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From Fifth Street to Eighth Street, 1913-1920

Fifth Street Mennonite Church quickly began to outgrow the remodeled house that had been its home since 1913. Already in 1915 the church ledger listed a building fund with $46.56! The fund remained small until 1919 when the congregation apparently began making serious plans for a new meeting place. That year some $7,560 in donations for a new building came in and the church authorized borrowing $15,000 from a local bank.

On the one hand, the group’s choice to build made sense. The membership roll was approaching one hundred, not to mention a sizable number of children in the Sunday school. Occasionally the Ladies Aid group found the Fifth Street house too confining for some of its work day projects.

On the other hand, the decision to build and take on debt was no small act of faith. The years just before and during the building project were difficult times. In 1917 A. K. Ropp, the original pastor and a driving force behind the idea of starting a church in the neighborhood, resigned amid great controversy. A group of three ministers from Illinois, representing the Central Conference of Mennonites, came to Goshen in an attempt to mediate (the details of which were not recorded) but were unable to make peace and Ropp left town with bruised feelings all around.

The next year a recent Bluffton College graduate, Lloyd Blauch, agreed to serve as pastor, but after a few months he moved to Washington, D.C.  In 1919, just as building plans seem to have been gearing up, the church secured W. W. Miller to be its pastor. Miller and wife, Mary (Nusbaum), had planted a thriving Mennonite mission in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The folks at Fifth Street were excited to welcome the Millers’ energy and experience – and, in turn, were deeply disappointed when, after only twelve months, the Millers announced that they were returning to Chicago to take up work at the mission once more. Stable leadership seemed elusive. Meanwhile, relations with neighbors in Goshen were not always smooth. Guy Smoker (1902-1994), who was a teenager at the time, later recalled that toward the end of World War I (1918) someone threw yellow paint on the Fifth Street church house, suggesting that the church contained war-time cowards, and that one Sunday the few members who had driven cars to church came out of worship to find “We are slackers” painted on their vehicles.

So the decision to build was probably not taken up lightly. Dr. William Page, the church’s prominent lay leader, headed a building committee that worked with a “soliciting committee.” The trustees sold the Fifth Street property for $2,500 and spent the same amount on an empty lot on the corner of Eighth and Purl. A brick building, fifty feet by ninety feet and with a full basement, rose on the site during 1919, but a series of railroad strikes that followed the end of the war slowed the shipment of materials and delayed completion until the next spring.

The last worship service on Fifth Street was on April 25, 1920, and on May 2 Fifth Street Mennonite Church became Eighth Street Mennonite Church. Emanuel Troyer, a noted Central Conference pastor from Illinois, came to Goshen to preach the main sermon that day, but he was joined in the pulpit by John F. Funk, a retired “Old” Mennonite bishop from Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart. Relations between Central Conference and “Old” Mennonites could sometimes be stiff, but at other times, such as the dedication of new building, leaders from both groups could celebrate together. The Goshen Daily News-Times included an article about the dedication and a brief history of the Fifth Street/Eighth Street congregation.

Behind the scenes, there was a sober side to the new church’s completion. Rampant post-war inflation had driven up construction costs, and then a post-war recession squeezed members’ ability to give. Some $3,210 in pledges remained outstanding and the balance due on the loan principle amounted to $10,700. In August 1920 the church secretary sent a letter to Central Conference leadership asking if other churches in the conference could help Eighth Street pay for its new building. A number of generous contributions came in, but in January 1921 the church, which was again without a regular pastor, had “unprovided for indebtedness” of almost $7,500. Where would they find the needed funds? 

Sources: Rachel W. Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987);Harold R. Regier, “Eighth Street Mennonite Church” [paper based on interviews with founding members still living in 1960] (1960).

—Steve Nolt