era of my life, I really once believed to outlive my own is at an end.
Go in peace, and serve the Lord.