Ebenfeld to mark 125th anniversary

This weekend marks a milestone in the collective memory of those associated with Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church, of rural Hillsboro.

Current and former members and guests will gather July 27-29 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the oldest organized MB church in North America.

“I’m beginning to realize more and more what Ebenfeld represents,” said pastor Gaylord Goertzen. “We are growing. We have people of all ages and people of diverse backgrounds-people who are excited about the history and legacy of the church.”

“We are such a diverse congregation,” said Peggy Goertzen, who is married to Gaylord. “In the beginning we were diverse and we still are.”

That diversity, evidenced in the early years by preferences for different forms of worship, church polity and governance, is the focus of Friday’s opening event, the drama “Upon This Rock,” beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the sanctuary.

“The play focuses on the origins of Ebenfeld and some of the tensions within the very first membership,” Goertzen said. Written by noted author and playwright Esther Loewen Vogt, the drama originally was produced for the church’s centennial anniversary in 1976.

Spanning years 1876 to 1883, the play is based on actual church records and events and narrates the story of the church as it transitioned under the leadership of ordained elders Peter Eckert and Abram Cornelsen, and Jacob Loewen Sr., a founding member.

“The play’s scenes take place in the school house and homes where they held their services,” said Lola Unruh, who co-directs the play with Wendy Jost.

Numerous artifacts were collected from church members during the preparation for the performances.

“We’ve tried to make costumes and props as authentic as possible,” said Unruh, who had a part in the play when it was first produced 25 years ago.

“We are a diverse and busy cast representing people from many age groups, backgrounds and walks of life,” Unruh said. “So there have been challenges in coordinating and scheduling rehearsals to prepare to give the best presentation possible.”

The cast involves about 30 people, with primary roles are played by Glenn Lygrisse as Peter Eckert, Joel Suderman as Jacob Loewen Sr., Chris Scott as Abram Cornelsen, Will Goertzen as Jacob Loewen Jr., Amy Alice Goertzen as Justina Leppke and Jeremy Jordan as Isaac Loewen.

“I hope the audience will gain an understanding of the history of Ebenfeld, as well as the sacrifice and blessings that early congregation faced when they came to America,” she said.

All are welcomed to attend, Unruh added. No admission will be charged for the play performances and a nursery will be provided. A second performance will be given Saturday at 3 p.m.

On Saturday morning, two historical tours will be conducted in a chartered bus. The first tour begins at 8 a.m. and the second one is scheduled to leave at 10:30 a.m.

The tours will travel along a specific route to sites significant during the development of the church.

“We’re going to go to the east end of the Gnadenau Village,” said Goertzen, who has researched Ebenfeld’s history. “That school house was one of the first places where we met.”

Other points of interest during the tour will be several homesteads of early ministers; Steinreich, a mission station of Ebenfeld that later became an independent congregation; baptismal sites-one being “the creek between Brother Eitzen and Brother Koop”-passing Aulne, an area where many early Ebenfelders lived, and Peabody, where the Mennonites landed; and ending up at Virgil Litke’s agricultural museum.

The bus will hold 46 passengers for each tour.

“We couldn’t believe the two busses are already full,” Goertzen said. “We have a waiting list.”

Many of the congregation have strong, multi-generational ties to Ebenfeld.

“Grandpa lived right across the road from the church,” Dan Foth said. “He was pastor there for 31 years.”

In fact, the church is built on property originally owned by his grandfather, Johann Foth, who was an elder from 1885-1916..

The original building burned down in 1924 before Christmas.

“I was there when it burned at about one o’clock Sunday after church,” Foth said. “I think it started in the chimney that got too hot.”

After the fire destroyed the building, Foth said members had to make a decision whether to rebuild the church with brick or with wood on the old foundation.

“The vote was to keep it the way it way it was,” he said. “All those that could from the church helped to rebuild the church. We’ve had two annexes added since then.”

Foth,who will turn 93 on Friday, is the oldest living male member in the church.

“There are ladies who are older,” he said, smiling.

Foth’s memories and those of other long-time Ebenfeld members have been preserved in a video documentary, “The Root Heritage, the Fruit of Faith, the Seed of the Future,” produced by Scott Lygrisse of Lawrence.

The video will be shown during the celebration and orders can be made to purchase it.

Saturday evening’s activities include a catered meal at 6:30 p.m. and a traditional Christian Endeavor program at 8 p.m., “with lots of different musical groups of different ages will be presented,” Goertzen said. “We have such a strong music tradition at Ebenfeld.”

Among those who have contributed to the strong music tradition at Ebenfeld are the Suderman family, along with Herb Richert, who trained many in the church and directed the Ebenfeld Male Chorus for many years.

Irene Suderman Seibel can attest to the deep musical roots that are part of her family. Her grandfather, Jacob Suderman, is credited with starting much of the music at Ebenfeld. She said he gave music lessons and had choir practices in his home.

Her father, Gerhard Suderman, was choir director at the church for 28 years. As a child, she and her family lived where Vic Jost lives now, about three miles or so from the church.

“My father would walk to choir practice many times,” Seibel said.

Another member, Otto Hiebert, 85, sang in the church choir and male chorus for many years.

“There was always quite a bit of singing,” Hiebert said. “Our church had a choir and three male choruses and some quartets. Music was really good.”

The anniversary celebration will continue on Sunday at 10 a.m. with a service centered on the theme of past, present and future.

Reflecting about the past will be Clarence Hiebert, a former interim pastor of Ebenfeld.

Pastor Gaylord Goertzen’s message will focus on the present, and Sid Litke, who was raised in Ebenfeld and is pastor of a church in Wisconsin, will share thoughts about the future.

Music during the service will correspond with the time theme, including a German song, an anniversary choir and the worship team.

A meal will follow the service.

“There will be plenty to eat,” Goertzen said. “Anyone who comes, we would like them to stay.”

After the meal, all can gather for a time of sharing at 2 p.m., followed by a dedication of the plaque recognizing the church’s 125 years.

Artifacts from the church’s history will be on display during the weekend. Also, several items commemorating anniversary will be available for purchase at a book table.

Miracle of Grace at Ebenfeld, researched and written by Peggy Goertzen, documents the history of the church since its founding. Copies can be purchased for $30. Books can be shipped at an added cost of $5.

Video orders can be placed at $10 per copy. Also, the Ebenfeld Cookbook will be available for $14, along with other memorabilia.

For more information about the celebration, contact June or Don Suderman at 947-5500.

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