Daryl Coons can’t help but recall the past every time he passes by the building that used to be a church for Native Americans on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation. He thinks back to the work that went into operating the church, its efforts to reach people with the message of Christ and the enjoyment it brought to members during their time of fellowship.
But that church – Whitefish Presbyterian Indian Mission, about 15 miles outside Hayward, Wis. – is no more. It has been closed for nearly seven years now. The building was bought and converted into a home, and the only connection to the church these days is the cemetery adjacent to the property.
“When I go by there it brings back memories of the enjoyment we had meeting there for so many years,” said the 89-year-old Coons, a native Chippewa Indian. “The church was full every Sunday. It was just a wonderful church.”
Coons grew up in the Presbyterian church that was part of Northern Waters Presbytery on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, which has about 6,000 members and covers nearly 108 square miles primarily in Sawyer County, Wis. His family was prominently involved in the mission church’s formation back in 1917, and he always was active in its operation, serving as a member of the session for many years.
“My parents and several others saved the church several times and helped keep it going,” Coons recalled. “They helped pay for its support, chopped wood to heat the building … they did whatever was needed. We always seemed to have enough money to keep it going.”
That came to an end in 2007 when the church was closed, in a way that still bothers Coons to this day.
Closing the church
The church burned in the early 1980s, and another building was erected in its place. Robert Thrasher, a Methodist minister, came on to lead the congregation of about 25 members. Coons indicated that Thrasher thoroughly enjoyed the area and was a much-loved man who considered his ministry a labor of love and often didn’t even take payment for his work as pastor.
Thrasher unexpectedly passed away, and Coons said the presbytery did not immediately send a pastor to fill the vacancy. Eventually, Thrasher’s daughter, Mary Grady, stepped in to serve as a lay pastor at the Indian mission, as Coons and two others attended classes in Duluth, Minn., to become lay pastors themselves to serve the church.
A short time later, the church closed, leaving the members to find other places to worship. Coons said he and many others were bothered about the closure. He pointed out that many didn’t even know about the move until it already had been made. He said there was no opportunity for members of the congregation – about 90 percent Native American – to provide any input about the decision to close the church or make a case for keeping it open.
“Our people felt they couldn’t do anything about it,” Coons said. “We felt it was not right that we were not given a chance to speak about it. I feel bad that we lost this church.”
Coons wanted to know more and shared that he called Northern Waters Presbytery to ask questions about the closure.
“… the response (given by presbytery officials) was that they did not close it,” Coons said, adding that he was told the lay pastor (Thrasher’s daughter Grady) had closed the church because there was not enough money to pay for its operation. “I showed up at the church, and there was a lock on the door. We didn’t know about it until it was already closed, and we never knew why.
“I think the presbytery could have done more and should have done more to retain that church.”
Joel Huenemann, moderator of Northern Waters Presbytery and pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Superior, Wis., indicated that presbytery records revealed a letter from Grady that expressed “anger, betrayal, exhaustion and frustration” with the direction of the mission. The letter on file with the presbytery read, in part, “… every member agreed we would leave the building the last Sunday of November 2007.”
Huenemann said he assumed every member meant those who were part of the session, and he said nothing in the presbytery files indicates how much, if any, conversation took place with members of the church about a closure.
“Their leaving the building surprised the presbytery as much as other members of the church,” said Huenemann, who has been part of the presbytery for 40 years. “We did not completely understand the decision. There was no intent on the presbytery’s part that I’m aware of to go in and close the church. We found it had been closed by the session and pastor.”
Huenemann pointed out the letter from Grady referenced a need for an additional $5,000 to $6,000 to keep the church open, but there was nothing that seemed to be seriously wrong with its operation.
“There were some financial issues, which should come as a surprise to no one, but there were no other reasons indicated for closing the church,” he said.
The church building was sold for about $25,000 and converted into a family’s home, leaving only the Whitefish cemetery as the lone connection to the church that once was part of the reservation.
Huenemann indicated that he made a motion at the presbytery meeting officially recognizing the closing of the church that proceeds from the sale of the property be used for a continuing Indian ministry, but his proposal was defeated.
Longing for days of old
Coons said there is not a Presbyterian congregation within 10 miles or so of the former church at Whitefish. He pointed out that there is a strong Catholic presence on the reservation, comprising about 90 percent of its population. He’s not sure if there is a desire for former members of the mission to return to a Presbyterian church if the presbytery even pursued that as a possibility.
“It’s hard to say. A lot of people are going to other churches now and seem to fill comfortable at them” Coons said. “My wife and I go to various churches, but I still think about the Presbyterian church I grew up in and was part of for so long.”
For his part, Huenemann would like to have conversations about offering a church plant or church mission to the Native American tribes dotting the landscape of the presbytery, though there are no immediate plans for such action to take place.
“This needs to be part of a broader conversation,” he said. “We have at least seven reservations within the bounds of this presbytery, and we’re not actively involved in or with any of them. That has always struck me as a little strange.”
Acknowledging dwindling financial resources at the presbytery level that have caused cuts to missional support through the years, Huenemann still thinks there is a need for a Presbyterian presence on the reservations.
“Personally, yes, I’ve felt that way for a long time,” he said. “I would love to see how we could work together. I think we need to have some conversations with the tribal leaders on the reservations, determine their needs and what the Presbyterian, or any church for that matter, can provide for them.”
Coons thinks back fondly to those days spent as part of the congregation he spent his life serving every time he passes the site of the former church. He prays that maybe one day the Presbyterian presence will return to the reservation at Lac Courte Oreilles.
“We would have liked to have a say in the matter. I’m sure we could have rallied the support to do something to keep the church open,” Coons said. “But it’s all gone now. I feel abandoned, but I pray that God would work to bring back a church. It might be hard to re-establish, but I think people would support it any way we could. I’ve been hopeful the presbytery would bring a church to the reservation, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.”