Nyssa UMC closes after 120 years of faithful service
by Sally Blanchard
The last in-person worship service at Nyssa United Methodist Church in Nyssa, Oregon, was held in early March. The pastor and lay member say the hardest part of closing the church has been no chance to have a concluding celebration while under the COVID-19 in-person worship closure.
Lay member Sheila Turner has part of the congregation for 20 years.
“It’s been really tough because it got to the point where there were five people going to the church but there was no official closing. Something that has been in existence for over 100 years is all of a sudden gone,” she said.
Turner’s parents grew up in the area and were part of the congregation most of their lives. “It’s very hard for my dad, almost like a death in the family. We are grieving.”
The church began in 1900 with visiting pastors who traveled from Ontario and Owyhee. In 1904 the Owyhee Ditch was built to irrigate farming in the desert of Eastern Oregon near the Idaho border. The first church was built in 1909. In 1939 a young man who was working at the church as the janitor started the church on fire and it burned to the ground. In 1941 a new church was built on the corner of 3rd and Emmison where the congregation remained for 60-plus years. In 2016 Rev. Steve Ross assisted in trading their building with another church nearby to gain a newer building with fewer maintenance issues and wheelchair accessibility.
When the church fell into financial difficulties in 1959, the church attempted to join with the Episcopal and Presbyterian congregations. When that didn’t come to fruition the city of Nyssa rented the fellowship hall to house the Headstart program, solving their cash flow problem. The church began to grow again in the 1960’s.
It was a popular tradition for the congregation to have a summer ice cream social at the home of one of the longtime members. One year in the 1960s they moved the social to coincide with the Thunder Egg Days, a big annual celebration held each July. Records show 900 people attended. Pie making was also a popular fundraiser. It was an important way of being visible in the community.
Lay minister assigned Rochelle Killett served Nyssa UMC for the last nine years, although she never thought that would be part of her life.
“Rev Steve Ross asked me out of the blue if I would preach once or twice a month. I didn’t think I was a preacher, I was a teacher. I started out doing two Sundays a month shared with another man and then I ended up doing it all myself. I just really enjoyed it,” Killett said. “Nyssa is the most faithful group of people I have ever encountered. If they weren’t out of town they were there on Sunday. I love the people. They were not hard to love. I enjoyed the discipline of doing my sermon study and writing a sermon each week. I miss it and them.”
While Killett was cleaning out the church this summer, she left Bibles and hymnals and kitchen equipment in place in hopes another congregation may someday use the building.
“We wanted to help another congregation if we possibly could,” she said.
But it was a painful process. She likened it to cleaning out a loved one’s home after their death. Too painful for most of the remaining members to help. While cleaning, she found an old crank and asked Turner what it was. Turner recognized it as the crank of the original ice cream machine that churned out all the ice cream for those popular town socials.
Thinking back on that ministry in the community and reading the church history records helped her feel some meaning and closure.
“It really was a happy place,” Killett said.