Emmanuel EUB (now United Methodist) Church, Laona, NY.
The addition on the rear dates from after I moved away.
The original entry was behind the tree; it is now on Wilson Road.
LAONA: CHURCH AND COMMUNITY
I moved to Laona in 1948 when my parents bought a small house on the Arkwright Road (Route 83) and the dozen years that followed greatly shaped who I am as an adult.
My folks were not particularly church goers (my father's mother was a devout and teetotaling Methodist, neither of which qualities rubbed off on him; my mother was raised by her mother alone after her father abandoned the family and I never knew my grandmother to darken a church door, though my mother had fond childhood memories of attending Methodist Sunday School with her favorite cousin).
Nevertheless, they were not opposed to my brother and I going to Sunday School and/or church in Laona if we were interested.
We were drawn into Emmanuel EUB Church by the fact that so many of our schoolmates went to the church, as well as by Elmer and Amy Thies who lived across the road and were pillars of the congregation. (They were also kind to the neighborhood kids, letting us play in their large side yard and shortcut through their property on the way to school. Their former home is now a B&B.)
The first thing to note about Emmanuel church is that it was at the center of the community both literally and as an institution.
In fact, its rootedness in the community has been my touchstone ever since in looking for a church home.
Some adult told me early on that the congregation had its roots in the Evangelische Gemeinshaft (Evangelical Association), one of the founding churches of the EUB denomination, which was only two years old or so when my family arrived in Laona.
Familiar last names in the community included Ahrens, Thies, Schroeder, Wiedemeyer and Metzger, sure signs Germans had had a certain presence in settling the area.
I was also told that services in German had only been dropped around 1941. As a child I gave that fact no thought. It was only as an adult that I wondered whether it had anything to do with the anti-German sentiment of the WWII era.
THE CHURCH BUILDING
The building itself was strikingly positioned on a slight rise along (old) Route 60 at Wilson Road.
The white clapboard building was set on a fieldstone foundation. A short square tower with a gabled peak stood above the entrance. (Though it would have been suitable for a bell, I have no recollection of one ever being there.)
The addition at some point in the building's past of a concrete floor and steel posts to support the weight of the nave allowed for Sunday School for primary grades to be conducted in the basement, though adults had to stoop because of the low ceiling.
The foyer occupied two thirds of the building's width, with a doorway to the basement stairs on the far right outer wall and a door to the nave immediately opposite the front door.
The room to the left of the foyer was a small pastor's office, accessible only from the nave.
The nave itself had (I believe) four pointed vertical windows on each side which were furnished with pebbled glass in white and soft yellow.
There was a central aisle with pews on each side (perhaps eight or ten rows).
There was no central air in those days and the nave could get pretty warm in the summer. The pews were shellacked instead of being varnished. The shellac would soften in the heat, causing clothing to stick to the pews -- not a good thing for shirts or silk blouses!
Above the foyer was a balcony that ran across the width of the building over both the foyer and the study. This was used for Sunday School as well as overflow when there were large crowds.
The sanctuary in the front was delineated by being a single step above the main floor.
There was a recess in the middle of the rear wall, dividing it into thirds with the left and right portions cleverly disguising shallow storage closets.
The pulpit was centered in this niche with three chairs for the minister and any person assisting.
Before that was the simple wooden Communion table. Across the front, I seem to recall, the words "Holy Holy Holy " were carved.
The table was covered with a dark red velvet runner that hung down several inches on each side. A similar velvet parament with an embroidered gold cross and crown hung from the pulpit which stood directly behind the communion table.
Upon the table were a simple brass cross and a pair of candlesticks and a couple of brass offering plates with red velvet liners.
I was told the Communion table accoutrements had caused some stir when they were introduced. (I can vividly remember Elmer Thies arguing that they were Popish intrusions, though he eventually seemed to accept them -- or perhaps more correctly ignore them.)
The only time any of these elements ever changed was when Holy Communion was celebrated once a quarter, in which case a fine linen cloth was spread on the table and the trays of bread and juice were covered with another large, nearly sheer white cloth.
The choir sat at the right side of the platform and there was a Hammond B model organ on the main floor adjacent, played every Sunday by Barb Baldwin (later to marry Roger Best).
The walls and flat ceiling were covered in beaver board tinted in pastel colors of blue, sand and tan and incised with grooves to suggest pointed arches. The design felt very Art Deco, suggesting that the interior had been remodeled perhaps in the flush 1920s years.
The ceiling lighting consisted of slightly recessed hoods and a cross-shaped support from which a large silver-bowled bulb projected slightly, the silver bowl causing the light to be reflected up into the hood, thus softening the effect at night.
A major building project in the mid-1950s was the raising of the church by maybe three feet to install a modern full-service kitchen, restrooms and an entrance from the Route 60 side. This also allowed for better Sunday School space and a room that could host community suppers or meetings.
This was a huge project for this little congregation and the whole community rallied behind it.
In particular, I remember Barb Best's mother Hank (Henrietta) and her husband Baldy (Aubrey) Baldwin and Les and Alice Straight being among the motive forces for getting it all done.
Sunday worship at Emmanuel EUB Church followed a familiar outline that always included several hymns, with an opening call to worship and an invocation by the minister.
(The congregation sang well and I loved to sing any hymn in the book -- a love that has persisted throughout my life.)
This was followed by one or two readings from Scripture and perhaps a responsive reading from the back of the hymnal.
Services in those days were almost totally minister-centered and the lessons, prayers and sermon were his bailiwick.
(No one even gave this a thought nor the fact that women were not ordained ministers. How times have changed!)
While the minister's sermon and the extemporaneous pastoral prayer were supposed to be the main focus, I always looked forward to the choir's anthem, on which they worked hard at regular Thursday night choir practice.
(In the winter, the building would be ice cold when we arrived for practice, but by the time we finished the room would have warmed up so much that singers abandoned jackets and sweaters because the room was so warm.)
One thing I was always curious about was the weekly singing of the Gloria Patri (Laona and Dunkirk used different tunes).
It was only in later years (after I became an Episcopalian) that I learned the Gloria Patri invariably concluded a Psalm or an anthem that was drawn from the Scriptures, meaning that the Laona church was keeping up the faint echo of a practice in the Western Church that went back to before the Protestant Reformation.
Holy Communion was celebrated quarterly and the service was more formally structured, bearing a close resemblance to the Sunday Service John Wesley had devised for American Methodists, taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
It was a serious undertaking and folks were advised of its approach and urged to prepare themselves with prayer and an examination of conscience, once again something learned in Laona that has become a lifelong practice.
The hymnal used at this time in Laona was the non-denominational Hymns Of Praise Nos. One And Two Combined.
The book was full of many gospel songs and hymns that still come to mind today. (By contrast, the Dunkirk church used the green hymnal of the Evangelical Association, produced before the EUB merger).
Once a year or so there would be a few days of revival services conducted separately at both the Laona and Dunkirk churches.
Two women (whose names I can't remember) who sang gorgeous close harmony seemed to have a lock on this special time as they were featured every year.
They would run the services and deliver the messages and I remember that a special "love offering" would be taken up to support their musical ministry.
One of the great excitements of the time was the appearance of the new EUB Hymnal about 1956, bound in red and burgundy buckram.
Besides a large selection of hymns and gospel songs, it also included responsive readings and several suggested orders of service as well as a complete set of indexes to aid in service planning. It served the denomination well until the merger with the Methodists led to the need for a new one.
I did not go often to Sunday School until perhaps 6th grade or so (apx 1950) but I do remember Mrs. Olive Dailey playing the piano and learning to sing "Jesus loves the little children." which is a pretty darned good message to carry with you throughout life.
I think Fern Cumro, who was our next door neighbor and taught grades 3 thru 5 at the 3-room Laona school, also taught Sunday School, as well as Florence Bouquin, whose husband was a WWI veteran and whose son Gibby (Gilbert) was my younger brother's constant playmate.
Once I was a certain age, I moved upstairs to the men's class on the right hand front of the sanctuary.
It was taught by Elmer Thies (who to my young mind seemed like he had done it forever), who lived diagonally across the road from our house.
His wife Amy taught the ladies class on the left side of the aisle. At the same time, mind you, which sometimes led to one's ears tuning in the other lesson if it seemed more interesting.
Elmer (I don't ever recall calling him "Mister") had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures.
We used a weekly handout sheet which had the day's lesson printed in two columns, the left for the King James version and the right for the new Revised Standard Version.
The EUB church had been among the founders of the National Council of Churches and supported the new translation wholeheartedly.
But Elmer was having none of it and we dutifully read the KJV aloud each week.
Though I understand the reason for a more intelligible version, the majesty of the KJV was certainly lost.
(I have left instructions for my funeral that the lessons are to be read from the King James Version.)
There were usually six or seven in the men's class and it did not escape my attention that some of the younger "pillars" of the congregation seldom if ever attended.
Regular attendance was rewarded each year with a small brass pin. If one had more than one year of perfect attendance, the pins could be attached to each other, making a long string.
"Snap" Thies, who owned the local gas station next to the blacksmith's shop (where the "new" Route 60 runs), had many years of perfect attendance and was the envy of everyone. (Though I always strove for perfect attendance, I think I only ever earned one pin.)
With the arrival of Byron Esch as minister, things at Emmanuel EUB really perked up.
Byron had come to the ministry in his 30s, having worked in the mills in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before studying for the ministry at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School.
His vivacious wife Mary had gorgeous auburn hair and their kids (Marion, Carol and Bobby) were live wires.
Though Laona was yoked with Immanuel (with an "I") EUB Church in Dunkirk and the parsonage was located there, the whole family brought a new energy to the Laona congregation.
It was during these years that the Youth Fellowship became the focus of the entire community.
Not only were the Esches and myself and the "usual suspects" involved, the group proved irresistible because of its social activities to Catholic teens in the community as well, including the Millonzi twins (on one of whom I had a serious crush), Ron and Judy Mizwa and Sandy Bouquin, who lived next to the Catholic chapel on Webster Road.
Others involved included the Tadts; Dan and Jim Goulding (who lived with their mother above the Red & White store); Fanny, Pat and Dick Glasier; Olive, Kay and Una Chase; Doug and Bill Hunt; and Frankie Lee Brillian.
While the denomination's emphasis was on developing the spiritual life of young people and deepening their commitment to Christian service in the larger world, many valuable life lessons were learned by the members.
These included how to run an organization on a pattern of shared leadership, how to construct an agenda, how to conduct a meeting, how to raise funds, and how to plan events and arrive at a consensus on decisions.
All of these lessons have proved invaluable throughout my adult life and I have the YF to thank for learning the basics.
Sometime during this period I volunteered to produce a church newsletter. With Rev. Esch as my mentor, we decided to call it "The Challenge."
Th church already had an A.B. Dick mimeograph used for producing the Sunday bulletin.
The stencils were a blue waxed cellulose paper mounted to a stiff paper backing which acted as a buffer when the blue page was typed on.
The stencils were long enough to fill a letter sized sheet, but in order to produce a bulletin-oriented booklet, the stencils needed to be cut in half so they would fit in the typewriter carriage. After the stencil was cut by typing on the typewriter, the two halves were glued together along the seam.
Then the stiff paper backing was removed and the blue sheet mounted on the mimeograph drum.
Once securely mounted, the mimeograph machine could be cranked to draw pages through.
It was important to develop a nice steady rhythm so that the paper didn't jam.
Once the required number of sheets had been printed they were set aside for the ink to dry.
For an 8-page booklet, pages 1/8 would be printed first and set aside. Then pages 3/5, also set aside to dry.
After that pages 2/7 would be run on the back of 1/8 and set aside for further drying. Likewise pages 4/5 would be printed on the back of pages 3/6.
The two piles would then be laid out so that the two sheets of paper (now printed on both sides) could be gathered together. Then each booklet was stapled along the center line with a long-throated stapler and folded to form an 8-page booklet whose contents were in proper page sequence.
This all was very time consuming work that today would be accomplished in a fraction of the time with software and a duplex copier. Today is certainly much better than the "good old days".
The articles consisted of news from various church organizations plus a column by the minister and notices of upcoming events.
The two most important organizations were W.S.W.S. (Women's Society for World Service) and the Ladies Aid Society.
The Ladies Aid Society was the older of the two and served the older women of the congregation.
They had their own separate membership, meetings and projects, but W.S.W.S. was clearly the leading organization.
It was through W.S.W.S. that the women of the congregation learned about the missionary activities of the denomination in places like the Red Bird mission in Appalachia, the Ybor City mission in Miami and missions in Sierra Leone, West Africa and the Philippines.
And through them the whole congregation learned of the church's wider mission beyond Laona.
(As an aside, my freshman roommate at Albright College, Larry Bergstresser, was the son of Red Bird missionaries and classmate Eustace (Gus) Renner was the son of a Sierra Leone leader.)
Perhaps the most contentious event of the period was the change in the way folks contributed to the church and its larger mission.
Along with other mainstream denominations, the EUB Church moved in the mid-50s to the Every Member Canvass model of stewardship.
I was taken at once with the notion of how this would regularize the congregation's finances, allow for a predictable income stream and provide a basis for rational budgeting instead of having special drives every time a need came along (like a new roof).
Elmer Thies was strongly opposed to the change and did his best to mobilize folks against it.
But younger forces, including Hank and Baldy Baldwin and Les and Alice Straight supported it as did the church's governing board.
I signed on as a volunteer canvasser, even though just a teen. The key to success was going to hinge on motivating every possible supporter.
The first thing we did was develop a tentative budget for the coming year, including the minister's salary, the cost of utilities and maintenance on the building as well as insurance and the denominational assessment.
Folks were startled to see how much it actually cost to keep the doors open.
Next, we were encouraged to draw the net as widely as possible, not just those who were regular Sunday attendees but those who had any connection to the church.
Then we crafted a a story illustrated with photos and charts to illustrate how it all fit together and how even small but reliably regular contributions could help the congregation thrive.
Trained and armed, we were then commissioned in a special service -- after making our own pledges -- and sent out to visit homes of congregants and others we thought would support the church.
Over the course of several days, the volunteers made their calls, reporting back each evening for mutual support and encouragement.
More seasoned hands took the more difficult assignments.
It was emphasized that the pledge was between the individual and God, that it was voluntary and could be changed if circumstances changed, and lastly that the pledges would be confidential and not known to the congregation at large.
This turned out to be crucial as many folks expressed feelings that their contributions were looked down on by a few who gave openly and ostentatiously into the Sunday offering plate.
Instead, each person who pledged would be given a box of numbered envelopes through which their pledge would be tracked and credit given. The envelope system allowed for more than one family member to make a pledge.
This first Every Member Canvass was a tremendous success, with even Elmer Thies eventually coming along.
After the first year, the system proved so reliable that there was no looking back.
It was a great moment of growth in discipleship for the whole congregation and laid the foundation for a healthy church family for decades into the future.
After moving in with my father and his second wife (who lived in Dunkirk) in 1954 I transferred from Fredonia to Dunkirk High School and joined Immanuel EUB Church in Dunkirk (after finishing a confirmation class with Rev. Esch in which I was the only student).
In September 1956, I entered Albright College as a freshman, intending to study for the ministry.
At some point in the couple of years after I entered college, the Dunkirk church was closed and sold along with the parsonage which was next door.
I believe some of the proceeds were used to buy the house across Wilson Road from the church and on the corner of Webster Road for the Laona church, which was now a standalone congregation.
Most of the former Dunkirk members transferred to the United Church of Christ on Central Avenue (also a German-background congregation) rather than drive to Laona.
When I took a break from college in 1960-61, I stayed with my father's sister in Laona and attended the Laona church once again.
The Esches had by now been transferred (I believe to Memorial EUB Church in Buffalo; it was the custom then to move ministers every few years) and were replaced by the Rev. Harold Wood and his wife Irma.
The Woods were an older couple with no children at home and were originally from East Stone Arabia in the far eastern part of the conference in the Mohawk Valley. Rev. Wood had served several larger congregations, including one in Buffalo before coming to Laona.
I think they were a little disappointed at first to come to such a small community, but they soon made themselves at home.
Mrs. Wood offered piano lessons in the parsonage and became the church's choir director. During her tenure the quality of the music improved considerably. She subscribed to an anthem service by Lorenz Publishing in Dayton, Ohio (which had close associations with the EUB Church). This provided anthems of moderate difficulty which she carefully rehearsed every week. Learning to stretch musically made choir fun and interesting as well as enhancing the worship services. She was a charming and well-read person but I remember being struck by two of her verbal habits in particular.
First, she always addressed Rev. Wood as "Mister Wood", even in the privacy of their home. And second, she invariably used the word "ain't" for "isn't".
At the time I thought this odd in such a cultured person. (My frame of reference was having it drilled into my head by teacher Fern Cumro that that was an incorrect and ignorant usage.) Only later in life when I had made acquaintances from elsewhere in the Mohawk Valley did I learn that it was a perfectly acceptable regionalism. Just shows why we should never take our assumptions for granted.
I was often invited to the parsonage for coffee and cake and to visit (I think they felt a little lonely and that Laona was a terribly quiet place -- which it certainly was) and remember them fondly both for their service in Laona and for their personal kindness.
After enlisting in the Air Force in 1962, I never really returned to Laona.
Life took me on many adventures and in many different directions, but at heart I am still a Laona kid and am thankful for all the life lessons I learned there which Emmanuel EUB Church made possible.
-- Dan Damon [ follow ]
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