By Dan Greenwood
The historic Methodist church in the village of Ottawa, halfway between St. Peter and Le Sueur on County Road 23, needs a little love and attention.
The Le Sueur County Historical Society and fellow non-profit Ottawa Historians are asking for the public’s help in re-attaching the church tower, which was removed several years ago after it began to tilt, threatening the roof and structural stability.
“It needs to be fixed,” said Le Sueur County Historical Society President Bill Stangler. “When that tower started leaning, something had to be done.”
Stangler, who became president of the historical society in June, said they plan to re-open the church for regular, private and public events once the renovation is complete. But they are still about $13,000 short of their $60,000 goal. If they reach that fundraising goal by Dec. 15, the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation will double that with a grant of $120,000.
The Ottawa historic church was built in 1859, during a time when the town was bustling with a school, blacksmith, barber shop, grain elevator and hotel. Most of those original buildings are gone, but seven still remain, including several houses, the school and the town hall, which were all built around the same time as the church.
“The new tower will be exactly like the tower that was there in 1859,” Stangler said. “It’s beautiful for its simplicity, and it’s one of the three oldest Methodist churches in Minnesota.”
After a long dormancy, the church opened its doors for an ecumenical service to commemorate its 160 year anniversary in September. Inside, the old pump organ still plays and the building is still heated by the old wood stove. A Bible published the same year the building was erected still sits on the lectern.
In 1967, the congregation relocated to Le Sueur and donated the church to the historical society. Kathleen Peterson and her husband Richard moved to Ottawa in 1973, and were immediately struck by the church and other historic buildings in town, which today has a population of about 80 people.
They said the historical society spent the first couple years refurbishing the church, which at the time was covered in vines and had fallen into disrepair.
“At that time, they started having their annual church service,” Kathleen Peterson said.
When they first moved to town, they joined the Ottawa Chapter of the Le Sueur County Historical Society. Along with services, they opened the church’s doors for visitors on summer weekends, staffed entirely by volunteers. The group, now called Ottawa Historians, held picnics at the historic band shell in the town’s park, along with community events at the town hall.
“We developed a walking tour of the town,” Kathleen Peterson said. “We put together a little mini-history for each of the seven buildings on the National Historic Registry. There’s a map where the previous sites were like the old mill, the brick factory, where the floating bridge was down by the landing, the depot and the hotel.”
But disagreements with the previous historical society leadership brought the church visits to a close 10 years ago. When Stangler became the historical society president earlier this year, he and the Petersons made it a mission to restore the building so visitors could enjoy it again.
“Now we’re looking at making it available and encouraging people to use it,” Kathleen Peterson said. “But we need to get it back into usable shape.”
Over 130 people turned out for the September church service, and with the Ottawa Historic Village being one of the attractions along the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway, visitors from as far away as the Twin Cities make the historic town a destination.
Plans for next summer include opening the church up to visitors on weekends and renting the church out for baptisms, weddings and anniversaries.
“People that have visited in the past have always enjoyed this little historic church and other buildings,” Kathleen Peterson said. “This is the strongest symbol of our community history.”
They say the church also symbolizes the faith the first church congregation had during a time of uncertainty right before the Civil War. Just like today, those original congregants pitched in to fund and build the church on land donated by a local farmer.
“This church stands as an edifice to the faith of the people that built it, and we should honor it,” Stangler said.
Richard Peterson, president of the Ottawa Historians, said the renovation and return to public use will do just that. The tower bell is in the pocession of Goodrich Construction of Mankato, which will return it to its original glory along with the needed renovations that could begin as soon as early 2020.
“It’s amazing how this church has survived over all these years,” Richard Peterson said. “Now because of neglect, we need some extra funds to bring it back to use. It’s going to take help from outside the community to make it doable.”