Congregation, community team up to save church

Good Shepherd Church in Sauk Centre. Photo by Jean Paschke

On Aug. 13, 1999, the west wall of the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan in Sauk Centre collapsed as it was in the process of being repaired. A donation of approximately $50,000 helped to restore the building. It came from community members and parishioners, who worshiped in the parish hall even as workers strove to keep the walls intact.  An additional gift of two stained glass windows from Grace Episcopal Church in Royalton made the restoration complete.

It was an amazing feat of generosity, particularly on the part of the residents of Sauk Centre, since such a small percentage of them were actually members of Good Sam, as the church is familiarly known in town.

The town’s oldest church in continuous use, the carpenter, gothic-style Good Samaritan raised its 50-foot steeple in 1868. It was built on land purchased by the legendary Henry Benjamin Whipple, first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota.  The first services were held in the nearby stockade and later in a vacant store.  The congregation was formally organized in 1870.

The church was heated with a furnace, considered to be quite a modern innovation. The stained glass window in the eastern wall depicting The Good Shepherd, and arrived on a circuitous route from New York City to Pennsylvania to St. Cloud, where it went to Sauk Centre by oxcart.  A charming and perhaps apocryphal legend says that the reason Good Samaritan has a Good Shepherd window is that communications went astray, and another oxcart lumbered along somewhere to a Church of the Good Shepherd and delivered a Good Samaritan window, at which both churches agreed to make the switch.

Three years ago more of Good Samaritan decided to give up the ghost, starting with the sacristy and the back wall of the sanctuary. Water had penetrated the stucco and the wood beams, causing the whole structure to slump. The precious window had to be wrapped in plastic, mounted on plywood, and placed inside, where it was not part of the supporting wall.

Construction in various stages of progress. The precious window is safely behind wraps. Photo by Jean Paschke

“And as with most things, when you open up an old building, you find other problems,” said the Rev. Roger Phillips, priest-in-residence at Good Samaritan. “For example some of the wooden crossbeams which give Good Samaritan its English-style architectural appeal are riddled with dry rot, as are some of the timbers in the side wall. You can’t put the back up and let the side fall down.”

“The wall was made of dobby, which is an old-fashioned material,” said the Rev. Phillips’ wife and church secretary, Rosemary Phillips. “The material between the laths just crumbled when they took the wall down.”

A great deal of money had to be raised. Legacy grants were received from the Minnesota Historical Society for the initial assessment of the structure, and then engineering drawings.  The actual repairs were financed, in part, by funds provided by the state of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society, since the church is on the National Register of Historic Places. The church has held a variety of fundraisers over the past two years, and contributors have included parishioners, townspeople, and other “Friends of Good Samaritan.”

“Some of the friends are local, some may belong to other churches,” said the Rev. Phillips, who noted that there are currently 16 members on its roles.  Some of the attendees belong to and support churches in other areas. Some are snowbirds, some have made accidental connections, some are descendants of early members, and others have worshiped at Good Sam for many years.

Parishioners on a Sunday outside the church: Kathy Hughes, Sally and Bob Hughes, Gunther Austing, Rosemary and the Rev. Roger Phillips, JoAnne Mueller and Jim Jackson. Photo by Jean Paschke

“Our congregation, though small, is generous,” said the Rev.  Phillips. “They want to keep the church going, and the Episcopal Church in Minnesota also desires to keep it alive as well. One large donor was a Roman Catholic from Sauk Centre who loved the church architecturally and its integral position in the community.”

One important factor in the support for Good Samaritan comes from a tradition carried on almost continuously from 1965 to 2000. Members of various area churches filled the choir to perform a Festival of Lessons and Carols adapted from an annual Advent ceremony held in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England. It was accompanied by an organ presided over and built by Dr. John Grant from funds donated by parishioner Gunther Austin’s grandmother, Sophie Hillerud. A festival  performance was especially moving in the late afternoon when the setting sun filtered through “Rachel’s Window” in the western wall, and Dr. Grant fired up the organ to its full glory to play Silent Night, reducing many listeners to tears.  Discussions are ongoing about restoring this tradition.

The church is still in the construction process. Entrances and bathrooms to accommodate the disabled are  in the works. The work is scheduled to be finished in the fall. The Good Shepherd window is crated up to preserve it from damage, as heavy machinery moves through the churchyard doing delicate work. Everyone involved agrees that they will be glad when the project is complete and the beauty and sanctity of Good Samaritan Church is restored.