Foundation breathes life into historic church

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Anderson Elshoff, 10, of Holland, lights candles before the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Maple Grove Church just outside Huntingburg on Tuesday. Anderson's aunt, Elizabeth Elshoff, has been attending the candlelight service her whole life and is now a member of the board. "I remember coming out here as a little one," she said. "This was so important to me."

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

It was Christmas Eve and Elizabeth Elshoff, 64, of Huntingburg, was leaving her family Christmas party early. But she wasn’t headed home to go to bed and wait for Santa Claus. She was headed to Maple Grove, a historic church just southwest of Huntingburg’s city limits off County Road 585 West.

Once at the church, Elizabeth set about turning on the furnace that would heat the almost-200-year-old structure for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, a tradition at the old church that stretches almost unbroken for more than 50 years.

“I remember coming out here as a little one,” she said. “It was just so important to come out here.”

Missing out on family time to care for Maple Grove is nothing new for Elizabeth. In fact, it’s in her blood. Her father, Alvin, cared for the church grounds until his death in June, as did his father, Daniel. Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Henry Elshoff, and his father, John, were among the German-speaking men who built the church in 1844, and both are buried in the cemetery on the grounds. It’s that family connection that keeps Elizabeth connected to the grounds, and it’s part of what led her to be a founding member of the Historic Maple Grove Foundation.

The foundation formed earlier this year after Maple Grove’s parent church, Huntingburg United Methodist, announced its plans to sell the property. Many members of the foundation — there are nine voting board members and several advisory members — attend Huntingburg United Methodist, which grew from Maple Grove, and have strong ancestral ties to the site. The group plans to acquire the property, fix it up and turn it back into the community gathering space it once was.

Friends and family gather for the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Maple Grove Church just outside Huntingburg on Tuesday.

“I just didn’t want to see it fall apart,” said Arlene Wagner of St. Anthony, a member of the Historic Maple Grove Foundation who has ancestors buried in the cemetery.

The group has almost reached its goal. Of the $90,000 needed to purchase the property — which includes the church, the cemetery and several cabins that made up a church camp for several decades — the group has raised $70,000. Elizabeth said they plan to take out a loan to help purchase the site because they will need money on hand to begin improvements soon after purchase. The plan is to close the sale in mid-January.

Once the foundation owns the property, community events like the traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service will become the norm. The group also has plans to continue the tradition of holding an Easter candle-lit sunrise service in the old church, and to hold an adult Easter egg hunt at the property this year. The group is also brainstorming other events that can be held at the site.

News of the area getting new life is exciting for residents along County Road 585 West, many of whom live within walking distance of the area. Jan Miller, a local pastor who led the Christmas Eve service and lives near the site, has many fond memories of family gatherings at the site, including his wedding reception.

“This place has been a great blessing to the community for many years,” he said.

As the attendees, many of whom were not members of the Historic Maple Grove Foundation, filed out of the church just before midnight on Christmas Eve, Elizabeth handed out information about the land’s history and the work the foundation plans to do. Hopefully, she said, those people will return to Maple Grove time and again, as she and her family have returned to the site for generations.

Brenda Kahle of Holland, left, and her husband, Lynn, close their eyes in prayer during the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Maple Grove Church just outside Huntingburg on Tuesday. The candlelight service has been held at the church for more than 50 years.



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