Area churches show off history for the holidays

Sunday, December 17, 2006

About 25 people gathered in cheerful holiday spirit as they visited churches in the Southeast Missouri towns of Old Illmo, Commerce, Benton and New Hamburg.

Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History, led the tour. Some who wanted to go were turned away because of space limitations, said Christy Mershon, director of Southeast Missouri State University's Extended and Continuing Education, sponsor of the tour.

The four churches on the tour were Eisleben Lutheran Church in Old Illmo, St. Paul United Methodist Church in Commerce, St. Denis Catholic Church in Benton and St. Lawrence Church in New Hamburg. They were chosen for their reflection of the region's religious and architectural history,

"Commerce always interested me," said Juanita Henley of Cape Girardeau, who was taking the tour for the first time. "I've always had a desire to see this church. It's amazing what they've done here. It represents what can be done if you donate your life to Christ."

St. Paul United Methodist Church historian Michael Painton greeted the crowd at the church steps. He said that, like many members of the small congregation of 53, he and his family commute to the weekly service delivered by pastor Jim Norris of Jackson.

Painton, a historic preservation student, is interested in putting the house of worship on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church was built in 1889 but the original congregation dates back to 1825.

Painton noted that the church chancel chairs, pulpit and communion table were original.

A life-sized hay-filled manger, a focal point at Advent services, is used at the Christmas pageant with the entire Nativity scene. Church members in their 80s and 90s remember it at early pageants.

"It's even the same pageant," Painton said. "We used to use bathrobes. Now we have costumes."

Charles Stalon of Cape Girardeau said his wife, Marie, had a tremendous emotional attachment to the small Methodist church. "My wife grew up in the church and was in the school system here."

She said, "My family joined the church in 1939. We had members in this church for 55 years."

cpagano@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 133

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