125 years of ?urban? service


The former meetinghouse of First Mennonite at its traditional location at Grand Avenue and Ash Street. The photo was taken in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The original structure was built in 1886 and was expanded and remodeled before the current facility was built in 1967.

First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro will mark its 125th anniversary Sunday, Aug. 16, by devoting the Sunday school hour and worship service to focus on the long life of the church.

An intergenerational class will meet at 9:15 a.m. followed by worship at 10:30 a.m. A meal is planned for noon.


?This is not going to be a reliving of 125 years,? pastor Randy Smith said about Sun?day?s celebration. ?It?s more going back to our origins and claiming what God has done.?

The church?s origin traces to 1884, when Hillsboro was a growing community with a population of about 600. It was newly incorporated as a city in June.


John P. Bartel (front row, center), an early member of First Mennonite Church, poses with his children and their spouses. Father John P., son John (back row, far left), grandson Johnnie, great-grandsons Ron, Marlin and Doug, and great-great-grandson Eric have been active members at First Mennonite through the generations.


?This is not going to be a reliving of 125 years. It?s more going back to our origins and claiming what God has done.?

?Pastor Randy Smith

?And you know, Hillsboro was a pretty important urban center at that time, if you think about it,? Smith said.

That year the Western District of the General Confer?ence Mennonite Churches decided to found an ?urban? church in Hillsboro.

Several Mennonite, Menno?nite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren congregations had been established or begun services earlier in rural areas near Hillsboro.

Those included Johannestahl, Brudertal, Alexanderwohl, Springfield, Guadenau and Ebenfeld, according to Ray Wiebe, Hillsboro?s historian laureate, and Peggy Goertzen, director for the Center of Mennonite Brethren Studies.

By 1905, First Mennonite was one of six churches in town: German Baptist, Zion Evangel?ical Lutheran, Hillsboro Menno?nite Brethren, Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist.

?We needed the presence of a Mennonite church in town,? Smith said. ?And so they found a diverse group of people?of course, all German-speaking Mennonites?but they were from different streams of that and came together to form this congregation.?

Open to diversity

That notion of welcoming diversity?attracting people from various backgrounds?runs through the church?s history.

?That whole character of this church is still present today, I think, in that the church has always seen itself as being progressive, as being welcoming of people of differences,? said Smith, who came as pastor at First Mennonite in 2005.

?We?re a historic peace church and we?ve had people who have served in the military. That?s just been part of who we are?. I?ve seen this in this church and I think we can celebrate that?an openness to new ideas.?

A start

Church planter J. S. Hirschler from Iowa relocated to Hillsboro to help organize the new church. Money to support his work came from the rural Mennonite congregations in the area.

The first church structure was built in 1886 on a corner lot at Grand and Ash, the same location as the current building, which was dedicated in 1967.

John P. Bartel joined the church in 1887. His family had settled on land purchased from the Santa Fe Railroad, east of Hillsboro. That land, now owned by great-grandson Ron Bartel, has remained in the family for four generations.

Bartel descendants continue to be involved at First Menno?nite.

?The church has obviously been quite central to us because our family have stayed in this congregation,? said Doug Bartel, Ron?s brother. Doug serves on the committee planning the 125th celebration.

?Threads have remained in this congregation for many years. It?s a place for us to gather, not only as a biological family but also as a church family and to know so many more people. It?s just been very central for our family.?

Celebration events

Among the events planned for Sunday is viewing items from the time capsule buried 25 years ago. The capsule was buried in front of the church marquee.

?Even our oldest (child), Ryan, I think has something in there,? Doug said.

Plans are to put the materials back in the time capsule and also add to it from the event.

?I?m not sure where it will go back in this next time,? he said. ?We?ll have to find a location and put some sort of plaque over it.?

Sharing stories

Last Wednesday, a number of past and present members gathered for an informal time of storytelling in the fellowship hall.

?We want to keep it on a level that if we don?t acknowledge and remember, we feel like we?ve kind of failed the past and the future,? Doug said. ?And I think it?s important, too, to get as many of the current people involved in writing the new story.?

Among out-of-town guests were former Hillsboro residents Ethel Abrahams and Helen Bargen of North Newton and Elda Bartel and Edna Reimer of Goessel, who shared their memories about the church.

Cheryl Bartel, married to Doug?s brother, Marlin, also is part of the planning committee.

?I felt good about the turnout,? Cheryl said about last Wednesday when people gathered and sat at round tables to share stories for about an hour.

Some of the sharing was planned while other contributions were spontaneous, Cheryl said. Several stories focused on the previous church building, which had been enlarged and remodeled several times.

?(The church) was added on to a number of times, so that created different nooks and crannies,? Cheryl said. ?The guys will tell stories how you would go up and down and around?in these little rooms and cubbies.?

Sunday school classes met in different rooms, such as the furnace room.

?That was a lot that came out in the (Wednesday?s) stories, too,? she added.

Spirit of openness

Cheryl, who grew up near Durham and was raised as Seventh Day Adventist, started attending First Mennonite in 1981, shortly before she was married.

?I think (the church?s openness to diversity) has been an underlying theme, at least with my time here, definitely,? Cheryl said. ?That?s kind of what I said at the sharing (time) Wednesday. When I took the membership class, we had a Catholic, a Quaker, and me from SDA.?

Part of this Sunday?s service will involve sharing a computerized slideshow of pictures from the past. As a tie to the church-plant history, Floyd Bartel is coming to represent the Western District Conference.

Hometown pastor

Also, Keith Harder, pastor from 1986 to 1999, will share reflections about honoring and remembering those who had a vision to start the church and focusing on the history as a way to provide future direction.

Harder said events from more than 40 years ago ?illustrate the kind of impetus of the church.?

In the early 1960s as a Hillsboro High School student, Harder heard Vincent Harding, an associate of Martin Luther King, speak for Holy Week services at First Mennonite.

?(Harding) was a civil rights leader,? Harder said. ?This was right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. I think it took a lot of vision and courage for the church to bring him. I remember going to hear him speak and for some reason being captivated by him.?

A number of long-term members are now gone, but in the past five years there?s been an influx of new people and younger people that brings a vitality and promise for the church, Harder said.

He added: ?Randy has played a significant part in that.?

?I think there?s a real generosity of spirit in the church as I?ve experienced it, a healthy welcoming of diversity and a mature managing of differences,? Harder said. ?It?s maintaining that delicate balance of our distinctives and values (as a Mennonite church) while being welcoming of others that don?t necessarily share those.?

Since its beginning the church has had an integral tie or connection to the community??not by accident,? Harder said, and there?s a real appreciation of the community by the church.

?We certainly extend a welcome to the community to Sunday?s events.?

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