BLUFFTON — On Aug. 30 from 3 to 8:30 p.m., the Swiss Mennonite community will celebrate the 175th anniversary of the first church, called the Old White Church, which was built on Road 4, also called Phillips Road, in 1840.
The Swiss settlers came to the Bluffton area in 1833. In 1835, the first bishop arrived, the Rev. Christian Steiner arrived. At first, the little congregation met in each other’s homes, but in 1840, the first church was built.
“The building of that first church is really what we are celebrating,” explained Gerald Mast, a member of the Swiss Community Historical Society which is sponsoring the event and a professor of communication at Bluffton University.
Out of the Old White Church, which was rebuilt and enlarged in 1875, St. John Mennonite Church, Ebenezer Mennonite Church, Grace Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church came into being.
The only remnant of the Old White Church is a marker that was created in 1960 by local artist John Klassen. The marker sits at the site of that first church building.
“The whole history of the Swiss Mennonite churches played out on that road, Road 4 or Phillips Road,” said Mast, who will be presenting original research at the 175th celebration.
Mast’s historical presentation will not be the only one given at the celebration. Myron Augsburger, who was a traveling evangelist originally from Elida and a member of Pike Mennonite Church, will be presenting first. He will share his research, entitled, “Swiss Anabaptist History in Europe.” Mennonites, Amish and Brethren churches all branched off of the Anabaptist denomination.
Mast will give a presentation on “19th Century Swiss Mennonite Piety,” in which he will give a glimpse into the inner spiritual life of the original settlers of the Old White Church.
Bluffton professor of history, Perry Bush, will give a presentation on “20th Century Swiss Mennonite Divisions.” This presentation will explain how the Mennonite church grew and developed into various theological divisions.
To bring the past to life, there will be a display of various historical items such as the Froschauer Bible which belonged to the third bishop of the Old White Church, the Rev. John Moser. Communion cups, pictures and other historical items will be on display during the celebration.
“The displays are basically common to all four Mennonite Churches in the Pandora/Bluffton area,” said Chuck Niswander, program coordinator for the Swiss Mennonite Historical Society. “That would include not just St. John Mennonite Church and Ebenezer Mennonite Church, but also Grace Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church. “
Wendy Chappell Dick, a representative of the Swiss Mennonite Historical Society, is most excited about the food.
“There will be homemade fruit pies,” she said. “We will be having sausage and sauerkraut. We did a blind taste test to see who had the most authentic tasting sausage, and Dough Hook won.”
She added that there will also be activities for the children which will allow kids to experience different eras of church history, such as learning a Bible verse in Swiss and coloring a fraktur, a form of calligraphy.
The Swiss Community Historical Society has been planning this event for two years, and are planning for 1,000 but expect around 700. Chappel-Dick said that the event is open to everyone.
“All are welcome,” she said. “I think those outside the Mennonite community will find the history fascinating.”
While doing research for the event, Chappell-Dick was surprised to find that she was a direct descendent of Christian Suter, the second bishop at the Old White Church. In fact, many of the attendees to the celebration are likely direct descendants of the original congregation.
Since those direct descendants arrived in the Bluffton/Pandora area, a lot has changed.
“The biggest change would probably be that they went from being a community that was inward focused,” said Chappell-Dick, “to being outwardly missional.”
This change was marked when the Swiss Mennonite congregation joined the Central Conference of Mennonite Churches in 1893.
“It was pretty controversial at the time,” said Mast. “They had been considering the decision for about 20 years before it happened.”
It was the Central Conference of Mennonite Churches that opened Bluffton University in 1899.
“They originally survived by being selectively together,” explained Niswander. “Once they came to America and were no longer under persecution, they became more Protestant in the North American sense of Protestantism.”
Chappel-Dick said that another cultural change that pushed change within the church was the move from rural life to town life. “The Swiss community was fairly self-sufficient and didn’t mingle a whole lot outside of their community,” she said. “As they immigrated into the town, such as it was, they started to have more contact with those outside their community.”
Once the 175th anniversary celebration is over, the Swiss Community Historical Society’s next goal is to create and build a heritage center.
“There are so many historical items,” said Chappell-Dick, “and decorative arts that aren’t available to the public. The Swiss Community made a mark on this area, and we’d like to share that.”
Rosanne Bowman is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Lima News. Share your story ideas with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.