People use hand-held candles to see the carols in the hymnal.
People use hand-held candles to see the carols in the hymnal.

The Portland Prairie Church will have its annual Christmas Eve service at 9 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 24, at the pioneer church located on the eastern edge of Wilmington Township. For some families of those early pioneers, this service has become a family tradition.

Without heat or electricity in the building, attendees are encouraged to dress warmly. Candles in the windows provide the dimly lit atmosphere for the service and, hand-held candles help people see the music in the hymnals. A kerosene lamp or two may provide some light as well.

"I like to call it 'The Manger Service'," states the Rev. Mark Bengston, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Caledonia, who provides the message at the service.

"I would like us to think we are in the stable at Bethlehem, that we are like the shepherds invited to the lowly birth. Everybody is welcome.

"There is something about the quiet, dimly lit atmosphere that our spirit identifies with the manger experience in Bethlehem," the pastor continued.

"The setting is rustic and rough. You're cold out there. There is no human or technological advantage, nor creature comforts. We can reflect on Mary in labor, straw for a bed, and two scared people (Mary and Joseph) hoping God is with them. It is a time to reflect with wonder and gratitude of the Savior there in that moment."

"Us Protestants like a sense of fullness at Christmas," Bengston stated, adding, "It is fun to be a part of this service, which has a great deal of meaning and purpose to me."

It's Christmas Eve. The Christ the King candle in front of the pulpit is lit. With Stuart Dibley leading the service, it begins with singing of favorite Christmas carols from the old hymnal. Deb (Lapham) Wray provides accompaniment with the old pump organ.

Dibley reads the scripture verses about Jesus' birth from the old Bible, and Pastor Bengston provides a message and prayers. As is tradition, "Silent Night" is sung at the end of the service, and then people leave the church in silence.

Although no church records have been located regarding when Portland Prairie Church started this Christmas Eve service as is currently conducted, it is estimated to have begun about the late 1980s or about 25 to 30 years ago.

"At first, the service was at midnight, then 11, then 10 and now 9 p.m.," Dibley and Wray recall. There have only been a couple of times that it was cancelled due to the weather being too cold.

"Even then," Wray added, "I remember one time it was cancelled our family (Laphams) went anyway. The kids insisted, and the cousins took turns reading the Christmas story from the Bible."

Mary Ellen Lapham, Deb's mother, conveyed, "Going to this little church in the cold winter snow has always been a meaningful part of our Christmas Eve and is a reminder of days ago."

For years, Stuart Dibley has taken care of getting the building and grounds ready, leading the service and reading the scriptures. He made the candleholders from 2x4s and gets them set up on the windowsills.

History of the church

In light of this annual Christmas Eve service, it is most appropriate to recall the history of this early pioneer church.

The Caledonia United Methodist (UMC) and Portland Prairie churches share a great deal of history as they were served by the same church conference and shared the same pastors.

To set the scene, Minnesota became a territory in 1849. In 1852, the government drew the state line, and the following year, drew sections and quarter sections. A land office was opened in Brownsville in 1854 so people could buy land from the government.

As early as 1851, pioneers from the eastern states, including New Portland, Maine, settled on Portland Prairie.

The first settlers who came in 1854 were Methodist from the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. They traveled by train to Chicago to Rockford, Ill., stagecoach to Galena, Ill., and riverboat to Lansing, Iowa. Then they traveled 20 miles by ox team, walked, etc., arriving on Portland Prairie.

The church was organized in 1855 and services were held in homes. After the McNelly schoolhouse was built in 1858, it was used until the group linked with the Caledonia Methodist Church.

According to an article written in 1904 about history of the Caledonia Church, one of the early pastors, the Rev. J. L. Dyer (1857), "was an elderly man, with a rough exterior, and popularly known as 'Sledge Hammer Dyer,' because of his energetic demonstrations in the pulpit. Before entering the ministry he worked in the Galena lead mines in Illinois."

The first meeting about building a church was held Jan. 3, 1876, in the house of Dr. George and Ellen Healy Cass, who donated the land upon which the church sits.

The Eastlake architectural style uses geometric shapes in simple, elegant motifs.

In June of the same year the church was completed and occupied, but it wasn't until June 30, 1877, that the church, called Portland Prairie Methodist Episcopal Church, was dedicated. Total cost of the project was $1,540.

The first baptism was that of John Henderson McNelly (infant) on May 5, 1877; first wedding: Fremont Yeaton Metcalf (in fact it was Fremont Everett) and Mary Eva Shumway, July 3, 1877; and first funeral: Florence Yeaton Metcalf, May 16, 1879.

The agricultural community of Portland Prairie was thriving, and at one time 35 families belonged to this church.

After wheat rust caused crop failure in the 1880s, many of these first families, who had endured so much, sold out and moved on west to the Dakotas and Indian Territory in Nebraska.

In 1925, the Portland Prairie church sold the cemetery to the Portland Prairie Cemetery Association. The oldest person buried there was born in 1770 and died in 1857.

In 1932, when Portland Prairie ended regular services, families transferred their memberships to the Caledonia Methodist Church and the rural church has been preserved with one or more services held there annually.

In 1935, the remaining families transferred to the Caledonia church. Through the years, 39 ministers have served this congregation.

The Portland Prairie Church building is owned by the Caledonia UMC and an independent community group, The Portland Prairie Cemetery Association, which have taken physical responsibility for the church structure.

The church steeple, which was originally tall and pointed, has gone through several changes through the years. In the early 1900s the style was changed and again in the 1950s. The current steeple style, while maybe not as spectacular as the others, is more practical for upkeep.

For the 1976 centennial celebration of the church building, a rustic cross was made from cedar posts saved from a fence that at one time surrounded the property. The cross was mounted on the interior wall at the front of the church.

In 1978, the Portland Prairie Church and cemetery transferred to Caledonia, and in 1982, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A celebration of the 150th anniversary of the church building took place the summer of 2006, and included a cemetery walk to celebrate the first meetings of the pioneers.

Continued use despite closure

Through the years, the church has had weddings, baptisms, cemetery walks and family reunions. And, each year the pioneer church opens its doors for two worship services. One is held on the last Sunday in July with a hymn sing prior to the service, and a potluck lunch on the church grounds immediately following the service.

The other service is held on Christmas Eve. With no heat and only the illuminating glow of candles and kerosene lamps, it is truly a memorable and humbling experience, a reminder of times past.

The scriptures are read from the 1869 Bible given to the church by the family of Leonard Albee, who came to Portland Prairie from Burrillville, R.I., in 1858.

The pump organ, which is used for services, was given to the church in 1947 when the Caledonia church bought a new organ.

During the summer of 2011, a historical tour group of 50 people from the upper Midwest visited the church. They enjoyed hearing the history of the church and were treated to some good old Portland Prairie hospitality.

Maintenance always needed

The Portland Prairie Cemetery Association has been taking care of the building for a long time, and since December 2007 has had ownership of the church property. They hope to continue this responsibility with support from people who care about the church.

"We take great pride in the building as it is a landmark of the Portland Prairie area," stated Deb (Lapham) Wray, secretary/treasurer and annual newsletter editor for the cemetery association. "We will continue to maintain and repair gravestones as needed."

Over the years some of the upkeep has included fixing windows that were broken in a hailstorm in 1996. The exterior of the church was painted in 2005.

During the summer of 2007, inside repair and painting over the wallpaper was completed. That fall, the east side of the property was cleared of some brush and the outhouse was put on new foundation beams.

In subsequent years, the foundation stones were removed and reset with new concrete, two new beams were placed under the floor on the north and south sides, new concrete stairs and a sidewalk section were completed, and the siding was repaired.

Members cleaned up toppled trees, trimmed bushes and set the outhouse upright.

Work completed before this year's July service included some repairs to the exterior of the building and applying a new coat of paint in earth tones.

The cemetery association continues to collect historical information and complete church records of baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.

Each family with historical connections to Portland Prairie is encouraged to submit a family tree to be kept as part of the church records and enable families to research their family as they visit Portland Prairie.

Current members of the Portland Prairie Cemetery Association are Carol Horn, Deb Wray, Stuart and Ruth Ann Dibley, Mary Ellen Lapham, Loren Lapham, Wesley Lapham and Steve Lapham.

Direct correspondence and questions to: Deb (Lapham) Wray, 11636 Snake Point Dr., Caledonia, MN 55921, phone (507) 495-3265 or email