It was a funeral of sorts — a funeral for a church.
Earlier this year, the congregation of Parkside Presbyterian Church, 4002 Lien Road, voted 17-4 to disband after nearly 100 years. Last Sunday was their final worship service.
Once a bustling congregation with a well-earned reputation for charitable works, the church saw its membership and finances dwindle. Back in the 1940s, it had 365 adult members. Attendance had fallen to 15 to 20.
“I know it has been a gut-wrenching experience to lose your church,” the Rev. David Butler, a retired pastor from Montello, told the congregation as he guest-led the final service.
Just 16 people sat in the pews. A gathering the weekend before — more of a celebratory party to remember the good times — drew about 50 people.
As the final service unfolded, the sanctuary had the look of a deceased person’s home. Members laid claim to Christmas decorations and hymnals and furniture. LeEldra Morgan, 90, stuck yellow Post-it notes on two crocheted wall hangings, one of the Last Supper, the other of the Lord’s Prayer.
“I knew the woman who made those,” Morgan said. “I think her daughter would want to have them.”
Morgan seemed clear-eyed throughout the morning — she’d essentially been mourning for quite some time. One of her volunteer duties at the church had been keeping track of financial donations. “When you handle the pledges, you know what’s coming,” she said.
Butler turned over part of his sermon to audience members, asking them to briefly “name the thing that has made you proud and honored to be part of Parkside’s ministry in the world.”
One woman mentioned the congregation’s groundbreaking and sometimes controversial work with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. In 1994, it was the first Presbyterian congregation in the state to become an “AIDS Caring” congregation, and it had a lengthy partnership with the AIDS Network.
Two members mentioned the church’s work with area homeless shelters. Other memories were more personal.
“I was married in this church, to this man right here, and that’s a very special memory,” said an older woman, as she cried and touched her husband. She later said her husband’s cancer had returned and she needed the prayers of her church family.
Also in attendance was the Rev. Ken Meunier of Viroqua, executive director of the John Knox Presbytery, the denomination’s regional church body. “For 20 years, I’ve been participating in churches and even pastored churches that talked about caring for disenfranchised people,” he told congregants. “This is the first church that taught me how to actually do that.”
The eulogies left a big question hanging in the air. Why didn’t this church survive? Certainly, global forces were at work. Many mainline denominations are hemorrhaging members as younger generations tell pollsters they have less need for religion. Yet many congregations are thriving.
Perhaps geography played a role. The church was founded in 1919 on Few Street, then built its current sanctuary just off East Washington Avenue in 1959-60. Members told me they thought the area would have a large residential component, yet it became highly commercial in the ensuing decades.
And as with most groups of people coming together for a purpose, there were rumblings of personality conflicts and human failings and financial decisions that didn’t go quite as planned.
Butler is helping church leaders dispose of the property. Two potential buyers — one a developer, the other another worship community — are highly interested, and a sale appears imminent, he said.
Dona Everingham, a member involved in the potential sale, said the congregation hopes to clear at least $700,000 after bills. She said 55 percent will be divided among the Community Action Coalition, the AIDS Network and Porchlight Inc., which works with the homeless population. The other 45 percent will be divided among several other entities in the Madison area, including the Goodman Community Center and LGBT organizations.
As for the members themselves, many have been church shopping. Butler told them this may all be part of God’s plan — other churches need their expertise.
“You know how to do things other Christians simply don’t know how to do,” he said. “You will be seeds scattered and planted, seeds that will grow the Parkside ministry far beyond what you would have done if you’d stayed right here.”