One Home, Three Churches

Father Don Simon of the American National Catholic Church and Robert Drake, pastor of Moorhead Presbyterian Church, stand in the sanctuary of the south Moorhead facility in which three congregations worship. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

“America is in a time of transition in all things,” says Rev. Robert Drake, “Including why we are sharing our space out of necessity.”

Three congregations call Moorhead Presbyterian Church home. One is the group that founded it 150 years ago, in 1872, and built the handsome modern structure at the corner of Eighth Street South in 1968.

Another is the Korean Presbyterian Church of Moorhead, which has worshiped in the same space for some 25 years. Its services are conducted primarily in the Korean language beginning at 6 p.m. Friday evening.

The third is the parish of St. Katharine Drexel, American National Catholic Church, an independent Catholic denomination that closely follows the edicts of Vatican II. Established in 2009, the ANCC celebrates mass at 5 p.m. Sundays in the same space where Presbyterians gather at 10:30 for their weekly service, followed of course by coffee.

The church has also rented its space to the Indo American Association of the Great Plains for its festivals. At the same time, REC – Recovery-Engaged Community – occupies the long-empty south wing of the church. Launched in March, the program is an offshoot of The Lotus Center offering overdose response coordination and other recovering services including outpatient treatment programming, housing case ,management, street outreach, care coordination and nalaxone access.

Drake notes that many mainline churches like Moorhead Presbyterian have been facing hard – some say desperate – times. The venerable church’s membership, once around 300, has diminished to 97, with attendance of 35 or so typical on a Sunday. Its financial standing reflects that membership. “The finance team predicted five years ago that we’d be bankrupt by now. We’re still standing,” Drake says. “It’s getting better; now they’re giving us another two and one-half years. But we still have a long way to go.”

The pastor points out that their dilemma, though acute, is not unusual among mainline Protestant churches. “Mainline denominations peaked in the 1970s,” he says. “We’re in a transition period toward what’s next, and I don’t think we’re even at the midpoint yet. We are trying to figure out here how we can financially maintain this building. Sharing our spaces came about out of necessity – but it was a good necessity.”

The two other congregations, too, co located out of “good necessity.” Father Don Simon of the ANCC notes that his very young congregation was pushed out of its first home by COVID. “When we formed this parish in 2017, we worshiped at Lilac Homes here in Moorhead,” he says. “Part of our mission was to go into memory care areas to serve those who live there. But when the pandemic struck, we were without a space.”

The parish met in homes, but rented Moorhead Presbyterian for a ceremony elevating seminarian William Weightman to acolyte. “We needed a worship space, and I fell in love with this one,” he explains. “It’s so Vatican II. Robert invited me back, and we came to a very amicable agreement.”

Both Simon and Drake represent nontraditional faith leaders in innovative settings. Drake has been the pastor of Moorhead Presbyterian for five years. A Grand Rapids, Minnesota, native, he received the call to ministry rather late in life. He had been working as a carpenter after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary at age 45. He was searching for a pulpit and “being turned down right and left by churches all over Minnesota,” he reports. “The budget was really tight here, offering barely 75% of a full-time salary. Their back was against the wall. The Presbyterian Church USA has been wrestling with the issue of homosexuality since the mid-’90s, but it is still nontraditional to call a homosexual pastor. We took a chance on each other.”

Simon, too, came late to the ministry. “I felt the calling when I was growing up in Crookston, but I also wanted to marry and have children,” he says. After retiring from a career in information technology with the state of North Dakota, he completed the online Satellite Theology Education Program offered by the University of Notre Dame and was ordained by the ANCC. It takes a different stance from the Roman Catholic church on many divisive issues, ranging from same-sex marriage and remarriage after divorce without annulment to married priests. He and his wife Claudia, who have been married 43 years, have children and grandchildren.

“Everyone is welcome at our table,” the priest says. “Our worship is interdenominational. Our services are Catholic, not too much different from the Roman church. We use the old sacramentary Novus Ordo, with wording more in line with Vatican II. Our laity is included more in worship. It’s very similar, but not the same.”

Drake and his congregation have taken other steps toward creating a more contemporary iteration of long-honored but fading traditions. The Moorhead congregation sponsored an annual cherry pie dinner for 83 years – a “very ’40s, ’50s, ’60s kind of thing,” Drake notes. “That’s pretty good. But we could see attendance was going down and the average age was going up.”

A member brought in an idea for a different kind of event that he’d seen at a church – a Catholic church – in Alexander. And so, on Oct. 1, Moorhead Presbyterian will host its second annual Sausage Fest. The first last year was a roaring success with a live band, plates full of grilled sausages and beans, hammerschlagen (a game involving pounding nails into timber) and, yes, local craft beer. It filled tents on the typically quiet grounds with more than 500 attendees, young and old.

“There is a season for everything,” Drake muses. “After 150 years, if our church has performed its calling from God, we will be fine.

“My congregation’s goal is not to simply perpetuate itself. We’re here to respond to the Word of God in the changing context of 21st century America.

“When your back is against the wall in a financial way, we are most open to God’s will. We can see the possibilities around us best when we are desperate.”

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