1850 : church bell rings again

Neuchatel was founded in the 1850's by a little band of French nationals from Switzerland. A church was started.

Here is the story of its struggles and rebirth

By EULA MAE KELLY - Kansas Farmer, December 2, 1950

AFTER a silence of 8 years clear tones of a church bell ring out across creek valleys of Neuchatel township in southwest Nemaha county.

Call to worship would be sweet music to the founding French fathers who sleep in the grassy cemetery beside the country church on the hilltop.

For it was they who established the church 80 years ago.

With reopening of regular Sunday school and occasional church services, the whole community has found new life. Co-operative effort of reorganizing and redecorating the church, spearheaded by the Neuchatel home demonstration unit, aroused community consciousness. Now there is wholehearted interest in planning and working together.

When Ruth Bishop, Nemaha county home agent, organized the Neuchatel unit in February, 1950, the 19 members immediately cast about for a community project worthy of their mettle.

The lonely old church challenged them most of all.

It looked like an ambitious undertaking for a brand-new unit-this bringing a church back to life, and a big job of redecorating besides! But Mrs. Goodlet Bonjour, unit president, was enthusiastic. Once the unit started the ball rolling, others would help, she was confident.

They did. Men folks of the community, led by ·Clifford Labbe, raised money, enlisted volunteer labor.

Doors Were Closed

Like many a pioneer church, the one at Neuchatel had struggled with shifting ministry, financial reverses and changing times. But a faithful few had kept the spark alive until the opening of World War II when all services were discontinued, and the church doors were closed.

Closed they remained until opened this spring by a determined clean-up crew from the Neuchatel home demonstration unit. The women were greeted by a swarm of bees and a scurry of mice. Undaunted, they scrubbed and cleaned with a will.

They found the woodwork and the sturdy old walnut pulpit and pews in good condition. But the roof leaked, plaster sagged, and ceiling paper was discolored. In good time, workmen repaired roof and plaster, wired for electricity, and repapered. A new rubber matting went down on the church aisles.

Now the old church with its high vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows was shining and clean. First meeting of the Sunday school after reorganization was on May 21. Mrs. Walter Robbins serves as superintendent and Mrs. Lloyd Robbins as secretary treasurer. Attendance ranges between 50 and 65 each Sunday morning. Many adults join the children at the service.

A homecoming dinner on June 4 stimulated further interest. Dr. Heinz Schwartz, pastor of the Congregational church at Centralia, 71/2 miles away, already has conducted several evening services. There is a promise of more.

The unit women are not satisfied yet. Their next step will be to cut the high hedge and landscape the entire church ground.

A look back into history of the little church community reveals Neuchatel as one of the few purely French settlements in Kansas. It was founded in the 1850's by a little band of French nationals from Neuchatel, Switzerland, who gave the same name to their new frontier.

A Careful Record

The simple, touching chronicle of the little church community has been meticulously put together in the neat handwriting of Ida E. Perrussel, a native of Neuchatel. In preparing the church history, she drew from the church records and from her own family lore.

"As early as 1860," her history states, “the little settlement was visited by a French missionary from the Presbyterian church who distributed Bibles and religious tracts."

He was followed in 1870 by the Reverend Henry Morel, who came to Neuchatel with his wife and young daughter from Green Bay, Wisc. He organized the French Presbyterian church and a year later the first church was built on lots donated by the late Charles Bonjour.

Borrowed $1,800

Building the church was financed by an $1,800 loan from the presbytery with the implicit instruction that the loan was due when the building ceased to be a Presbyterian church.

Lumber, shingles and windows for the church were pulled over the rough trails from St. Joseph and Leavenworth by ox team. A sawmill on a nearby creek cut native timber into usable lengths. At the head of the building was one Carpenter Wyler. The hand-carved solid walnut pews, pulpit and bookcase are his handiwork. Pews may be turned either way and are put together with handwrought iron.

In this beautifully simple pioneer church, the Reverend Morel conducted French-speaking services and Sunday. school for 20 years. A vestige of these early days is the little French testament still found in the church library. In it, Luke is Luc, Mark is Marc and John is Jean. It bears the publishing date of 1860.

With the years came a growing demand for English services. Outside ministers preached part time in that tongue. Among these was the Reverend St. John from Netawaka. However, the older generation still wanted French preaching.

In the 1890's a 'parsonage Was built north of the churchyard. This attracted the Rev. Louis Martin and his family from Montreal, Canada. For 3 years he followed the rigorous schedule of French preaching every Sunday morning at 11, English Sunday school at 2, and English preaching at 7 :30 o'clock in the evening. Then came the Rev. James Knotter, from Monett, Mo., who remained 3 years.

In 1905 the first church was torn down and the present picturesque frame structure erected. Under leadership of Bruce Conaway and his helpers, plus much volunteer labor, the church was built and paid for by local efforts with no outside help. This time it was the Rev. E. A. Curdy from Monett, Mo., who took charge of the little flock. He was the last to preach in "both languages.

Since there no longer seemed, to be any need for French preaching, Neuchatel folks decided it was impractical, to try to keep the church French Presbyterian.

The Rev. F. 'L. Marcy, who was doing the part-time English services, was the Congregational pastor at nearby Onaga. After consultation, it was decided to tranfer to the Congregational church.

Here Was a Problem

Changing denomination of the little country church posed a financial problem. It meant the $1,800 loan from the French Presbyterian church became due. In true Christian charity, the presbytery settled for $300. This amount was paid by the Congregational Church Building Society in 1911. Once again Neuchatel was cleared of indebtedness.

Then followed a succession of Congregational ministers. including F. E. Marcy, 1910-12; F. L. Markhan, 1913-15; Aaron Breck, 1916-18; Charles Good, 1919-20; A. Brehm, 1921-22, and James Cone, 1923-24.

The church was without a minister for several years. The Rev. Wright M. Horton, from Onaga, preached from 1930 to 1932. Sunday school continued until the discontinuation of all services in 1942. Then came-the revival in 1950.

Those in the community Who have served as superintendents of the Sunday school thru the years are: Mrs. Roy Mathews, Charles Ladner, Mrs. Lina Bonjour, Mrs. Kate Dodds, John E. King, Mrs. Alcide Bonjour, Mr. Cottrell and Ida E; Perrussel. Mrs. Matilda Bonjour Bescancon was organist for French and also English services many years. Following her, Mrs. Esther Perrussel was organist 16 years.