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A Moment in Time:
The Church Meals of the 1930s – Financing the 8th Street Church Building

On the first Sunday in May, 1920, Fifth Street Mennonite Church became Eighth Street Mennonite Church as people gathered to worship, here in this place, for the first time.

By all accounts that first Sunday, ninety-three years ago, was a joyous occasion. But behind the scenes, there was serious concern over costs and financing. Inflation associated with the World War I economy had doubled the originally anticipated cost of the Eighth Street building, and then a post-war recession squeezed members’ ability to give. In the late 1920s the church still owed a considerable $4,600 to Salem Bank.

As has so often been the case in the history of the church through the ages, it was the ingenuity and resourcefulness of women that came to the rescue.

In late 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Ladies’ Aid was discussing how to raise money to support Helen Schnell, an Eighth Street member serving in Africa with Congo Inland Mission, when they hit upon the idea of preparing and serving community meals as a fundraiser for both Schnell’s support and for erasing the building’s mortgage.

The first meal, on January 22, 1932, served 290 people. The next month 430 people showed up, and subsequent meals drew even more. After taking a break during the summer months, meals resumed that fall and continued regularly through 1936. At their height, during the 1934, there were two meals a month. The dinners became the talk of the town. People lined up on sidewalk along Eighth Street, waiting to enter the building’s original front doors, then went down into the basement where they were served cafeteria-style.

The menu was always creamed chicken, which the women spent many hours cooking and boning the day before, and mashed potatoes with gravy or noodles, one or two vegetables, desert – either vanilla pie or angel food cake – and coffee, all for a suggested donation of $1.25. Evelyn (Hartzler) Bushong recalls her moth separating dozens and dozens of eggs, and the using the yokes to make noodles and the white for angel food cake. Evelyn’s father built a steam table on which the food was kept warm during serving.

The dinner were less frequent in 1935 and 1936. Income from the meals supported Helen Schnell and in February 1937 the church mortgage was stamped “paid.”

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Sources: Rachel W. Kreider, “The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church 1913-1978,” (1978).