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From 'toothpicks' to sandstone: Church to celebrate 150 years

After same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, First Congregational UCC Pastor Scott Keehn married the first gay couple in the county. "We wouldn't be here if we weren't open and affirming," says Kathryn LeBrasseur, a lifelong member. Karen Tolkkinen|Echo Press1 / 2
First Congregational UCC Church turns 150 this weekend. From left, Kirk Anderson, Carol Zavadil, Kathryn LeBrasseur and Pastor Scott Keehn describe their church as committed to accepting and helping others. It collects food for the food shelves, hosts a massive Christmas dinner and sends an Angel Care Team to those who are sick or injured. Karen Tolkkinen|Echo Press2 / 2

The beautiful sandstone church at the corner of 7th Avenue and Elm Street began when a group of frontier moms wanted Sunday school for their kids.

That was 150 years ago, just five years after the Dakota Conflict sent white settlers fleeing. A military fort still dominated the town and the railroad hadn't yet punched through.

Starting Thursday, the First Congregational United Church of Christ will celebrate its sesquicentennial with three days of events, including a bazaar, tours, and a catered dinner.

"We want to make the celebration communitywide," said Pastor Scott Keehn.

Those early families met in homes at first, then moved to a small wooden building called the "toothpick church" because of its unique steeple design, topped by eight slender spires. Many of the town's professionals, the doctors and lawyers, attended church there.

As it grew, the congregation moved the toothpick church off the site in 1890 and built a new red brick church with a bowling alley in the basement. One subzero morning in 1936, a church custodian used a blowtorch to thaw a frozen water pipe and accidentally set the church afire.

"You could see it all over town," remembered Kathryn LeBrasseur, a lifelong church member.

Today's sandstone church was finished in 1937.

One of the first things a visitor sees on entering the church is an enormous woven basket used to collect food and other supplies for charity. For many decades known as "First Congregational Church," the church has always championed progressive causes. Mergers added United Church of Christ to its name around 1960.

Congregationalists were the first to ordain women and black people. The United Church of Christ was the first to ordain gays and lesbians. After gay marriage became legal in Minnesota, Keehn married the first same-sex couple in Alexandria. At a church LGBT workshop this spring, church members were taken aback when a protester unloaded signs from his car.

"Everybody was concerned it would develop into something bigger," LeBrasseur said.

But no-one joined the protester, and things proceeded as planned.

"That's the thing about this church," said Carol Zavadil, who joined the church a few years ago. "You can be who you want to be and nobody can say you're bad or wrong."

Looking to the future, church leaders want to raise $150,000 for building maintenance, a project it has dubbed "150 for the 150th."

150th birthday schedule

The church begins its sesquicentennial festivities on Thursday, July 13, with a summer bazaar from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and an $8 luncheon from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, it will hold a birthday celebration, reception and tours from 2-4 p.m. followed by a social hour with honored guests from 5-6 p.m. and a catered dinner and program from 6-8 p.m. Its worship service at 10 a.m. Sunday will focus on rededicating to the future.