Coon Rapids church marks 60th anniversary

Bertha Mae (Smith) Johnston remembers running the garden hose from her house, stretching it across the street to mix cement for a new church being built there.

Bertha Mae Johnston is one of the founding members of Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church, which celebrated its 60th anniversary Oct. 27. Photo by Sue Austreng

Bertha Mae Johnston is one of the founding members of Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church, which celebrated its 60th anniversary Oct. 27. Photo by Sue Austreng

The church was Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church. The street was Ibis. And the date was 1953.

On Oct. 27, the church celebrated its 60th anniversary with a worship service, a potluck lunch and a program “celebrating the Lord’s faithfulness,” Johnston said.

But first, more than a half-century of ministry and service, growth and change took place.

Back in 1953, Joyce Chapel was the only church in the new little town of Coon Rapids, Johnston said.

And when word got out that a new church was going to be built, 10 families pitched in to help make it happen. In fact, Johnston remembers that Joe Nelson (who would later become mayor of Coon Rapids) took a year off from his construction job and went to work building that church.

“He took a year off work so he could build our church,” Johnston said. Everyone helped put the finishing touches on the building, she said.

“Us ladies went in and filled the nail holes, did the varnish – we all did what we could to help build the church,” Johnston said.

In the meantime, Johnston (then Smith), her husband Mickey and their little boy Mike and the other founding members of Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church met inside L.O. Jacob School for worship and Sunday school.

At that time, 35 men, women and children were counted as regular attendees.

Months later the church building was finished and the first worship service was held in that brand new church building on Ibis Street. “The first service was a watch night service – New Year’s Eve – and we had to rope off part of the room because the cement was still wet,” she said.

Like roping off the wet floor for the first worship service, Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church members made accommodations and compromises when needed.

For example, when Rev. Richard Roder came to Coon Rapids to serve as the church’s first pastor, there was no parsonage for him to call home, and so other arrangements were made, Johnston said.

Stained glass windows line the sanctuary space inside Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Magnuson

Stained glass windows line the sanctuary space inside Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Magnuson

“Pastor Roder and his wife and two little boys lived in two Sunday school rooms and used the church kitchen. We didn’t have a parsonage, so they lived in the church,” she said, guessing that living arrangement continued for about 18 months.

By 1956, about 150 people attended weekly services at the church and an addition was made to the original building to accommodate that growth. A large sanctuary was added in 1966 and a Christian education wing was built in 1983.

In the fall of 1998 the Ibis Street church property went up for sale and was sold to the Salvation Army, which occupies that property to this day.

In November 2000, the current Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church building was dedicated after a decade-long building project was completed on the corner of Main Street and Coon Creek Boulevard.

Through the years Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church members have worked to fulfill the desire of early members to focus on evangelism.

The church supports missionaries serving all over the world, from the Far East and China, to Russia, Germany, Hungary, Africa and South America.

At home, the church hosts an annual harvest festival, complete with fun and games for the kids, food and activities for everyone.

The early days of establishing Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church are past. But for Johnston, her heart and her passion endure as she coordinates activities and events for church members of a certain stature, who call themselves JOY (just older youth).

“We’re older, but we still have lots to do. We’re just older youth,” Johnston said.

Michele Schwalbe, parish nurse at Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church, expressed her feelings about marking the church’s 60th anniversary.

“It’s interesting and exciting to see where our niche is and to look ahead,” she said.

Interim pastor Rev. Don Nydam, serving in that capacity following the resignation of Rev. Ronn Johnson this past June, looks ahead to the future of the church.

“We will minister to the community and build people up in their knowledge and faith in Christ … helping them gain a deeper understanding of scripture and how it applies to daily life,” he said.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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