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A Detailed History

The history of Macalester Plymouth United Church, under that name, goes back to 1968. We are the result of mergers of four congregations – Plymouth Congregational (later UCC) Church, Macalester Presbyterian Church, Merriam Park Presbyterian Church and Lexington Parkway Presbyterian Church. There are long and interesting histories for each of the former congregations that make up our present Macalester Plymouth United Church. Below are brief summaries of the background that led up to our united congregation as it exists today.

Plymouth Congregational Church (1858)

In the California gold rush of 1849, Minnesota had a great land rush, when the western Indian country of Wisconsin was organized into the Minnesota Territory and vast areas were opened to homestead. St. Paul, at the head of navigation, became a real boom town. In 1851, Philip Nichols, a Congregational minister who had lost his preaching voice, set up an insurance office here and built his home on a block of land in the present city market area. Finding no Congregational church, he and his family temporarily joined the First Presbyterian Church.

By 1858, Philip Nichols felt it was time to have a Congregational church, so he and a few others turned carpenter and put up a wooden chapel on part of his home block. This he named Plymouth Church, and so long as it was used, he took care of it as sexton and senior deacon. One reason he felt impelled to organize a new church was that the other churches seemed to be lukewarm on the slavery issue. You may be sure that this defect was remedied at Plymouth, for all her early pastors were New England abolitionists.

In 1872, the congregation was able to erect a handsome church in what was then the western edge of the town at Summit and Wabasha. At the dedication in 1873, a new hymn was sung for the first time anywhere, “All Things are Thine, No Gift Have We,” which the poet John Greenleaf Whittier had written at the request of the pastor. Ever since, in sentiment, Plymouth has claimed this hymn as her own.

Plymouth Church was never wealthy, but earned the title of “Mother of Churches” by the gifts of money and members to start other Congregational churches – Olivet Church, Park Church, St. Anthony Park Church, Pacific Church and the Bohemian Chapel near West Seventh Street. Plymouth Church also started several Sunday Schools, including one for immigrants who were eager to learn English.

It is almost impossible for a church without heavy endowment to continue in a changing neighborhood. The time came in 1913, after forty years on Wabasha, when Plymouth Church merged with her “daughter”, Park Church. Though the budget was running behind, Plymouth vacated a valuable business property. Park Church charter was dissolved and the entire membership and assets were transferred to Plymouth. The building on Mackubin and Holly was used. One memorable action which accorded with ideals of Philip Nichols, the founder, was the organization of the Minnesota NAACP in this church in 1913.

History repeated itself: too many of the sustaining members moved to the suburbs; to keep going, mortgage was piled on mortgage and though attendance was good at services and popular lectures, the creditors took the building in 1926, and the congregation voted to accept the invitation to merge with Grace Community Church, which had erected a chapel at Prior and Princeton in 1920. Owing to the bankruptcy of Plymouth Congregational Church, Grace Community could not afford to enter into a formal merger, but the combined congregation went by the name of Plymouth Congregational Church and built the church building on Prior Avenue.

Grace Community Church and the new Plymouth Congregational Church were especially strong in Sunday school, Scouts and other youth work, but other churches were built in the neighborhood, making more and more competition, and higher operating costs made it increasingly difficult for churches with around 250 members to carry on. While the neighborhood had not changed greatly, Plymouth Congregational Church was getting deficient in younger members. Plymouth was a close-knit group of friends, most of them elderly. So in 1963, discussions were started with Olivet and Highland Park churches to find out if some merger or joint action could work out. Nothing came of this effort at that time. Later, in 1968, Plymouth Congregational Church began to have conversation concerning joint action with Macalester Presbyterian Church.

Macalester Presbyterian Church (1887)

So vital to a Christian college was a church, in the early days of 1887, that less than five months after Macalester College opened its door, a petition “praying to organize a church at Macalester College” was placed before the Presbytery in St. Paul. The petition was signed by the little band of folks who were worshipping in the college chapel in Old Main. From this nucleus of college personnel, professors and their families, and a scattering of neighborhood families, grew Macalester Presbyterian Church.

For three years the new little church continued to worship in the college chapel on Sundays, with Wednesday night prayer meetings each week. The pulpit was supplied “gratis” and the church was ministered unto by the ministerial members of the faculty. The community around the new college was growing and so was the membership of the church. So crowded did the chapel become that a new church became a necessity, and Macalester Presbyterian Church proudly moved to its own building on January 12, 1890. It was located on Summit and Cambridge and cost $8500. There were 82 church members and four candidates for the ministry. For the next 34 years, often weathering periods of sore economic distress and other crises, the church nevertheless flourished and grew.

At length, under the strong and energetic leadership of the Reverend Robert C. Mitchell, even two Sunday services scarcely accommodated the membership, and the Sunday school rooms were totally inadequate. The college, too, desired the enrichment and leavening influence of a family church nearby. At a joint meeting of church and college representatives, the college asked the church to consider building a sanctuary on property donated by George Dayton, a college trustee, to be used also as a college Chapel. This new building, our present church, was dedicated in January, 1925. The structure cost some $73,000.

For the next 27 years, through the depression, a world war, and drastically changing times, Macalester Church was guided by Dr. Walker Vance. Many helpful changes in church organization were inaugurated. A Director of Religious Education guided the Sunday school and its teachers. The Ladies Aid and Women’s Missionary Society became vastly more effective by merging into one group called the Women’s Association, a board of Deacons was organized, the choirs flourished, the “101” Macmen were active, the Athletic Association enjoyed a work-out and swim once a week in the Macalester College gym and pool, and the Drama Club and other social and recreational groups for young and old sprang up.

By 1954, the membership was over 1000, and dreams of expansion became a reality. The Rev. Charles Dierenfeld was the new, young minister, and his enthusiasm and optimistic assurance infected the whole congregation. Following good Presbyterian precedent, committees galore got to work, and in 1956, the expansion project was implemented. The sanctuary was beautifully remodeled, the manse adjoining the church was purchased, space was found for a lovely little chapel and for an attractive library, and a new addition, Westminster Hall, to be used as Sunday school rooms and activities building, was erected. The total cost was in excess of $230,000.

Into this setting came Dr. Paul Francis in 1960. His commitment to the service of Macalester Church might be glimpsed in part by an excerpt from the statement he wrote in the booklet, “Seventy-five Years of Macalester Presbyterian Church,” a booklet presented at the gala celebration of Macalester Church’s Diamond Jubilee in 1962, “The true life of Macalester Presbyterian Church reaches clear across the centuries to the foot of the cross – in this faith we abide, in this service we labor, in this hope we pray. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

Discussion of ways to be responsive to the growing need in young families for appropriate early childhood education resulted, in 1966, in the decision to open a nursery school—to be housed in the education wing—that would serve that need.  Its constitution called for it to be run independently with church representation on the Board of Directors.  This is the origin of our noted preschool, still in operation.

In 1968, the ministers, elders and congregation, in action responsive to the ecumenical movement of the times, entered into conversation with Plymouth Church.

Macalester Plymouth United Church (1968)

In 1968 a group of laymen and other ministers from the two congregations began to meet together to discuss the various ways in which cooperation might take place in the areas of youth programs, adult education, and so on. Early in the discussions the concept of organic union arose, and quickly took first place in the procedures. As a result, the Plymouth Congregational Church and Macalester Presbyterian Church, in the fall of 1968, became Macalester Plymouth United Church with full relationship to both the United Church of Christ and the United Presbyterian Church in the USA.

The ecclesiastical and legal procedures that had to be gone through to achieve this union were very interesting for all concerned. Today our church seeks to support missions of common concern in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, in the US and around the world. Increasingly the two denominations with which we are related join forces in common concern, and we believe that this is in accordance with God’s will.

Dr. Paul Francis served as minister of the united church until his retirement in 1975, at which time he was appointed Pastor Emeritus. Rev. Rex Knowles was called in November of 1975, followed by Rev. Roger Grussing called in 1984.

In 1983 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and in 1985 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church each voted to become peacemaking churches, followed in 1985 by Macalester Plymouth’s affirmation to make peacemaking an integral part of congregational life and mission.

In 1988, we celebrated the 130th anniversary of the first meeting of Plymouth Congregational Church, the 100th anniversary of the first organizational meeting of a new Macalester Presbyterian Church and the 20th year of fruitful union.

Another landmark decision was made by the congregation in 1995 during Rev. Grussing’s tenure as minister/moderator.  After long discussion and soul-searching about what our church should do to further equal rights to all people, regardless of sex, race, class, age, mental or physical ability, marital status or sexual orientation, members voted overwhelmingly to declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ and a More Light congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Shortly thereafter, Rev. Grussing and Director of Music Curt Oliver originated the highly successful annual hymn contest.  The goal was to have a contest calling for new hymn texts on current issues of social justice which could be sung to familiar hymn tunes.  A new topic is announced to the hymn-writing public each year, and a cash prize is awarded to the winner(s).  The contest has continued since 1996.

We are enthusiastic about our church. Weekly we hear the Word read and interpreted; we hear great music sung by an excellent choir. Regularly, we gather for Bible Study or for joyous fellowship. Children can find Sunday school, a youth choir, a bell choir, and a welcome at our services of worship. Teenagers can find an educational program, a full Scout program, service opportunities, and exciting fellowship. Indeed, there are programs for all ages.

In and through our church we strive daily to bear witness to Christ, coming together for worship and going forth to the community in concerned service.

Merriam Park Presbyterian Church (1884)

First Presbyterian Church of Merriam Park first met in a member’s home. There were eight members, seven of them originally from Willmar. They built their first church at Carroll and Moore in February of 1884 and, because they grew quickly, they built their second church at Iglehart and Moore six years later, in 1890, moving the first church onto the same property for use as a chapel. Eventually, in 1912, they built a third church building at the corner of Dayton and Howell.

Lexington Parkway Presbyterian Church (1911)

The Lexington Parkway Church formed in 1911 in a building they called the Carroll Street Chapel at the corner of Carroll and Victoria. When the First Church of St. Paul located at 5th and Carroll joined House of Hope and had no further use of its building, the Lexington Parkway Church bought it and moved it piecemeal to its new site at Lexington and St. Anthony, where it was painstakingly rebuilt. In 1969, Lexington Parkway Presbyterian Church merged with Merriam Park Presbyterian Church, joining them at the Dayton and Howell location. At the time of the merger, there were between 450 and 500 people in the combined membership, and they renamed themselves Merriam-Lexington Presbyterian Church.

Eventually, after St. Paul had expanded, moving its borders out, there were a large number of churches serving small neighborhoods. When people began to move to the suburbs, church attendance slackened, and some neighborhood churches struggled to survive economically. Thus it was at the original location of the Macalester Presbyterian Church at the corner of Macalester and Lincoln Avenue that has become the united church, the product of Plymouth Congregational Church (1849), Merriam Park Presbyterian Church (1884), Macalester Presbyterian Church (1887) and Lexington Parkway Presbyterian Church (1911).

One can now see how many separate worshipping groups came together to create the church we call Macalester Plymouth United Church. Odd as it may seem, the most recent merger was really facilitated by the mess of demolition and construction that took place starting in the summer of 2000. Macalester College was generous enough to offer us the use of its chapel for Sunday services that summer, when Merriam-Lexington Presbyterian Church merged in membership with Macalester Plymouth members in the college’s beautiful air-conditioned space. This merger meant that Merriam-Lexington had to say goodbye to its building on Dayton and Howell, although the building on this corner has continued as a Christian church. It is now the home of the only Orthodox Armenian church in Minnesota (St. Sahag Armenian Church).

During this renovation in 2000 of Macalester Plymouth United Church, several changes were made. A new social hall and kitchen were constructed. Additional office space and restrooms on the ground level were added while the old kitchen from the basement level was removed making way for classrooms and more restrooms. The old chapel became the new youth room.

Upstairs the narthex had been expanded to create more space for the gathering of people, such as for reception lines, thus pushing the sanctuary space forward closer to the front of the balcony. A new sound system was installed. New lights replaced dated ones and new tiles covered the floor. Pews and woodwork reverted to the original darker shade of oak, and the former dark red velvet drape in the front was removed, replaced by wood arches, which hide the organ pipes. A new organ console was installed closer to the front to improve sight lines for the organist.

Seating was modified; new chairs, upholstered in a blue-green fabric that matched one of the colors in the stained glass windows, now replaced the front rows of pews as well as those on the two sides of the cross-shaped sanctuary. Chairs allow for flexibility in creating a more intimate environment for small groups of worshipers, such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. The choir stalls on each side were removed. The choir now sits in one group on risers facing the congregation behind modesty panels.

The elevated front (west) part of the sanctuary was lowered, the railing around it was removed, and a new floor was laid in the form of a thrust stage, allowing for flexible furniture arrangement and staging of events like plays. The previous dated furniture there was replaced by different pieces, some of them with real history. For example, the communion table and the baptismal font originated with the Merriam Presbyterian Church and the cross that hangs in front originated with Lexington Presbyterian Church. A lectern and pulpit were crafted to match the communion table. The brass candleholders also came over from Merriam Lexington Presbyterian Church. Surely it was a good thing for the members who came here in 2000 to see some of their familiar items lovingly utilized in the “new” church.

The renovations occurred during the Rev. David Hohmann’s interim pastorate; his guidance was exceedingly valuable. All during this time, the Ministerial Search Committee functioned, finally issuing a call to the Reverend Heidi Vardeman, who became our senior minister in November of 2001. One can see that our members had to deal with many changes within a short period of time, but they emerged with a new appreciation for what we had achieved together. The congregation is growing, and we are blessed with many children who bear the promise of a bright future. Thanks be to God.

Throughout most of the last half of the twentieth century and up until the present, MPUC has also been served by associate pastors who helped to fulfill pastoral needs that supplement the lead minister’s duties, typically working with the youth of the church.  During Rev. Vardeman’s tenure Macalester Plymouth called to be our associate minister former lawyer Rev. Tom Ewald, our first gay clergyman, whose humor, warmth, and remarkable sermons endeared him to us, proving the wisdom of our decision to become Open and Affirming.  When Rev. Vardeman resigned in 2011, Tom was of immeasurable help to transitional interim minister Rev. Gale Robb, who had received her call to ministry while a lay member of this congregation.  Following her, we welcomed our current Lead Minister, the Rev. Adam Blons, who joined us in late summer of 2013.  A couple of years later, when Rev. Ewald retired, we called the Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis as Minister of Congregational Life.

One of the curiosities—and great benefits—of Macalester Plymouth United Church is that since the 1980s several ministers have become active participants in our church life.  Some are retired, some work in capacities other than serving a church, and all find a warm welcome here, regardless of their former church affiliations.  They add a richness to the fabric of this church which cannot be measured.  One of them, another former lay member of our congregation, also joined the current clergy team in a part time position: the Rev. Jeanyne Slettom, who serves as Theologian in Residence.

Early in the 21st century, as our country grew more aware of issues of ecology, concerned church members started a movement towards making our communal and individual lives more sustainable. Through education and attention to appropriate practices, the new Caring for Creation Committee led us to be more thoughtful in our use of God’s creation. We changed casual practices which caused pollution, built rain gardens to alleviate water run-off, and instituted a recycling program, among other things. In 2015, we passed a resolution to become an Earthwise Congregation and were recognized for the first time by the MN Conference (UCC) as a Green Justice Congregation, as well as by the PC(USA) as an Earth Care Congregation. We continue to be attentive to best practices in preserving God’s universe.

During the summer of 2017, MPUC underwent another renovation occasioned by the need to fix physical problems, particularly from water incursions, which had occurred through the years.  Repairs to the roof, brickwork, plaster in the sanctuary, and heating plant were made.  The yellowed Plexiglas overlay on the stained-glass windows was removed and new protective glass installed, allowing the original windows to glow with renewed beauty.  Fresh paint in shades of pale grey and a new chancel backdrop incised with a liturgical design, fresh upholstery on the free-standing chairs, and a new carpet runner for the central aisle freshened the whole aspect of the sanctuary.  Special installation in the flooring of a hearing loop which can connect with parishioners’ hearing aids made it possible for them to hear everywhere, not just in the front rows. A new practical contrivance allows banners to be hung and replaced with relative ease. Wherever possible, attempts were made to make the church energy efficient—for example in the use of LED lights.  During this year other upgrades were made, too: the organ underwent an expensive renovation and we purchased a new grand piano for the sanctuary, both of which benefit the thriving music program.

A significant event occurred during this time of change.  Under the new administration of U. S. President Trump, a climate of discrimination against immigrants had arisen in our country, and many who already were here feared that they would be sent back to their countries of origin.  True to its tradition of upholding issues of social justice, members voted to make MPUC a Sanctuary church, available to house and support individual(s) seeking sanctuary from deportation.  A suitable place was prepared in the building, and team volunteers followed through as necessary.   We joined dozens of churches throughout the state in creating a network of mutual support. We are ready when needed.

Through the years this church has been supportive of refugees, several times sponsoring the settlement of families from areas of the world torn by political unrest such as Eritrea, Vietnam and, most recently (2016), Rwanda.

Notable among other changes to the church infrastructure which have not been mentioned before are these: the transition of the former chapel to first a youth room and later the music room; the demolition of the former manse on Lincoln Ave. next door, its grounds turned into a park-like open space; the installation, following state handicap-accessible mandates, of an elevator; a Memorial Garden next to the front entrance, which serves as a place for the burial of ashes.  No doubt changes will continue to occur as future needs and opportunities arise.

This was updated May 2018, by Carol McClellan.

Archival Photos