HISTORY OF THE
First United Presbyterian Church
OF NORFOLK, NEBRASKA
April 24, 1896 – April 24, 2014
To recall the history of the heroic struggle of our founders through the early years—these main facts have been condensed and transferred from a booklet written by Ida Knoll McDuffee, typed by Bessie Rottler, and blessed by Rev. Robert Ware and the committee of elders—1963. “It is the record of a truly pioneering group.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk was organized at the residence of Dr. J. W. Plummer, April 24, 1896. The Rev. Samuel F. Sharpless and the Rev. William E. Kimball were delegated by the Presbytery of Niobrara to perfect the organization. By their action the Rev. Sharpless became the first minister of the church. Ten members brought letters of transfer from other Presbyterian churches and one became a member on profession of faith. The eleven members of the new organization elected two elders: Dr. J. W. Plummer and John C. Ransdall.
In August of 1897 Dr. Plummer passed on. The wife of Elder Ransdall was admitted by letter from her home church in Whiteland, indiana, and so at the end of the first year the membership remained at eleven. By 1898 the church had a membership of seventeen. The next five years, services were held in homes and sometimes in the G A R Hall for a small rental fee. It was a time of general depression and a struggle to keep going.
By 1902, even though membership was low, they realized that they needed a church building. It was in the Minutes of the Annual Meeting of 1902 that the Ladies Aid received its first mention. The ladies had the pioneers faith and courage. With cash on hand raised by suppers, sewing, and dues, and by borrowing $70.00 dollars from the bank, the Ladies Aid assumed the rent of the G A R hall and purchased two lots for the new church. No records for the building of that first church can be found, but on November 29, 1903, they dedicated the new building. The new church was a small one-room structure located at Philip Avenue and South 9th Street. The Rev. F. P. Wigton had become pastor during the building of the church. Soon he suggested the addition of a Sunday School room which met with hearty approval. The Annual Report of April 18, 1906 gives the total membership as 43. The following year they reported a loss of 5—total membership 38.
Church membership reported at the Annual Meeting, April 1918, was 125. It was the consensus of opinion that the little church could no longer serve their needs. In October 1918, following the resignation of the current Rev. Nickerson to do Y.M.C.A. war work in France, a call was issued to Rev. Edward Loew of Dell Rapids, So. Dakota. A meeting of the congregation was called on February 21, 1919 to establish a building committee. The Rev. Loew devoted every ounce of his energy and generous gifts from his salary to the building program. The subject of Rev. Loew and his contribution and personal sacrifice for First Presbyterian Church is a story for another time. Rev. Loew (like St. Paul) was converted from Judaism. “Labor, hardship, discouragement – nothing daunted him.”
January 27, 1920, a Congregational Meeting was called. The trustees recommended for a location the two lots on South 10th Street between Madison and Norfolk Avenues. The minutes of the Annual Congregational Meeting on April 5, 1920 show total membership 124 , Young Peoples Society: 20, Ladies Aid: 25, Sunday School enrollment: 70, Cradle Roll was 15. Rev. Loew , having been with the church just over a year, had inspired the church to change the plans from a $12,000 church to a $30,000 church. At the dedication October 16, 1922, the folder announced that the building, the furniture, and the lot combined cost $56,000.
The actual building began in the fall of 1921. It was then that Rev. Loew told the members he felt he was not the one to build up the membership. After looking carefully for a successor, he recommended to the Pulpit Committee the Rev. P. M. Orr—“ a thrifty, young Scotchman, enthusiastic, a good pulpit man, and a tireless worker. He was hired July 7, 1922.
As time passed, the town grew and the church grew. Then on October 26, 1930 Rev. Orr, received a call to a larger church. The search began for a new minister. A depression was gripping the country. Local banks failed, businesses closed, and mortgage foreclosures of farms were announced in every evening newspaper. The church suffered no less than all others. The church struggled for the next several years. Then, on January 22, 1939, the call was issued to Dr. Ray Turner who was serving his first charge after graduating from Seminary where he had stayed on until earning his doctorate. During his first year Dr. Turner added 53 new members. Every department of the church began growing. Membership was reported to be 319. The year April, 1941 to April, 1942 Dr. Turner reported 111 new members; loss by letter and death, 31; total membership on April 1, 1942 was 512. Dr. Turner reported about 1,000 pastoral calls during the year–extraordinary, since Dr. Turner had no car—he was still paying Seminary bills. Dr. Turner felt called to serve as chaplain in the war. His resignation became effective December 1, 1942. Succeeding Dr. Turner was Rev. William Erwin. The pulpit committee had known of Rev. Erwin who—in spite of his youth—was an outstanding pulpit man and an unusually fine Bible student. Fortunately, there was no interim period without a pastor. First on his agenda was revising the church roll. The revised roll was 349. Rev. Erwin added 33 members his first year. Church school attendance averaged 117. The Men’s Club sponsored Boy Scout troops. Year ending April 5, 1944, Rev. Erwin reported 54 added to the rolls, 28 dismissed, and 25 suspended. Total enrolled: 382. Rev. Erwin was released on August 6, 1944 to accept a pastorate in the south. He still lacked a year at the seminary and the calling and details of such a large parish left him little time for reading and study.
January 18, 1945, the Rev. C. C. Light from northern Minnesota was elected minister. Rev. Light was a man in his fifties, scholarly and dignified, and recommended as having a special aptitude for work with young people. During Rev. Light’s first year, 48 members were suspended and 32 new members added. Total membership was 371. The 50th Anniversary of the church fell on April 24, 1946. The church still had a large outstanding debt with the Board of National Missions, there was a Restoration Fund to be raised, and a debt owed Hastings College. The Board was contacted and a special concession granted. The Board would forgive all interest if the original debt could be raised. The Board sent their special collector, Mr. C. A. Demarest. Mr. Demarest organized the drive as only an expert could. The highest hope was that the debt owed the Board could be raised. When the report was in there was enough raised to repay the Board, fund the Restoration Fund, pay the debt to Hastings College, with extra left for local church needs. It didn’t seem possible! The First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk could now go forward—debt free. The Congregational meeting on April 10, 1947, showed a total membership of 401.
At the Annual Meeting in January 1948, The Trustees and Session recommended Rev. Light’s salary be increased to cover the extra expense of his illness. Rev. Light was treated at Mayo Clinic for a problem centered in his throat. His voice became weak and he labored to make himself heard. Rev. Light offered his resignation effective February 1, 1952 to conserve what strength he still had. His goodbye’s were said in whispers. The sympathy of the entire congregation followed the Rev. and Mrs. Light.
A Congregational meeting was called and a Pulpit Committee elected. The advice from the church members was that the candidate be young, vigorous, and have a good public speaking voice. Before the Pulpit Committee had outlined a procedure, a letter came from Ministerial Relations for Laramie Presbytery of Wyoming to the Executive of Nebraska’s Synod, Omaha, Nebraska. They had a young man who wished to be considered a candidate for the pulpit of Norfolk Presbyterian Church. His name was Robert Ware. Rev. Ware, a native of New Jersey, had come west for his college education. He graduated from Park College of Parkville, Missouri, a Presbyterian school, and completed his work at San Francisco Theological Seminary. His wife was a graduate of Park College and had done special work at the Seminary in music. Rev. Ware had served the church in Saratoga, Wyoming for five years. Rev. Ware was invited to come to Norfolk without the Pulpit Committee first hearing or seeing him. Rev. Ware was a vigorous young man with a firm step, a friendly look, and a reassuring manner. On June 5, 1952 the Rev. Robert Ware was duly installed as minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk.
“The only record of the founding of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk is the Minutes of the Session of that date, April 24, 1896. This book has long since been falling apart—the binding broken and pages loose and brown with age, and the ink blurred and faded.”