By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — Eyes were misty and some tears fell as leaders of the 91st Street Church of the Nazarene gathered recently to talk about the last service they will hold in their church on Sunday.
Sharing coffee and memories in the church basement, five people who spent so many of their Sundays inside the red brick building at the corner of 91st Street at Pasadena Avenue, imagined locking the doors on the 72-year-old congregation. The building, owned by the Upstate New York Church of the Nazarene, will be put up for sale.
Tears slipped down the cheeks of church secretary Betty Brant as she considered attending church elsewhere. "We know we can go anyplace to serve our Lord," Brant said. "But there's a warm and loving feeling in this building."
Betty and her husband, George, the head trustee, have helped to lead the church for most of their 43-year marriage. Betty is church secretary and George sits on the board. "We found the Lord here, together," Betty said.
Efforts to save the church proved fruitless despite neighborhood outreach that included Easter egg hunts, family movies and knocking on doors, members said. The church has been without a full-time pastor since last year.
"We just can't get people in the doors," said the Rev. Linda Aaserud, who has been filling in on Sunday's and whose husband, David Aaserud, was the pastor for two terms since 1973.
"I've spent a lot of time thinking about how this church could have been turned around," noted David, who blames the decline in membership on Love Canal, the environmental disaster which forced the destruction of Griffon Manor, an apartment complex where many of the church members lived. He has been given the challenging duty of finding words of comfort when he gives the sermon on the closing Sunday. He plans to quote the Ecclesiastes about there being "a time to live and a time to die."
"We're not the first church to die and won't be the last," he said.
At 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, when members participate in the last service, it will be exactly 63 years to the day that the first service was held in the church. Upon the church's closing, the congregation has been invited to join their daughter-church, Faith Community Church of the Nazarene, at 3520 Saunders Settlement Road in Sanborn, which was started by former members of the 91st Street church.
The Nazarene denomination holds similar beliefs to the Methodist church, but members say they distinguish themselves through a belief in a "personal savior" and emphasis on missionary service.
According to district superintendent, the Rev. David Sharpes, who oversees Nazarene churches throughout the state outside of the New York City area, the closing does not mean the end for the church's presence in Niagara Falls. Once the building and parsonage are sold, much of that money is intended for a new church. "We have every intention of restarting a church in Niagara Falls," Sharpes said.
Doreen Woods has been a member at the 91st Street church since she was 3-years-old. "I cry a lot," she said of the closing, but added she will be happy to take a break from the church treasurer duties she's handled for 35 years. "It won't change my life," she noted. "I'll just have to go further to church."
It appears most or all of the 25 members will be joining the 75-member Sanborn church. The welcome there will be warm, said its pastor, the Rev. Wayne Hokanson. "What we've been telling them is we're disappointed about they're having to close but we're glad they're coming," he said. In an attempt to make the new members feel at home, there will be fellowship gatherings before Sunday services throughout April so old and new members have a chance to meet.
The Falls church leaders are grateful to have a church home, but say they will always have a special place in their hearts for the 91st Street building.
Betty's husband, George, his eyes misting, stoically likened the closing to natural growth cycles, noting "It's time to mow a new field and start harvesting that field. That's how we will grow. That's how the church will grow."