First Congregational celebrates 150th anniversary with community events
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd will observe its sesquicentennial anniversary with a “Summer of Celebration” that includes public events, such as a concert, a reunion, a celebratory service, a silent auction, and a party and a picnic in a park, and more.
BRAINERD — First Congregational United Church of Christ is celebrating its 150th anniversary with not one but several community-based events.
The Brainerd church at Juniper and North Fifth streets is observing its sesquicentennial anniversary a year after the city celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding.
“I've been really looking at a lot of newspapers from way back,” said Cynthia Janes, a member of the church and co-coordinator of the church’s anniversary celebratory events. “The sanctuary is the oldest in the Brainerd area right now.”
First Congregational United Church of Christ is one of Brainerd’s first churches. The land on which it stands was granted in a transfer of ownership in 1872 by the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Co. to J. Gregory Smith “as Trustee for the Congregational Church and Society.”
“I was able to move here with my wife, Charlotte, and we've been together 42 years,” Janes said of relocating from North Carolina. “Before that, I was coming up to help my mother stay in her home.”
According to the Crow Wing County Historical Society, the Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew chose the spot in 1870 where the tracks would cross the Mississippi River. A year later, the first train rolled into Brainerd.
“I attended the church that my mother went to, which is the First Congregational Church, here, and just loved the people in the church and the community and the feeling, and it was a big reason that we moved here to Brainerd was that church,” Janes said.
The East Gull Lake resident who is in her 70s worked as a medical psychologist before she retired.
“People in that church — if there's something that's really interesting and helpful going on to build community or to help people in need in Brainerd — people in that church are often involved in it,” Janes said.
Smith, a Congregationalist, not only donated the funds for the church building but was involved with the design and construction, according to church officials, and an organ and pews were donated by Congregationalists in Vermont. The local congregation supplied the bell.
“We're not a church of believing this and that and the other thing,” Janes said. “We're a church of following Jesus’ example of helping those who need help and improving the community by spreading love by doing things, not just talking about it.”
First Congregational United Church of Christ was officially organized on Aug. 13, 1872, with 18 members. The cornerstone was laid on Aug. 14, 1872, and dedicated on Jan. 22, 1873.
Gregory Park is directly across the street from the church and was named for the church’s founder, and the city of Brainerd was named for his wife’s maiden name.
“Her father was a senator and Mr. Smith named the town of Brainerd after that family — after his wife’s father and his wife — and he founded our church,” Janes said. “He paid for it. He built it.”
The wooden structure was destroyed by fire Jan. 7, 1881, and was rebuilt with the funding coming once again from Smith.
“He wasn't here anymore when it burned down. But he still paid for building a new church that is still in existence,” Janes said. “And it’s also interesting that it's built with the same bricks that the Northern Pacific shops are built from.”
By May 1881, $4,000 had been raised through donations and the current building was erected in the summer of 1881 at a cost of $13,000, according to local historian Ann M. Nelson, “and contains the finest stained glass windows in the city of Brainerd.”
“People got together and said, ‘You know, this person was so important in the creation of our church, in the community, let's memorialize that person. Let's put something permanent, that we can point to,’” Janes said of the 16 adults and three children depicted in the windows.
“Those people were honored because their values were ones that people thought were important. And those values were helping others who are in need and building community.”
The current building was dedicated Sept. 30, 1883. And from that date, First Congregational United Church of Christ has been home to the oldest sanctuary in continuous use in the entire Brainerd area and remains a vibrant part of the Brainerd community, according to officials.
“We need love and we need acts of kindness and community building, and that's what we're all about,” Janes said.
During the long history of the church, its congregations have been dedicated to helping the community beyond its doors with a message of service to others and one of inclusion and acceptance of all, according to church officials.
“If you think Jesus was a good person and you like the example, then here's a place that you can find like-minded people to do good in the world when so much hate is prevalent now in our society,” Janes said.
The church invites Brainerd lakes area residents to celebrate its long history by attending one of the sesquicentennial events, which begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 19, with a pipe organ concert, sanctuary and stained-glass windows presentations, and a silent auction.
“It’s a very, very well-built church, so it's going to be there for another 150 years — we hope,” Janes said.
'Summer of Celebration' events
- 3 p.m. Sunday, June 19 — “Pipe Organ Concert and Stories in Stained Glass” with organists Laura Raedeke and Grace Forbord. A presentation about the historic sanctuary and stained-glass windows and a silent auction will also occur. (Arrive early for a self-guided tour.)
- 5-8 p.m. June 25 — “All Church Reunion” of current and former attendees and their friends and families are invited to enjoy an hors d'oeuvre buffet and a history video that includes many from the church’s long history, or participate in the ongoing silent auction.
- 10 a.m. June 26 — “Celebratory Service of Live Music” will feature local musicians on the church lawn. Root beer floats will be offered as a summertime treat, and attendees will have one more chance to bid on the silent auction.
- 5-7 p.m. July 19 — “Party and Picnic in the Park” is an open invitation to surrounding churches, neighborhood residents and all who may be interested in joining the congregation for free food, games, other fun activities and a few surprises.
- 10 a.m. Aug. 14 — “Rooted in Faith, Growing in Love” is the culminating service of the church’s 150th-anniversary celebration. The service will be filled with special music, feature a mayoral proclamation and will be followed by a dessert buffet.
FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at
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