Small town's church bell rings in mourning for itself

Ceylon church
Declining rural populations have been hard on churches like the United Methodist Church in Ceylon. The church will hold its final service this Sunday.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Travel through the farm fields of southern Minnesota near the Iowa border and you pass land drying out for spring planting. In the low spots, ducks rest in ponds left by last winter's snow.

Ahead, a water tower pierces the horizon, then a cluster of wood frame houses mark the edge of a small town. Rising just a little bit higher than the rooftops is a weathered white and green bell tower.

The heavy bell tips back and forth in the belfry as it sends out its well-known call. A thick rope dangles from the bell down into the belfry, through the church ceiling, into the hands of 84-year-old Del Hiebert.

"It's hard work," Hiebert said. "It's hard pulling anymore."

Like the old bell, Hiebert has spent a lot of time in the United Methodist Church in Ceylon, a small town near Fairmont in south central Minnesota. The church, an example of the small institutions that played a vital role in the nation's history, will hold its last service on Sunday.

Its closing is another sign of a decades-old trend: a population decline in rural and southern Minnesota that continues, according to the latest census figures.

Ceylon church
A stained glass window in the United Methodist Church in Ceylon, Minn. The church is closing on Sunday due to declining numbers of parishioners.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

That population loss is acutely felt. Small town institutions are disappearing because there are too few people to keep them going.

Hiebert is sorry to see the church close, but less than a dozen people regularly attend services and that's not enough to keep it going. The last service will be held this Sunday.

As she stands near the altar, Hiebert's wife, Jan, slides the final hymn and response book numbers into a wood holder on the front wall.

"We're going to have our regular service that we always had on a Sunday," she said. "We're going to have our last communion. So far we have about 80 people that have said that they were planning to come. And we think that's pretty good."

One of the people who'll be there is 92-year-old Ward Belknap. Knowing that the church he grew up in is shutting down hurts.

"My dad and myself and my son have been married in this church," Belknap said.

Theodore and Walter Mondale
Theodore S. Mondale (center) poses for a portrait surrounded by 11 young people, including Walter Mondale (top row, second from the right) in a photograph from 1940. The elder Mondale was pastor at the Ceylon United Methodist Church in the late 1920s.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

But the family association goes back even further. Belknap's grandfather, a Civil War veteran with the Iron Brigade from Wisconsin, was on the board when the church was organized.

The church's best-known historical link, though, dates from the late 1920s. Leading the way outside, Del Hiebert points to the windows in a second floor room in the house standing next to the church.

"Walter Mondale was born in this room to the front," he said.

In 1928 the house was the church parsonage, the place where the minister's family lived. The former vice president's father was the minister at that time for the United Methodist Church in Ceylon.

Mondale said those were happy years.

"I think I lived there until I was about 5 or 6 years old," he said. "I was starting to move around as a little kid. And I had my dog Andy. I had an older brother, and we'd walk out there and hunt pheasants together. We had so much fun. We really loved it."

Walter Mondale with brother
Walter Mondale (left) stands with his brother beside a stone wall in a photograph from 1935. Walter Mondale was born in the United Methodist Church in Ceylon, Minn., where is father was pastor. The church is closing this Sunday.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Mondale said the same population declines that lead to the closing of the church in Ceylon are playing out all across rural America. In the United Methodist Church alone, nearly 300 churches nationwide close every year.

As the average size of farms increases, and the average family size decreases, there are fewer people who live and work and attend church in the small towns of rural Minnesota. That can cause pain.

Rufus Campbell, the United Methodist Church's district superintendent for southern Minnesota, said people are grieving the loss of the houses of worship.

"In my conversation with them," Campbell said, "some of them are saying, 'We feel like we've let our ancestors down. The ministry was entrusted to us and we haven't been able to preserve it for the next generation.'"

Campbell will preside over the final service in Ceylon on Sunday. He said one of his messages will be that church members haven't let anyone down, that what's happening was caused by events no one can control.

As he leafs through the pages of the big Bible at the front of the church, Del Hiebert practices the passage he'll read on Sunday.

"Have no anxiety about anything," reads Hiebert. "But in everything by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God."

The chapter goes on to say:

"Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content."

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