Marshall Tingley was serving a church in Sioux City, Iowa, when the first lots were sold for Blair on March 10, 1869. The congregational minister was present at the sale and decided to move to the new town just west of the Missouri River.
Tingley tendered his resignation to the Iowa church before applying and receiving “a commission to labor in Blair” from the Home Missionary Society.
But while other denominations — Methodist, Baptist and Episcopalian — were coming into Blair, it was nearly a year after the town was founded that a congregational church was organized.
This year, the Blair Congregational United Church of Christ marks its 150th anniversary. A special jubilee celebration is planned for June 28.
Organizing and building the church
On Feb. 10, 1870, following a few weeks of Wednesday evening prayer meetings at Tingley's home, arrangements were made to organize a church. Eight members were present at that meeting and signed the constitution and confession of faith, according to an article in the Nov. 14, 1974, Enterprise.
Services of recognition were held Feb. 13, 1870.
But church services were difficult in the first few years as there was no permanent meeting place. Three years passed before enough funds were collected to construct a building.
On Nov. 22, 1874, the sanctuary was dedicated at the corner of 16th and Colfax streets. The Carpenter Gothic style building was designed by C.F. Driscoll and cost $2,070.
Honoring its first pastor
Tingley served the church until late 1876 after failing health forced him from the pulpit. Neighboring ministers and seminary students helped with the work until December 1877.
Tingley and his family later moved to Colorado Springs, where he died in 1879 from tuberculosis.
On the 25th anniversary of the church's founding, a special offering was taken as a memorial for the church's first pastor. The funds were used to purchase a round window, which is still in place in the choir loft of the sanctuary.
A sense of pride
From its beginning, the church building was well taken care of by its members. Improvements were made over the years, including in 1908 when a foundation and basement was completed; in 1953; and in 1957 when additional Sunday School space was added.
Through it all, the congregation has ensured the building has maintained its original look — a sense of pride for its members.
“Parishioners have taken it upon themselves to do a lot of the carpenter work and fix up,” said longtime member Ken Rhoades, who is the fourth generation of his family to attend the church.
As a child, Rhoades recalled his father, J. Hilton Rhoades, and other members working on the building.
“We'd go down there after working and there would be a whole bunch working to keep the church going,” he said.
On Sept. 21, 1975, the church dedicated a Nebraska Historical Marker on the grounds. In 1979, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the building is the oldest church structure still in use in the county.
'We're just like a family'
While the church has been around for 150 years, it has remained a small congregation. There are about 55 to 60 members. The average Sunday attendance is 36.
A small congregation, however, has its benefits, according to members.
“It's so family oriented. They are all so pleasant,” said Marge Johnson, who has belonged to the church for more than 60 years. “We're just like a family.”
It's that small congregation that Johnson said has allowed the church to sustain itself for 150 years.
“You get to know everybody. You just take care of one another in whatever way that need be,” said Johnson, who served as the church's treasurer for 30 years. “It's just such a welcoming, loving church.”
“I think it's the friendships between the members,” he said. “If you go to church there, you feel welcome.”
Craig Shogren and his family decided to visit the church after watching one of the renovations.
“One of the things that struck us was that they were adding onto their historic church and it looked like they were going to great lengths to maintain the structural continuity of a gothic church,” he said. “We were impressed that they must really have a deep regard for their own history if they want to as they're expanding still honor the style of their original building.”
Shogren and his family have now been members of the church for 18 years. He also serves as a lay pastor.
“The congregation needed someone to help fill the pulpit part of the time. I wanted to do what I could to help,” he said.
Cheryl Baron joined the church after serving as organist for about 35 to 40 years. She had previously been a member of First Lutheran Church, but because she played organ she was unable to attend services.
“This church was much like my home church in Kansas. A small church, very family type of feeling. Very different from the larger congregation,” she said. “I enjoy that kind of rapport with the people.”
The next generation of church members also enjoy the family atmosphere.
“Everyone is really nice,” said Caitlyn Rush, 14, who is taking confirmation classes with Freya Shogren, 13, and Avian Kile, 13.
“I like how our church reaches out to other people,” Avian said.
They also recognize the historical significance of their church.
“It gives me goose pimples knowing that a lot of generations of people have been here,” Freya said.
Struggles and survival
The last 150 years haven't come without challenges.
Through the years, it was often a struggle to find money to keep the church going. That was especially true during the Great Depression. Rev. Arthur Newell, a minister in the 1930s, received no state salary from 1933 until his resignation in April 1935. The board paid him as best they could, according to an article highlighting the first 100 years and published in the Enterprise.
Sixty years later, the church nearly closed. In fact, it came to a vote on April 13, 1994. Of the 18 who voted, eight voted to close it. The remaining members voted to keep it open.
“There was a point where they got down to eight people,” said Baron, who also serves as the church's secretary. “It was just the determined eight that vowed that this church would go on.”
Less than two weeks later, Shirley Schmidt of Arlington was called and began serving as the pastor. She remained in that position for 23 years.
“I've enjoyed every minute of it,” Schmidt said. “If I hadn't, I probably wouldn't have stayed that long.”
Schmidt, Baron said, allowed the church to remain.
“The right leadership of the right pastor and the dedication of those few members that worked very hard,” she said. “It was very important to them that this church continue.”
Schmidt, who was the church's longest serving pastor, attributed the church's longevity to its members.
“All the people in that church wanted to have a church, keep a church so badly, that they all just volunteered,” she said. “I have never seen such a group of volunteers to get things done. Never had to beg anyone, never had to ask them twice.”
Schmidt said the members' faith has also sustained the church.
“People know they have a need for a higher power,” she said. “Those of us who call ourselves Christians, follow Christ. For the most part, we need to be in church and get our strength there.”
Since Schmidt's retirement two years ago, the congregation has been without pastor.
“We have a search committee and have had. It's been two years they've been working at this,” Baron said. “Because it's a part-time position, it's very difficult to fill.”
But still the church continues.
“Because we are such a tight-knit family, we are surviving very nicely in the absence of a pastor,” Baron said. “We haven't skipped a beat. Nothing has changed. People do their jobs and it's all getting done and we're remaining strong.”
Blair Congregational Church charter members
Rev. Marshall Tingley
Blair Congregational Church ministers
Marshall Tingley 1870-1877
Williard Sperry summer 1877
A.W. Curtis 1877-1878
Randolph C. Campbell 1878-1880
George W. Wainwright 1880-1882
F.L. Fisk summer 1882
Henry M. Goodell 1882-1884
A.M. Case 1884-1887
A. Rogers 1887-1888
John Power 1889-1892
Thomas D. McClean 1893-1894
George G. Perkins 1894-1897
Guy Etherton summer 1897
F.W. Gardner 1899-1900
D.B. Simpson 1901
James Wallace Larkin 1901-1904
Archie Axtell 1904-1908
Jesse B. Burkhardt 1908-1909
A. Maurice Abbott 1909-1910
Royal C. Moodie 1911
George R. McKeith 1911-1913
Charles A. Gleason 1913
Jordan M. Kokjer 1914-1916
Abram R. Jones 1917-1920
H. Jeptha Sealey 1921-1923
Robert Inglis summer 1923
James A. McKuman 1923-1926
Arthur F. Newell 1926-1935
James H. Roman 1938-1940
Robert W. Hastings 1940-1941
Mrs. Derelle E. Barber 1941-1944
Watson F. Lewis 1944-1947
Charles W. Seward 1947-1949
Stephen Matheny 1949-1950
William B. Kline 1951-1953
Donald H. Scheuer 1953-1958
Stinus Loft 1958
Clare E. Olney 1958-1964
F.W. Thomsen 1964-1965
Harold E. Schaible 1965-1966
Gene Loftis 1966-1967
James R. Warn Jr. 1967-1973
John E. Fritzmeier 1973-1981
K.F. Kaleuati 1981-1983
Dwight Mason 1983
Debra Tompsett-Welch 1983-1990
Harold E. Schaible 1990-1994
Shirley Schmidt 1994-2017