First Baptist Church: 125 years in the heart of Little Falls

“Let us celebrate … the festival (with) sincerity and truth.” I Corinthians 5:8

First Baptist Church in Little Falls will celebrate its 125th anniversary of ministry in the heart of Little Falls, with a celebration Aug. 19-20.

For 125 years, the First Baptist Church has been proclaiming the gospel and ministering in the heart of Little Falls. On Aug. 18, 1892, the church was birthed through the efforts of Rev. J. Malcom Sawer, who was in charge of a converted rail passenger coach car called “Evangel.”

The converted rail car served as the meeting place for 20 charter members, 11 who came from the American Baptist convention and nine from a local group of Swedish immigrants. Not unfamiliar with hardships of that era, church records show that seven adults were baptized in the Mississippi River in the fall and early winter of that year.

After the chapel car Evangel moved on to establish other churches, the fledgling church began to meet in the Knights of Labor Hall, the city hall and in the upstairs of the Rhodes-Tanner building. In 1893, the church called its first pastor, Rev. W.H. Davenport, whose salary was $10 per week. Rev. Davenport served for two years, resigning in 1895.

In 1893, the members voted to purchase the lot at the church’s present location on Broadway and Fourth Street Southeast for $1,300 and the original church building was built in 1895.

The original building served as the church for 58 years which became increasingly inadequate as the church continued to grow. On the church’s 38th anniversary, plans were made to raise funds for a larger building.

The first building that was home to First Baptist Church in Little Falls, was constructed in 1895. In less than 60 years, a new building was needed to accommodate the growing church.

Ground for a new structure was broken April 15, 1951. The building was designed in the Gothic style that was popular and frequently replicated in that era. During the demolition of the original church and construction of the new auditorium, the church met at Thompson Mortuary now Shelley Funeral Chapel.

The new auditorium and lower level fellowship hall were completed one year later and the church was dedicated April 6, 1952 during Rev. C. Rodney Benson’s pastorate.

In January of 1960, the church purchased property adjacent to the church and made a parking lot for congregational parking. Plans were made and funds raised in the early 60s to construct an educational wing to the east side of the auditorium with greater office space, classrooms and a larger nursery.

As part of the renovation, the main entrance on the north side of the building was moved from the west side of the bell tower to the east side. Construction was completed in 1964 and the dedication was held June 1, 1964. The church purchased two other lots, one in 1976 adjacent to the parking lot on the south side that served as a parsonage and staff house. It was torn down for future expansion in October 2016. The other property was purchased in 1981 just east of the church and also served as a staff house for several years before being sold in 2004.

As the church grew, so did its congregation’s desire to minister to the Little Falls and surrounding areas. In the late 1940s, during Ralph Gade’s pastorate, the church voted to begin broadcasting the morning services over the airwaves at KLTF, which continued until 1985.

Another ministry established by the church in 1973, was the North Star Christian Academy, the vision of Pastor Don Kittle. The day school provided both an elementary and secondary Christian education. The school opened its doors in the fall of 1973 with an enrollment of 57 students.

Wayne Burggraff and Owen Roberts were its first two graduates in 1974. The school continued to grow and in 1985, enrolled 95 students. The school continued to operate for another 33 years and ceased operation at the end of the 2006 school year.

During the church’s 125 years, it has remained faithful to its spiritual and biblical mandate, to preach the gospel and reach out to the community by extending a loving invitation to all to find a spiritual home where the entire family of all ages can grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The church’s mission statement as been “passionately preaching Christ, compassionately reaching people and it has desired to minister to all ages from the nursery through senior adults.

During its 125 years, 32 men have ministered as senior pastor, which does not include the many assistant and youth pastors that have also served.

The church’s current pastor, Steve Priola, has served as senior pastor for 20 years. He and his wife Gloria (who grew up in the church) have been a part of the church’s ministry for 37 years.

First Baptist Church will celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary of ministry Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 19 – 20.

On Saturday, Aug. 19, there will be an all North Star Christian Academy informal reunion from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m., for graduates and all former students who attended the school. There will be many mementos, pictures, old annuals and an opportunity to reconnect with old classmates. Refreshments and yard games will be provided as well.

On Sunday, the church’s celebration will begin with a meet and greet time, 9:30 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. At 10:30 a.m., a 125th anniversary worship service will include a video presentation of the church’s history, greetings from former pastors who are in attendance and a special challenge by Pastor Priola.

After the service, lunch will be served with time for all to get acquainted or reacquainted.

Everyone who comes Sunday will receive a special commemorative gift in honor of the church’s 125th anniversary.

The public is cordially invited to attend both days of celebration.