Names and buildings change but for 125 years, the church has stayed

Staff Writer
Graham United Methodist Church in Rice, was built in 1892, destroyed in 1941 and rebuilt in 1942 even as church officials had to work hard to convince the government to allow them to use materials to rebuild during World War II.

Through name changes, fires and 125 years, Graham United Methodist Church in Rice has remained in the community. To celebrate its birthday, the congregation and a high-profile guest are getting ready for anniversary services.

At the 9 a.m. service, Sunday, Oct. 8, Bishop Bruce Ough, head of the Dakotas-Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, will be preaching at the church.

“It’s a chance for him to come out and actually meet people, a chance for him to see what’s going on out here in our rural area and a chance for us to show off who we are,” Pastor Ric Koehn said.

Koehn is new to Graham United Methodist Church, having been hired as a part-time pastor in February, appointed as the permanent pastor in June and welcomed by the congregation Sept. 17. Koehn said the church is growing, which is unusual for ones in its position.

“We’re kind of a rarity. We’re a rural church off in a cornfield, but we’re a growing church,” Koehn said.

The rural church which would become Graham United Methodist began as an evangelical mission around the same time the Catholics and Father Pierz came to the area, said Church Historian Cliff Weitgenant.

As a congregation developed, members would meet in each others’ homes and a local schoolhouse.

At that time, circuit riders or traveling clergy in the area served towns including Rice, Royalton, Buckman and Elmdale.

“That’s how the actual church began,” Weitgenant said.

By 1885, a Sunday school had been established to educate children of the congregation.

Then in 1886, a tornado hit the area, killing over a dozen members of the congregation and the pastor at a wedding.

To this day, members of the church still hold a service each year in memory of the tragedy, Weitgenant said.

In 1892, the actual church was built, serving the  congregation until 1941 when more bad weather led to the building being destroyed by a lightning strike.

The congregation launched a massive operation to rebuild within a year, though World War II and rationing made that difficult, Weitgenant said.

“Every piece of wood and equipment, the furnace, the bell and the lights, everything had to be OK’ed by the government,” Weitgenant said.

In the end, the only part of the project the government wouldn’t sign off on was hooking the building up to the new electric grid as it wasn’t practical. Instead, the church would use a generator until it was approved to hook up to the grid a few years later.

Since then additions have been added onto the church for updating fellowship spaces, the sanctuary, Sunday School and more.

These accommodate the over 400 people associated with the church.

Weitgenant, who was baptized and confirmed in the church said seeing changes to the building and congregation has been great.

“There’s been a dramatic growth,” Weitgenant said. “It’s exciting to see that as a rural church, Graham United Methodist continues to thrive.”

Over the years, more than just the building has changed. In the beginning, the church was “Immanuel’s Church of the Evangelical Association of North America of Graham Township.” Then, in 1946, it was renamed to Graham Evangelical United Brethren Church when the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) began. It finally became the current Graham United Methodist church when the Methodist and EUB denominations merged in 1968.

In addition to the Oct. 8 service, the church will also highlight its history at the Oct. 29 service with previous pastors attending, including Duane Lookingbill who will deliver the sermon.

In the future, Koehn said he hopes the church continues to reach out to potential members and the community as a whole.