Church’s future rests ‘in God’s hands’
Silence engulfs the old Friends Church.
Inside the sanctuary on a late spring afternoon, sunlight streams through the colored glass windows that frame a portrait of Jesus.
From the narrow balcony at the back of the church, the vaulted ceiling generously stretches forward to the altar. Below it, some two dozen pews wait for parishioners who no longer come. Hymnals rest in racks on the backs of pews ready to be used, a worn bible waits on the podium ready to be read.
Except for the sounds of children playing on the nearby school yard and of traffic coursing along the street outside, all is silent.
And if current membership trends continue, that's the way it will remain.
Roger Ambrose, lay minister since 1988, sighs when he considers the possibility that the church and parsonage may be sold.
"But to keep the doors open, you've got to have members coming in," Ambrose said. "As we like to say in our little group, it's in God's hands and we just pray that God's will be done."
Nothing escapes the changing times.
Not even Tonganoxie's old Quaker meeting house.
For more than a century, the tall white building at the corner at Fourth and Shawnee has been a spiritual gathering place.
But in recent months it's been rumored that the property, which includes the church built in 1893, and the 103-year-old parsonage next door, is for sale. It's even been rumored that the buildings are condemned, but a call to City Hall revealed that to be untrue.
The buildings are owned by the Friends Yearly Meeting, Wichita. On Thursday, David Robinson, general superintendent of Evangelical Friends Church and Mid-America Yearly Meeting, Wichita, said the property has not been put on the market.
"We never intended really to sell it until somebody approached us about it and so that's the bottom line," Robinson said. "We entered into some discussion about it but there's been no definite decision to or not to sell it."
The offer originated from the Tonganoxie Methodist Church, Robinson said.
"The Methodist Church wants to tear everything down and make a parking lot out of it," Robinson said.
At the time of the interview, Robinson said he didn't know what the property was worth.
A call to the Leavenworth County appraiser's office showed the church and parsonage are valued at a total of $135,490.
Ben Myers, who serves on the administrative board of the Methodist Church, said parking has long been an issue for his church. There's a possibility, Myers said, that the Methodist Church and the adjacent Good Shepherd Thrift Shop and Food Pantry could negotiate so that the church could gain more parking space and the thrift shop could wind up with more needed space as well.
To Tonganoxie residents, the old church may be a landmark, but to those who belong, it's more -- a meaningful house of quiet peaceful worship.
In recent decades, membership has plummeted. And those few members who remain are grieving the possible sale of the property.
"It's like a funeral," said Fred Leimkuhler, who has belonged to the church for a half-century.
Another member, who did not wish to be named, said, "It's just something that hurts too deep to even talk about."
Ambrose said he wasn't surprised to learn there's a possibility the church could be sold.
"We just don't have enough members to keep it going," Ambrose said. "... Right now we're only having three or four on Sundays. There's a lot more members but unfortunately they don't come."
Ambrose noted membership dropped in the mid-1980s when the church was closed for two and a half years. During this time, he said, many church members found other church homes.
Yet in 1889, with 393 members, the Friends Church was the largest in town.
"If you check the people in Tonganoxie, so many of them, their ancestors trail back to the Friends Church," Leimkuhler said. "But it's all gone now."
The Tonganoxie Quakers, who organized in 1863, met at several locations -- the first in a log cabin on land now on Kansas Highway 16 across from the rock quarry. A later church site was in a small log cabin at the corner of U.S. Highway 24-40 and Second Street, said Leimkuhler, whose wife, Martha, in 1964 wrote a history of the church's first 100 years.
Near the church (at the Second Street location) was a cemetery. When U.S. Highway 24-40 was built, the graves were moved to Hubbel Hill and Maple Grove cemeteries, Leimkuhler said.
The buildings at the site where the church is located today included the city's first high school -- the Tonganoxie Friends Academy -- which opened in 1884.
The boarding school sat on the south end of the block. The school closed in 1900, shortly after Tonganoxie High School opened. The building that housed the academy was torn down and a two-story house, which still stands, was built on the site.
A place for solitude
The beauty of the Friends, Leimkuhler said, is the quietness of a worship service.
Leimkuhler said he joined the church when he and Martha moved back to her hometown of Tonganoxie in 1954.
"Martha was raised in that little church there," Leimkuhler said.
So he joined the church, too. He especially felt comfortable with the faith's pacifist policy.
"I've always been opposed to violence and war," Leimkuhler said.
Like other church members who were contacted last week, Leimkuhler said he's saddened at the thought of the church being anything but a Friends Church.
"Emotionally I just can't get involved in it," Leimkuhler said. "... I'm just sad. I really am. I can't believe that it's happening after all the years."
He noted the quietness of a typical Friends worship service, where at times everyone is silent unless, as he said, "the spirit moves them to speak."
He'd like to hear that kind of spiritual silence in the church again.
"I think there is a place today in this busy old world of ours," Leimkuhler said. "There is certainly a place for solitude and quiet."
He paused for a few moments, wringing his hands in thought.
"I'm sad too," Leimkuhler said. "And I just don't know."
In other hands
Ambrose said he and his wife, Janet, moved out of the parsonage last fall because they wanted to be in a smaller apartment. And, he said, to save on winter heating bills, the church was closed. But a handful of church members have continued worshiping together at private homes.
"We're very small, but the spirit is there," he said.
Ambrose said he thinks those at the Yearly Meeting headquarters wonder -- with Tonganoxie listed as the third fastest-growing city in Kansas -- why the Friends membership hasn't grown.
Ambrose said he's wondered that himself, and in fact he said he'd be willing to step down if someone else could come in and spark a membership growth.
Ambrose believes there's a possibility the church building could be reopened if there were more members and if they would be willing to help financially support the church.
Robinson said the present small congregation would not be able to shoulder costs of utilities and maintenance, although the building is in reasonably good condition.
"So that's the major reason that it is considered," Robinson, of the Yearly Meeting in Wichita, said about the possible sale of the church. "That does not mean the congregation is going to disband. We're exploring some alternatives as to where to meet. We're not considering closing even if the property is sold."
Ambrose acknowledges that although he'd like to see Tonganoxie keep its historic Friends Church, he will go along with whatever decision is made.
"It's a pretty building and it has a lot of history to the area in it," Ambrose said. "But it's up to the Yearly Meeting what to do with it."