First Presbyterian Church Wasilla By the Rev. H. Gene Straatmeyer, Pastor
I. Prior to 1946
What is now the Presbyterian Church (USA) came to Alaska shortly after the purchase of the vast territory from Russia in 1867. The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, although told by his church not to missionize the new territory because it was so vast and mission funds were so meager, did so anyway. In 1877 he established the first mission outpost at Wrangell in southeast Alaska where a Tsimshian Methodist lay minister named Clah was already conducting worship services. Amanda McFarland was sent to Wrangell to start a home for orphaned Native children and soon thereafter the Rev. Rev. S. Hall Young was assigned as the missionary.
Upon the appointment of Sheldon Jackson to the post of U.S. Commissioner for Education in Alaska, S. Hall Young assumed more responsibility for establishing mission churches throughout the Territory. He followed the gold rush from Skagway to Dawson in 1898, establishing a Presbyterian Church at Lake Bennet and Dawson City. From Dawson he found his way to Fairbanks where in 1905 he founded first Presbyterian Church and in 1908 he went to Cordova where he organized a church. By 1910, Young was directing all the mission efforts above the Alaskan Panhandle.
In 1912 Young was in Iditarod and began his trip to a Presbytery meeting in Cordova by dog team. Enroute he stopped at Knik, at the head of Cook Inlet, where he preached the first Christian sermon in the region.
At the Presbytery meeting in Cordova in 1912, the following proposal was adopted and sent to the Home Mission Board in New York:
"Whereas, at the head of Cook Inlet, there is a large expanse of fertile ground suited for farming, promising gold fields, and in the vicinity of the great Matanuska coal fields, this region being also on a proposed railroad route to the interior of Alaska, and
"Whereas, there are at present about a thousand white people in that region, grouped principally about the villages of Susitna, Knik, Sunrise and Katmai, with the prospect of a large population as soon as needed legislation is obtained, this region having been hitherto entirely neglected by all evangelical denominations,
"Therefore, resolved by the Presbytery of Yukon, that the Home Mission Board be urged to commission a suitable man as traveling evangelist to meet the growing needs of this community."
In the spring of 1913, the Rev. T.P. Howard had been sent to Knik and services were held for the Native people living in the area. A building was purchased. Rev. Howard also reported visiting the new gold strikes in the area to the north. In 1914 Presbytery recommended application of a $2,000 grant toward the erection of a manse in Knik and Presbytery met at Knik on September 3 -4, 1915. By 1916, the Presbytery decided not to put further money into the church building which had been purchased earlier because "changing conditions have so depreciated the value, it is of little worth." This mission, which never officially became a church, was closed at a later time, although Presbytery minutes are unclear when.
In 1916, the Rev. John Hughes began his work as a missionary at large along the government railroad in the neighborhood of Matanuska. Hughes suggested that areas in the Susitna Valley, such as Susitna, McDougal and Talkeetna were possible mission areas and said as the area develo9ps, it should be linked with the Matanuska Valley for they are territorially inseparable. Hughes left the Matanuska ministry in 1919 to serve his country as a chaplain in France.
As the railroad went further north, Grace Presbyterian Church in Nenana was organized and apparently much of the ministry to the Matanuska and Susitna Valley was headquartered there. In 1925 it was lamented in Presbytery that the free pass privilege for travel on the government railroad by ministers was being revoked. Taken all the way to the Secretary of Interior, the Secretary decided that ministers and missionaries should be given one-half fare privileges.
In February 1925, Presbytery recommended that "a man be placed in Nenana just as soon as one qualified can be found who will serve Nenana and out stations." In June the Rev. R.R. Marquis was placed in Nenana.
Although Wasilla was never mentioned in the Presbytery minutes up to this point, Flo Alice Dinkel Tryck writes, "The Presbyterian Church has been in the Wasilla area for a good many years as Lillian Blanche Tryck taught Sunday School in the first school house… (This schoolhouse is now among the buildings in the Wasilla Historical Park). My husband Bill (William) Tryck and his brother Charles were in their mother's Sunday School classes. We found lesson cards with a Bible dated 1926 and the Bible was signed by the Rev. R.R. Marquis." So, at that time, Wasilla was an "out station" served by the Nenana missionary who traveled by rail.
In 1927, the Session of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage was assigned a Field Worker and designated "a center of promotional activities for the Sunday School organizations and chapels at Curry, Talkeetna, Wasilla, and Matanuska…" This is the first mention of Wasilla in the Presbytery minutes.
In February 1935, Presbytery recommended "that the Board of National Missions consider the appointment of a missionary for the Matanuska Valley, to care for that growing field where there are already 100 people without any regular religious oversight. It is reported 200 families are to be moved into that region by the government." By October the Rev. Bert Bingle, then the pastor at Cordova, was appointed as "missionary in the Matanuska Valley for a period of three years."
Wasilla was given to Rev. Bingle as part of his responsibility. Flo Alice Dinkel Tryck writes, "Rev. Bert Bingle was the railroad minister and he wold be in Wasilla about once a month."
As was often the case in the earlier missionary days, things would change quite rapidly because funds and ministers were not always available. After serving as the missionary to the Valley for six years and having established the church at Palmer, the Rev. Bingle was appointed a Sunday School Missionary operating out of Fairbanks in October 1941. It may have been because a strong church was developing in Palmer that the Wasilla Presbyterian Chapel was neglected and the work ceased. The Dinkel family reported that when they first arrived in the Wasilla area, there was no Presbyterian church or chapel in Wasilla and Presbyterians were expected to go to church in Palmer, a significant distance in those days when the roads were very poor.
II. 1946 to 1972
During the summer of 1946 a group of residents in or near Wasilla discussed the possibility of having church services. The Fairview-Knik area had been opened for homesteading, more people were moving in, and there was need for an organized church. They wished to become associated with the Palmer United Protestant group as that, with Presbyterian support, seemed the most logical. (Under the original agreement among major Protestant denominations, this part of Alaska was to be served by the Presbyterians.)
The pastor of the Palmer church, Victor Alfsen, was willing to help out, and the first services were held in November 1946, in the Wasilla Community Hall. (This building is now the Wasilla Museum.) Church services were then held regularly each Sunday at 9:00 a.m. This early hour enabled Reverend Alfsen to return to Palmer in time for their 11:00 o'clock services.
At that time, a wood furnace with only one floor register heated the community hall. Needless to say, this left much to be desired as far as comfort was concerned. One either sat by the register and suffered from excessive heat or sat away from it and was uncomfortably cold. Wood supplied by members applied toward hall rental.
The first congregational meeting was held at the Martin Olson home in March 1947. Dorothy Nelson, James Pendleton, and Harold Dinkel were appointed to the church constitution committee. Charter Members were Mr. and Mrs. James Pendleton, Mrs. Pete Nelson, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Hanson, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Dinkel, and Mr. and Mrs. Martin Olson. James Pendleton was elected treasurer, with the sum of $79.02 on hand. It was decided to reimburse the Palmer Church $5.00 a month to defray the Minister's travelling expenses to Wasilla. Hymnbooks were to be purchased.
Frances Dinkel was elected secretary. She served as secretary for nine years, then was elected Elder and Clerk of Session for another nine years.
The April Congregational Meeting was at Nelsons'. It was decided that one tenth of Church contributions should be for benevolence giving. The financial report was $39.90, with all bills paid. Hymnbooks were $35.90, and the hall rental was $20.
The constitution committee submitted a constitution similar to that of Palmer. No formal action of acceptance was taken at that time. It was decided that members, with the proceeds to be set aside for the building fund should raise an acre of potatoes. Martin Olson donated use of the land (The Lord's Acre) for that purpose.
In September, the meeting was at Olsons, with a potluck dinner served after the potatoes were harvested. The proceeds from the potatoes, which were sold in January, were $57.00. It was at this September meeting that the Congregation voted to build a church. The Dinkels offered to give half of their lot in Wasilla as a building site. This lot, purchased for $25 as a Christmas present for Mrs. Dinkel, was for their retirement home. A committee of all the men present went to look at the lot and reported that the North half would be an excellent location for the church. Later Dinkels gave the other half lot for a manse.
In October 19, 1947, a meeting was held at Nelsons. There was discussion on the advisability of having a building moved on the church site, but as yet none suitable had been located. Carl Paulson was asked to see about the possibility of getting logs for the Church from public land. Reverend Alfsen announced that the Palmer church had offered to loan $200 to help us get a building started.
The Church had been saving ten percent of all offerings for benevolence, and at this meeting it was voted to send this money for European relief along with the entire offering from the Worldwide Communion service.
At the January 1948 meeting, the treasurer reported $69.67, with all bills paid. Services at this time were being held at "Harvey's Church" (Church of Christ) and the Secretary was instructed to send a letter of thanks. (This building which had been the Knik School, is now located in the Wasilla Historical Park.) A building committee was appointed, with Henry Hanson, Harold Dinkel, Martin Olson, and Carl Paulson as permanent members. Hanson was chairman.
The highlights of 1948 were: A request to join Yukon Presbytery which was approved by Presbytery April 18, 1948; a vote to increase the pastor's travel expenses to $10.00 a month; Dorothy Nelson was elected the first (and for a couple of years, only) Elder; surveying of building site was completed; an application for building loan through National Missions had been approved by Presbytery. It was decided to start the church basement of 20' by 30' on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Church attendance had remained stationary during 1946 and 1947 with a slight improvement in 1948, from less than 20 to more than 20. The Pendletons had moved to Oregon in July, and Harold Harris was appointed Treasurer.
In November, the First Church in Anchorage loaned the congregation an organ. This had been one of the first to be used in Anchorage church services. When a new organ was purchased, it was given to Willow for a while and was later returned. Joseph McAlister renovated and tuned it so that it cold be better preserved, and it is now located in the rear of the present sanctuary.
In 1949 work on the basement continued with members and friends donating their time. The walls were completed and the roof served as the sub-floor of the sanctuary. At first, the sanctuary was to be constructed of logs, but after much research, that proved to be too costly. So the church was frame construction.
The exterior of the church building was completed in 1950, and was finished enough so that it was useable. Dr. Earl K. Jackman and other members of the Board of National Missions were present at the dedication services in November 1950.
The first regular worship service was held in the building on January 14, 1951. A wood burning barrel stove placed at the front of the building heated the church. This was an added incentive to be among the early arrivals, and there was no problem with the front pews being unoccupied. Except for the organ, the church was unfurnished. The pews were planks placed on cement blocks, not too comfortable, but we had much for which to be thankful. Our membership had grown to 12, and we were able to worship in a building constructed solely for the purpose of worship. There are many more things which could be told about this period such as Harold Dinkel getting up a 5 a.m. each Sunday to go into Wasilla and build a fire so that the meeting place would be endurable during Sunday School and worship services.
The building was financed partly by three of the families borrowing $1,000 from Victor Alfsen's brother-in-law, Cy Kiehl, as a personal loan. Income was $1,815.67 including a $500 grant from the Board of National Missions. Total building expenses had been $1,365.34 for the basement and $1,395.01 for the sanctuary, as of February 7, 1951.
Practically all of the work of the building, wiring, etc. was donated. Henry Hanson contributed in finishing the church interior and also made the pulpit, which is still being used. Carl Paulson gave us the collection plates.
It should be remembered that the majority of the members lived several miles from Wasilla, there were no telephones, and roads varied from bad to nonexistent. Because there was no income from the new, uncultivated land, most of the men were working at full time jobs and at the same time trying to improve their land and build their homes. So it is not surprising that the church building did not proceed more rapidly.
It must also be noted that both Rev. Alfsen (1947-1951) and Rev. Cleworth (1952-1956) helped in the actual building and finishing work of our church. This was in addition to their ministry to the church in Palmer. Some of the Palmer members also donated their help.
The church was legally incorporated as Wasilla Community Church. In 1952 the congregation voted to change the name, dropping "community" from the name has other churches were coming into the area. Presbytery approved the request, and when Elder Esther Hanson was asked what the new name would be, she replied "It should be the First Presbyterian Church of Wasilla, of course, because we were the first Presbyterians there."
Very little had been done to finish the interior so that when the first church wedding -- that of Orlando Byers and Margaret Turner -- was held, decorations were improvised. Spruce boughs fastened to a panel of celotex furnished the background. The stairway opening to the basement was covered with planks. For the reception, card tables were set up for use in serving refreshments. Guests stumbled about on the rough tarpaper covered floor to congratulate the bride and groom.
Later that year Mr. Byers donated his work in building steps to the basement of the church. He also helped to complete the finishing of walls and ceiling in the sanctuary.
Practically all the work of the building, wiring, etc., was donated. Children helped when they could. Henry Hanson contributed much in finishing the church interior and also made the pulpit, which is still being used. Carl Paulson provided the offering plates, the first of many handmade ones given to the church by others over the years.
During these first years the women's group, "Friendly Circle" was busy in all church activities and held regular monthly meetings. Dorothy Nelson was the first president. Clothing packages were sent to needy persons in Germany, Greece, and Korea. Money for Care packages was also donated.
It will be noted in the secretary's reports for 1952-55 that the church membership continued to grow although then as now there is a fluctuation of membership due to persons whose residence or work is temporary.
A concrete front porch was added. The church's share of the pastor's salary was increased to $300 a year. The National Board of Missions gave a grant of $500 toward the purchase of an oil heater in 1953. The Session was enlarged to three members. Clyde Poisal was elected first male Elder. Pension funds added to the pastor's support, and a choir under the leadership of Elsie Philo was begun.
When Mrs. Philo first suggested to the pastor in 1954 that the church have a choir he replied that with such a small group he felt it would be very difficult, if not impossible to find enough interested singers. However, this was but one of the many impossible accomplishments in the history of this church. Since then there has always been a choir and always some dedicated musician willing to direct it.
At a special congregational meeting in May 1955, the church found that it would be possible to have a seminary intern (Vic Urban) for one year. Rev. Cleworth continued to act as moderator and give oversight to the work of the student. Having a seminary intern for even a few months proved that the church would benefit by having a permanent minister.
In September 1955, Art French became the seminary intern for a year before completing his final year at seminary. The National Board of Missions paid him a salary of $200 a month.
Art is fondly remembered. Harold Dinkel recalls that one time he had dropped in to check the church furnace and there was Art working in the chilly building overhauling the organ. When asked why he hadn't turned on the heat, Art replied that he knew church members were sacrificing to pay for the fuel and he didn't want to add to the expense. In addition, before potlucks, tables were always set up; prior to Sunday School supplies were always in place; snow was always cleared from the church steps during the winter; he was a good listener when he called on parishioners; and he had an excellent rapport with young people. Art was greatly missed.
The sadness over Art French leaving turned to joy as the congregation learned that Victor Urban was to return as a fulltime ordained pastor. A little house owned by Heinie Snider was rented for the family. Since homes for pastors were provided by the churches at that time, it was necessary to start thinking about building a manse. The basement was begun that summer and was completed in the summer of 1957 with the help of a work team of young people, mostly from the west coast.
In December of 1956 the Rev. Vic Alfsen as the guest speaker for the church's 10th anniversary.
In May 1958, Vic Urban announced that he was leaving, and the Session approved the calling of Rev. Claude Klaver, who moderated his first Session meeting in October. In 1960 the Session recommended paying $1,900 as the church's share of the minister's salary. In addition to Wasilla, Rev. Klaver was responsible for serving preaching points at Willow and Talkeetna. This was a continuation of the "Railbelt Ministry."
In January of 1961, the trustees reported that during the past year the lawn had been seeded, the oil furnace repaired, the ceiling in the basement finished, kitchen cupboards installed, church signs erected along the highway, bracing placed under the manse floor, and the furnace room completed. An electric organ was purchased through personal donations.
Not all was work -- there were fun and uplifting times in the church as well. One summer tradition was to hold worship services in the mountains at Hatcher Pass. Clyde Poisal would clear the brush beforehand. A cross was fashioned of sticks, and a portable organ and hymnbooks were brought along. Everyone sat on the ground. Being surrounded by the mountains of god's creation made the worship service even more special. A potluck picnic afterwards and walks in the hills completed the day. These summer trips to the mountains were discontinued in the 1970's when there were not enough parking spaces available. The service was revived in 1987 and relocated to another site where plenty of parking was available. Chapel in the Mountains continues today and has probably found a permanent place in the worship experience of this church. When the Park Service tried to deny the church the site in the early 1990s, the church claimed "grandfather rights" and won its argument. Probably only the Park Service can now put an end to this wonderful tradition.
Rev. Klaver resigned in July of 1965 and during the interim, guest ministers and members filled the pulpit. In January of 1966, the Rev. Nick Brewer, Jr. and his family arrived after a perilous winter trip up the Alaska Highway.
During the years since 1966 the church has gradually increased its share of the minister's salary until January 1972, when the church became completely self-supporting. This was a dramatic new phase for the church because it prompted the examination of the group as a church and their growth as a congregation. Self-support was a real challenge for such a small group. With the sacrifice and concern of the members, the church never looked back and has been self-supporting ever since. To emphasize the point, they built a 16' by 16' addition to the manse and they increased their membership to 70.
The church bade the Brewer family farewell in July of 1974 when a call was accepted to Oregon. After his pastorate in Oregon was over, Rev. Brewer returned to the Valley where he established his real estate business. Today he is the Parish Associate of the church and his wife Miriam is on the Session.
The Rev. Ralph Weeks became the interim pastor. This was a good choice because he was well known and loved by the congregation and his ministry was very effective. During his interim, the church began to assess their lands and buildings. It became evident that the present land and buildings were not adequate for the church's future needs as growth was continuing and so a search for new property was begun. The Rev. Henry Littlehales was called from Oregon as the new pastor in July of 1975.
A proposal to share facilities with the Roman Catholics took place at this time. After much study and prayer, the congregation decided to turn down the offer. The Catholics did, however, offer to sell five acres of land on Bogard Road to the church, which is the site of the church's present location.
An architect was hired to design a new church. The design as a beautiful underground building which would have been a showplace, but there was a major problem. It was not much larger than the first church and once, built, there would be no way to expand. The plan was discarded and a period of re-evaluation took place.
Rev. Littlehales chose to leave the church in July of 1978 after he and his wife divorced. Although the membership did not grow or decline during this time, attendance fell off dramatically. Shortly after Rev. Littlehales departure, during the fall and winter of 1978, attendance ebbed to an all time low. On some Sundays, only three people attended worship services. At the Annual congregational Meeting in January of 1979, there was a motion to close the church in one year if attendance did not increase.
At this time, several women in the congregation made a "prayer covenant" for the spiritual growth of the church. The Revs. Strand and Havens, who were interim pastors, though not Presbyterian, were of great help. Shortly after this, the church began to grow dramatically.
There were four reasons for the growth. The first was the praying women of the congregation. Secondly, a new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Joe Bettridge, was called from Hoonah in southeast Alaska and Dr. Bettridge was trained in church growth. Thirdly, the area around Wasilla began to experience phenomenal growth. (In 1983, TIME magazine reported Wasilla as the fastest growing area in the nation.) Fourthly, the church began seeking God's guidance in understanding its role as a church in the community and the world and decided their mission was evangelism and Christian education. A mission statement was adopted incorporating this role:
It is our mission to make disciples. Making disciples is defined as persuading men and women to make a personal commitment of themselves to Jesus Christ and to teach these persons to become effective ministers and responsible members of the church.
Because of the increasing numbers at worship, it became evident that a new church building was necessary. A committee was formed to begin the preliminary sages of planning construction. Meanwhile, a lot along the Parks Highway was sold. The church and manse located on Herning Avenue between the Parks Highway and Willow Street was sold to Rev. Williams of the Abundant Life Chapel. When the Rev. Williams sold the property in the mid-1990s, the old church was painted green and converted to a coffeehouse.
The sale of the buildings and lots provided the financing for the major portion of the new church construction. The congregation also borrowed money from the Presbytery of Yukon and the Synod of Alaska-Northwest.
The new church building committee, which included Howard Lowery and Charles Bumpus, hired contractor Al Fry to design and build the new church at a cost of $330,000. Fry became a member of the church and gave the front doors as his personal contribution to the church.
With the sale of the old manse, the church provided a housing allowance for its pastor to allow the pastor and his family the opportunity to purchase or rent their own home. The congregation was also relieved of the upkeep and maintenance of a manse.
While all this was happening, the congregation was homeless. Rev. Williams had been given immediate occupancy when he purchased the old church, and the Presbyterians led a nomadic existence during the eight-month construction period for their new facility.
Sometimes they met at City Hall and other times at the museum. The overflow Sunday School classes were held at Wasilla Realty and the Krenik Building. The Easter breakfast and the harvest dinner were held in the old cafeteria of City Hall.
The first service held in the new facility was April 24, 1983, with the formal dedication taking place in October.
With the new church, growth occurred in many forms during the next few years. Church attendance soared while membership climbed to 343. Before long, two services were necessary.
The numbers serving on the Session and the boards of deacons and trustees increased. A prayer chain, Dial-a-Prayer and prayer groups were initiated. The Men's Fellowship formed in 1984 with Ken Coonrad as the first president. The deacons began contributing to the Palmer food Bank and purchased certificates from Carrs to be used by the needy for food or prescriptions. The mission committee constantly discussed how the church could be involved in a community ministry. Dr. Bettridge was instrumental in getting the Mat-Su Council on Alcoholism organized and operating. This group still holds its annual meeting in the church and gives thanks to the church for its efforts in helping them get started. The pastor also wrote a regular column for the Valley newspaper, the Frontiersman. November 1986 saw the first children's sermon given which has continued to the present time.
More staff was hired. The Rev. Dean Hickox was hired in May of 1983 as a part-time assistant pastor. He had previously served at First Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks, the Presbyterian Church in Barrow, the Presbyterian Church at Gambell, and was working as an alcoholism counselor at the time of his hire. Hickox served the church until his resignation in the fall of 1985. Dean then took the unpaid position of Parish Associate and served in this capacity through 1989. Severely handicapped by arthritis, he continued to help the church in any way he could after his official status with the church ended, but he was particularly faithful to the choir. He died of a heart attack on October 26, 1993, with his memorial service being held in the church.
After Hickox's resignation as assistant pastor, Paul Fandel, a seminary intern from Fuller Theological Seminary, came in 1986 for a year to direct the Christian education and youth programs. Upon completion of Fandel's year, the Rev. David Endriss, a new graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, was called in 1987 to be the associate pastor. Besides Christian education and youth, David had responsibility for the ministry of the deacons and for leading worship when needed.
As growth was continuing, the church began a dialog concerning the future. Should the building be enlarged, since there was inadequate space for Christian education or should the church birth a new congregation somewhere else in the area? The presbytery executive Neil Munro met with the Session to discuss the possibility of where a new church might be planted.
But now the church was about to face its second major crisis. Although there were many difficult moments from the church's inception, the first major crisis occurred in the fall and winter of 1978 when attendance for Sunday morning worship was at times down to three people.
The second crisis, actually a two-art crisis, began in 1986 when Dr. Bettridge reported to the Session that "the community has economic problems." In April the pastor reported that "the Valley is changing economically" and on February 10, 1987 he reported: "Other small churches are closing."
The year 1987 was to be the high point in attendance for the church with an average of 251 per Sunday, but by 1988 it began to drop as the "Bust" part of Alaska's "Boom or Bust" economy took over. As the depression hit the Valley, many were unemployed and being unemployed, some lost their homes. The population started declining as people left to find jobs elsewhere. The "bust" lasted for about five years and in 1992 the area started growing once again.
The second part of the crisis had to do with theological differences. Gene Dinkel, an elder, wrote: "Throughout our 50 year history we have struggled with what it means to be Presbyterian. All our charter members traced their origins to other denominations and this has not changed over the years. If you took a poll of members today you would find a wide range of church experiences. This has caused problems in the past and will probably be a concern in the future."
Dr. Bettridge resigned as the senior pastor in march of 1990 to accept a call as senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Tucson, AZ.
Although the seeds of the problems were activated during the last two years of Dr. Bettridge's pastorate, they moved to the forefront when he left. An interim pastor, Dr. Dale Hewitt stayed only two months after being caught up in the controversy. From that pint the associate pastor, David Endriss, was given the task of leading the church through the crisis. For this being his first assignment, David did an excellent job. However, between the "bust" and the theological struggle, the church lost over 100 regular attendees at the Sunday worship services.
In August of 1991, the Rev. Gene Straatmeyer became the pastor. Having served in the 1970s at First Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks, Dr. Straatmeyer moved to Wasilla from Tempe, Arizona where he had served as the vice president of Charles Cook Theological School. The Rev. Endriss continued to serve as associate pastor until he accepted a call from the Presbyterian Church in Hallock, Minnesota and began his work there in January 1994.
With the coming of Dr. Straatmeyer, the church's vision for community mission began to grow. The Valley Christian Conference (VCC), a group of eight mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the Palmer, Wasilla and Big lake area, formed for the purpose of cooperating in the areas of worship, education and service.
Three yearly ecumenical worship services were set, a children's and an adult's worship on Good Friday, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, and a sunrise worship service at Easter.
Educationally the churches cooperate in Bible School for the younger children and a Christian Arts Camp for the pre- and early teenagers.
In the area of service, Valley Christian Conference established a Food Pantry in Wasilla; sponsors Daybreak Apartments (a living center for the chronically mentally ill); helped the Wasilla Senior Citizens' Center obtain low income housing; and won the governor's Award in 1997 for its sponsorship of and work at the Resource Center in Big Lake during the 1996 Miller's Reach fire.
The deacons' furniture ministry literally exploded after the 1996 fire. Its primary mission prior to the fire was to provide furniture for women and their children who had come through the women's shelter after leaving their abusive spouses. Those whose homes burned were also given a priority, and when anything beyond this was available, other needy persons were assisted.
For several years the deacons were lent storage space for furniture in several locations. When they lost the last free space, the furniture ministry was dropped until such time as a place of their own could be found to continue the ministry.
The congregation allowed the deacons to build a furniture building on the northwest corner of the church's property, but they had to finance the project themselves. They had put aside $1,000 but were far short of the $9,000 needed to complete the project. In May of 1996, it as decided that the pastor during the next Sunday's worship service would ask the congregation for one gift of $9,000 or two gifts of $4,500. After the service, two offers were extended to provide the needed gift of $9,000. The first offer was accepted and the second family gave $5,000 to the deacons' ministry.
God had his hand in all of this. On June 2, 1996, the great Miller's Reach Fire consumed 36,000 acres of land and forest in the Bog Lake/Houston area. Over 400 houses and other structures burned down. Since First Presbyterian Church already had a furniture ministry, the Red Cross asked the deacons of First Presbyterian Church to assume the responsibility for supplying furniture for the fire victims. The deacons accepted the responsibility and performed admirably.
In early June, a work team from Wasilla's sister church in George, Iowa came and stayed in our church basement and built the furniture building in one week. During the rest of the summer, so many semi-loads of furniture were unloaded in our parking lot that the exact county was lost, but it is believed there were between eleven to fifteen loads. Deacons were extremely busy every day during the rest of the summer and into the fall getting furniture to victims who would be spending the winter in tents, or who had rented apartments until their homes were built.
Since Dr. Straatmeyer was both president of the Alaska Christian Conference and the Valley Christian Conference, the church became the headquarters for the larger church's part in disaster recovery. The Mennonites, who specialize in building and rebuilding homes after disasters, stayed in the church basement for two summers during which they and other church work groups from the Lower 48 built or partially rebuilt 76 homes for the poorest of the poor whose houses were destroyed. The deacons, with the help of $16,000 from Presbyterian Disaster Service (funded by offerings to One Great Hour of Sharing), paid for the gas of the volunteers building houses, supported the Resource Center, and helped individuals with lumber, siding, plumbing, or insulation, so they cold get their homes enclosed before winter.
The Mat-Su Valley Habitat for Humanity emerged from the church under the leadership of Elder Bob Pickett, and many from the church became involved. Presently one home has been completed and the second one is under construction.
Going back and picking up our story in the early 1990s, David Endriss began a clown ministry called "the Holy Interruption," a mime group that not only was involved in services at their home church but also traveled throughout the Presbytery and community with their ministry.
It was in 1994 that the church mortgage was burned. The ceremony took place following the January annual meeting.
Also in January 1994, Lisa Shenk began her term as the first youth elder on the Session. That summer she and Elder Bob Christensen attended General Assembly, Lisa as a Youth Advisory Delegate (YAD) and Bob as a commissioner from the Wasilla church and the Presbytery.
The summer youth program sent senior high delegations to Barrow and Kake, Alaska, to Triennium in Purdue, and to Mexicali, Mexico. During spring break in 1998, they helped build a church at Nogales, Mexico.
Many middle school youth have attended Bingle Camp on Harding Lake south of Fairbanks each summer. Many adults have served as counselors.
After David Endriss left, Lauri Bridges-Chambers, a lay person, was hired to a half time position to care for Christian education and youth. In June of 1996, it was decided that the Christian education and youth ministry position should be filled with a seminary intern. Matthew Loudon, born and raised in Presbyterian churches in Fairbanks, came in 1996 and in 1997 Randy Russom arrived. Both were from Dubuque Seminary.
In august 1995, Donna Coonrad came to the Session to request that a new Presbyterian church be started in the Big Lake area, which is approximately 20 miles west of Wasilla. Living in Big Lake, it as hard for her children to be a part of the youth group in Wasilla, so her son Mark started attending a local church in Big Lake. The Coonrads thought maybe, with a daughter soon needing a youth group experience, they should begin to attend their son's church.
On the third Sunday, Donna who is a Presbyterian elder, saw that even though she liked the church, it had no place for women to serve in a capacity similar to an elder. She therefore said to the Session, 'It's time to start a new Presbyterian Church in Big Lake."
Because of the fire, the Big Lake New Church Development was delayed for a time, but in the fall of 1997 it was decided to move forward. With the approval of the Presbytery, and with the addition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Church of the Reformation held its first service in the East Lake Mall in Big Lake, Sunday, November 30. The Rev. Gene Straatmeyer of first Presbyterian Church of Wasilla and the Rev. Duane Hanson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Wasilla lead the service and preached.
As first Presbyterian Church celebrates its 50th anniversary, it has given the gift of a new congregation to the presbytery, in hopes that when the Church of the reformation is sufficiently str5ong she will plant another church in an area where one is needed.
IV. Service Rendered to the Greater Church…
Throughout the years there have been others from this church who have served the judicatories of the denomination, but of whose work we are presently unaware. They also must be given a word of appreciation for their service. It is hoped that they will be identified and included in the next chapter of this church's history.
V. Pastors, Interims, and Interns...
VI. Additional VIPs…
As the church completes fifty years of ministry, it has faced many changes in size, different worship sites, and many pastors, all with different but unique gifts. However, three things have not changed. The church has shown and is showing its faith. With only $70 in the bank and a very small membership, the congregation voted to build a church. Once the church was built, the congregation showed its faith by expanding its mission to the entire Valley. Through the deacons, the poor and unfortunate have been helped. Through the Valley Christian Conference, it has become a leader in ecumenism. Through its radio ministry, it touches the lives of people who are not Christians and it maintains the distinction in the Presbytery as a church having one of the highest numbers of adult baptisms every year. It has become a community leader in making the Valley a better place to live.
The church has had and is being replenished with faithful members. Faithfulness is what makes a church strong. The gates of Hell stand powerless before a Church filled with faithful Christians.
The church has always been friendly and remains friendly. Harold Dinkel, now deceased, once said, and is still holds true: "Our church has always been a friendly church." It is a congregation where everyone is welcome but where everyone is allowed to move forward at their own spiritual pace. It is a church where out of that friendliness, people come to Christ and hear the call to use their gifts to serve him.