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Old church with a new purpose

Woman buys rural church, offers it up for weddings, other events at no cost

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Janet Johnson, purchased this church and now offers it up for weddings and other events at no cost. Contributed photo

When Janet Sorenson Johnson moved a small church from Clay County, Iowa to the 7-acre property on which she and her husband, Bruce, live near Mankato, she already had plans for its use. She had no idea what denomination the church may have served before it was used as a granary and then reconstructed as a church, but she knew what she wanted to do with it.

She soon began to fulfill her dream of using the church for small weddings, Bible studies, worship for camp groups, etc. Word spread that use of a small church was available at no cost in Lime Valley, just a few miles from Mankato.

The church, which measures about 14 by 20 feet, has thus far been the site of five weddings and three vow renewals (25 and 50 years), with another wedding scheduled in June. With today’s concern about COVID-19, the church’s size suits a bridal couple who want to limit the number of people in attendance. One wedding party had an audience of deer looking in a window, and a few weddings that were too large for the church have been held outdoors.

“We’ve had the wedding of a special needs couple, with just their parents and an officiate,” Janet said. “We’ve also had a group of retired church goers, including some ministers, who held a potluck and a service in the church. We’ve had Bible study groups and a reunion tea for a Mothers of pre-schoolers group, now all grandmothers, as well. People arrange their own refreshments, and no alcohol is served on the property.”

Beth (Johnson) Benzkofer holds the Johnson family Bible by the altar at the small church that sits on the Johnson property. Contributed photo

When a group of 12 international students from Minnesota State University, Mankato, camped a few years ago on the grassy area around the church, they had the opportunity to learn a bit about small churches in the Midwest. Kristen Odland, team leader for Bridges International (a part of CRU, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), said, “Janet came out and explained the church’s history to the students. We had coffee in the church, but we didn’t hold a service there.” (International students often are surprised that food and beverages are permitted in a house of worship.)

The Johnsons’ extended family has held occasional worship services in the church, with the younger grandchildren (ages eight through teens) in charge of the music, sermon and offering, which has been donated to a non-profit. The church, for which Janet had heating and air conditioning installed, has also served as the place for her extended family to open Christmas gifts.

Church or granary?

The history of the church is a bit of a puzzle. Janet’s uncle, John Grutzik, a retired space engineer, purchased the granary from a neighboring farmer, Sam Zender, at Zender’s farm auction near Milford, Iowa, about 30 years ago. Grutzik moved it to his acreage in Meadow Township and put his design skills to work converting the granary into a church structure, complete with an altar, stained glass windows and a steeple.

Bruce and Janet Johnson are pictured. Janet took a little church from Iowa and moved it to their land near Mankato. The church as been renovated and is available for small weddings and other church-related events at no cost. Contributed photo

“My uncle broke wine bottles of various colors and made stained glass windows—all with a farm theme,” Janet said. “One is a red barn, one a cornfield, one a windmill and one a rooster. My uncle said the rooster was for early morning services. Leading from the church to the steeple is an ear of corn made entirely from yellow glass. Another stained glass picture shows a field being plowed.” A church bell is rung with a rope before Bible studies and, often, by bridal couples after their ceremony.

Janet has always believed that the structure began as a church and that her uncle’s neighbor had moved it onto his farm and turned it into a granary. She even thought her uncle had found the steeple in a grove. Now, though, there’s a slightly different version of the story, thanks to the memories of Janet’s 98-year-old mother, Elaine Sorenson.

Janet explained, “When I recently asked my mother, who still lives in Clay County, about the church, she thought it has always been a granary. My uncle, John Grutzik, wasn’t from the area, but his wife, Leatha, was. When he retired nearly 30 years ago, they moved to the Milford area because that’s where Leatha was from. We’ve always thought that he learned there was a small church near his property and that when he found it on a neighbor’s farm, it was a granary. We do know the granary was sold to my uncle at the neighbor’s auction, and my uncle had the idea of making it into a church. I always thought he later located the steeple in a tree grove nearby and hired a moving company to move the grain bin and the steeple to his property, where he restored and refinished it.” That’s the story Janet has known for many years.

The church steeple was offloaded and attached to the rest of the structure. Contributed photo

She continued, “Using his engineering skills, my uncle placed a long rod through the steeple, down into the church, so that it could be moved by a crane hooking onto the cross atop the steeple. The steeple can be detached from the church for easier moving. After my uncle completed the church, he met with others from the community and dedicated the church. He was Catholic and his wife was Lutheran. I think it was an ecumenical church. I think anyone was welcome, just as they are now.

“Before my uncle passed away, he made arrangements for me to have the church,” Janet said. “I was pretty honored because there’s a lot of us in the family. But I lived only one state away rather than on either coast, and I had the property on which to put the church.”

Moving the church

In the summer of 2017, Janet’s brother, Erwin Sorenson, hoisted the church (but not the steeple) onto his flatbed trailer and pulled it with a pickup truck 120 miles from Iowa to the Johnsons’ property—about a five-hour trip—where the church was offloaded using round fence posts. With the help of one of her sons, Janet used a crane to lift the steeple (by the cross) onto a flatbed trailer and hauled it home with a pickup truck. She moved the stained glass windows, wrapped in blankets, in her van.

Once the church was settled between two evergreen trees on the Johnsons’ property, Janet hired a local man to place the steeple on the church. (More than three years later, he appeared again at the church—this time as a groom at his wedding.) Janet also hired local handyman Todd Salfer to build the steps and the railing of recycled plastic milk jugs that look like wood. He also rebuilt and repaired woodwork, insulated the church and built an old-fashioned outhouse (a one-holer) about 25 feet from the church. (It’s stocked with toilet tissue rather than pages from a catalog.) The Johnsons’ son Matthew built a cross of pine that graces the altar, while their son McCord built a cross of recycled railroad ties behind the church for people who want to pose for photos at an outdoor cross.

A few of the stained glass windows in the church are pictured. These were put together by Janet’s uncle, who broke wine glasses of various colors and made farm scenes from the broken glass. Contributed photo

The large, circular kneeler and the eight two-person pews made by Janet’s uncle came with the church, but the pulpit was missing, so Janet bought a pulpit at a second-hand shop in Mankato. Family history is also represented in the church. The silver candleholders in the front of the church were given by Janet’s mother, and the Bible holder and Bible are from Bruce’s mother.

Janet is fulfilling her dream of hosting weddings and retreats. She has had no requests for funerals thus far, but said, “I wouldn’t say no.” Whether the little church began as a granary or as a church-turned-granary-turned-church, it has a new life in Lime Valley, just a few miles from Mankato.

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