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Multigenerational farmers describe Fairfield

Glenn Leitz and Karl Felgenhauer, whose forebears and families helped shape the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Fairfield, recently reflected on the backgrounds, mission and life in their churches that helped lay seeds for their sharing a pastor.

Except for a few years at college and in military service, Glenn and Karl have lived in Fairfield and attended their churches all their lives.

Their roots are in farm families who homesteaded in the area in the 1880s.

Glenn Leitz

Glenn Leitz

Glenn is the third generation of his family at Zion Lutheran, and Karl, the second generation at First Presbyterian.

While committed to their own congregations, they are ready to engage in ecumenical relations, especially when it serves their churches’ mission.

“In my lifetime, the movement to ecumenism has been dramatic,” said Glenn.  “Our sharing a pastor is an example in our community of putting ecumenism in operation.  We were motivated by practicalities and our faith to meet the realities of our times.

“It made sense to share a pastor so we can offer a salary and benefits package to draw a pastor and provide a good livelihood,” he said.  “I envision moving ahead, not going back, even if both churches grow.”

Karl Felgenhauer

Karl Felgenhauer

Karl said the collaboration is not the first ecumenical involvement for him or the churches.

In 1983, he hosted a visitation team from the World Council of Churches before its sixth assembly in Vancouver.  They came because of his involvement for three years with the late Ed Brewer, at First Presbyterian, and Reinhold Leitz and Ralph Kline of Zion Lutheran in the Church World Service/CROP wheat campaign.

They collected wheat from neighbors’ harvesters in the fields.  CROP either sold it to support programs, such as digging wells in Africa or South America, or shipped it abroad to feed people. 

“We drove a bulk tank under a harvester’s spigot, and the farmer said when to close it,” Karl said.

Ed, a proponent of mission, also scrounged the area for windmills, dismantling them and sending parts to build windmills abroad.

In addition, local farmers gave bags of lentils, shipped through the Seventh Day Adventist Church to Siberia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When those projects ended, many went “back into their own congregations and denominations,” Karl said, preferring to give locally so they see how the funds are used. 

With the financial crunch about paying salaries, pastors also began to say little about wider church ministries, he noted.

Both churches have had minister’s children become missionaries, giving Zion Lutheran ties in Papua New Guinea and First Presbyterian interest in Thailand.

First Presbyterian sponsored two Vietnamese refugee families: In 1975, a family of five settled in Fairfield until they moved to California.  In 1989, a mother and son they helped lived in Spokane.

First Presbyterian has also been involved in Heifer Project globally and hosting a local senior nutrition program.

Glenn and Karl also described roots of the churches and community through their family stories.

Both trace their local family roots to German settlers in the Fairfield area in the 1880s.  Many were Lutheran.

Glenn’s family was among the 26 families who founded Zion and still have descendants in the church. 

At first, circuit riders—ministers on horseback—served the German Lutheran settlers who met in homes or the schoolhouse.

By 1891, Zion was organized.  At that time, Lutheran churches were based on ethnicity and language—Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and German.

“Everything was in German only until 1932,” said Glenn.  “When I was a child, we had a German and an English service.  German services ended with World War II.”

His maternal grandmother never learned to speak English.  She felt no need, because all her friends spoke German, but her husband learned English for farming. 

Although Glenn’s parents spoke German at home and didn’t learn English until they began school, his generation spoke English at home, so he knows only some German.

Zion Altar

Altar at Zion Lutheran

The Lutheran church reached its peak of 250 members after World War II.  People of German Lutheran background used to come from 20 to 30 miles away.  It was the only German Lutheran church in the northern Palouse.

Glenn said that more than 40 years ago, he and his father met with Lutheran, Presbyterian and Adventist men for a monthly ecumenical breakfast that rotated among the churches.

“Farm families have been the bedrock of the congregation,” he said, noting that the decline in farm population meant a “steady erosion of membership.”

In addition, people gradually lost attachment to denominations.  They would join church activities in their own towns rather than going to Fairfield or they might commute to a contemporary church in Spokane Valley.

Glenn knows there has also been some attrition because of controversies, primarily between “those favoring liberalization and modernization, and those who do not.

“As in any congregation, conservatives and liberals may argue,” he said, adding that most continue their participation in the church community.

For example, the vote to join former ethnic Lutheran synods as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the 1970s concerned some. 

Some allow divisive issues to be a reason to leave, but many continue despite differences.

“We have gone through divisive issues several times in my lifetime,” Glenn said.

First Presbyterian Church was organized in October 1892 by eight people who came from various churches.  They were farmers and merchants.  They built a building in 1894 and began a Sunday school in 1898.

Presbyterian Altar

Altar at First Presbyterian

Over the years, the church has served various Protestants—Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others, Karl said. 

From the 1890s to 1940s, most pastors stayed one or two, maybe three years, until the Rev. Clayton Saunders came in 1941 from Omak, where Karl’s mother, Elizabeth, grew up.  He stayed until 1968.

Karl said the church’s peak membership during his ministry was about 150.  In 1965, they built the present building.  In 1992, there were 128 members, and now there are about 100. 

Karl’s maternal grandmother grew up in a Presbyterian church  in Illinois, came as a single mother with three daughters to teach in Omak in 1908. 

His mother, who died in September, came to Fairfield to teach after graduating from Washington State College.  She married his father, whose family had been unchurched, and involved him and their three sons in church life.

Karl joined the church at 12 in 1952.  He had the same pastor until he went to Washington State University and earned a degree in agriculture.  He married in his senior year, and his wife, Ione, spent two years traveling with him in the military, primarily in Europe.

In his mother’s memorial service, Karl said, family members recalled her commitment as a Christian not only to the church but also to mending a two-generation split in his father’s family.

His parents were among the young couples the pastor gathered after World War II, in a Presbyterian Mariner’s Club, which became a community social group.

When Walter Hart, a Seventh-Day Adventist physician, came to the community, he and his wife, Dorothy, joined Mariner’s Club, even as they organized the Adventist church in Fairfield. 

Doctors Francis and Shirley Thiel, also Adventists, came later.  Together they helped establish Upper Columbia Academy in Spangle.

In recent years, the Adventist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches have held an Easter sunrise service and breakfast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the community in the 1940s, said Karl, and by the 1970s, built a Kingdom Hall.

In neighboring communities, Rockford, six miles north, has a Methodist and a Catholic church and six miles south is Latah Valley Bible Church, which is connected to Valley Fourth Memorial.