Excerpts in the Life of North Presbyterian Church

An accumulation of important information in the life of North Presbyterian Church, 1870-1995.

“The earliest religious service in North La Crosse, conducted by a minister of the Presbyterian Church, was held in the school house, June 10, 1866…

“Rev. J. Irwin Smith preached June 10, and regularly until Feb. 10, 1867, from which date he ministered here regularly each Sabbath morning until December 1867 when the hour was changed to afternoon appointment.”

The above begins a history of North Presbyterian Church as recorded by Rev. J. Irwin Smith in1872 in the first Session record book.

The Rev. J. Irwin Smith, a missionary, came to La Crosse in 1866 to explore the possibility of starting a Presbyterian Church, The result was the establishment of First Presbyterian Church in that same year. Along with his ministry at First Church, Mr. Smith began to hold services in the North La Crosse school house, which was located at Caledonia and St. James streets.

A year later the school house was purchased for $300 by Mr. Smith and his congregation moved to 911 Rose St. where it was refitted for church purposes. It was dedicated Aug. 9, 1868. Members of the group were still attached to the First Church.

On April 29, 1870, the Chippewa Presbytery received a petition from the 15 members of the First Presbyterian Church, who resided in North La Crosse, asking for a separate church to be known as the Church of North La Crosse. The request was granted and on Sunday, May 1, was constituted. Rev. J. Irwin Smith was pastor, with Asa H. Hankerson and Joseph E. Harkness as ordained ruling elders. Seven years later the name of the church was changed to the North Presbyterian Church of La Crosse and was incorporated the following year.

Early in the 1890s the church edifice was sold to St. James Catholic Church. About the same time work was begun on a new church building at Avon and Logan streets. Services were held in Wannebo Hall on the southeast corner of Clinton and Caledonia streets, until a new church could be used (about 1900).

In 1906, brick siding and stone trim was added to the church building. A Vocalion organ was purchased and was used until the dedication of a Wurlitzer electronic organ on March 7, 1948.

The pastors had lived in rented homes until 1913 when the congregation purchased a manse (dwelling) at 1552 Avon St. This was used until 1948 when it was sold and a new manse was constructed next to the church on Logan Street.

During the next few years the interior of the church building was improved and the steeple was removed. The final payment was made on a Grant Mortgage dating back to 1895, so the church property was entirely free of debt.

For several years a feeling for the need of expansion of present educational facilities or of relocation existed among some of the congregation. Because land was not available for expansion the question of relocation became a necessity. On Feb. 24, 1963, a special congregational meeting was held for the purpose of making a final decision. As a large majority favored moving, two and three quarters acres of land bounded by George Street, North Salem Road and Loomis Street was purchased from the La Crosse Catholic Diocese. On April 26, 1964, ground was broken and construction of the first unit, including educational facilities and a fellowship hall, was begun, It was completed and the move was made so that the first service came, appropriately, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1964. The new building was dedicated on Feb. 28, 1965.

In April 1965 severe flood conditions in the area prompted congregation members to sandbag the new building. On Easter Sunday, April 18, the sandbags in front of the main door were removed temporarily to allow entry for services. Fortunately the river did not reach the church.

The church and manse at Avon and Logan streets were sold to the Church of the Nazarene in 1965. A new manse was built on the Loomis Street side of the church property, and was ready for occupancy in November 1965.

To celebrate 100 years as a congregation, on Sunday, May 3, 1970, two services were held – a morning worship with Rev. H. Ralph Shirley (1949-1955) as speaker, and an evening Communion service conducted by Rev. Robert Hannon (1956-1959). On May 7 a congregational dinner was held in the fellowship hall with retired minister, Rev. Simeon Jewks of Madison as speaker.

With dreams of a sanctuary, a larger office for the pastor and a choir rehearsal room very much alive, studies were begun by committees in October 1971 to determine the feasibility of such a project. On March 3,1974, a building committee was elected by the congregation. Plans were quite firmly set by 1975 when Rev. Ron McMenamin received a call to Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

During the years of Rev. McMenamin’s pastorate, besides working closely with committees planning the addition to the building he helped organize the Mobile Meals program, the Family Planning Center and the Crises Phone. North Church’s congregation has been active in the community in the Mobile Meals delivery since that time.

On May 15, 1976, a Conn Church Organ with four sections of electronic pipes was installed.

At an evening dinner and ceremony on Nov. 28, 1976, the 12-year mortgage on the manse and church was burned and a campaign for funds to the sanctuary addition was begun. On Nov. 27, 1977, ground was broken.

On Sept. 17, 1978, 21 months after the burning of the $152,000 mortgage, the congregation celebrated the completion of the new $175,000 sanctuary. At an outdoor service, Rev. Allan Townsend introduced the Jazz Liturgy to the congregation with the sermon, “Putting Joy Back into Religion.” The Bob Hirsch All Stars furnished the music.

The sanctuary was officially dedicated on Nov. 12, 1978, with Rev. Allan Townsend, pastor, Rev. Ron McMenamin and Rev. Leonard Beenken participating in the service.

The following year, 1979, the congregation voted to change its government with two boards, elders and trustees, to a unicameral board of nine elders. This board is responsible for the spiritual and corporate activities of the church.

On June 10, 1980, Rev. Townsend and his Wonderful World Jazz Band presented a Jazz Liturgy at the meeting of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies in Ames, Iowa.

A celebration to honor Rev. Townsend’s 25 years in the ministry was held June 1, 1986. An outdoor Jazz Liturgy was followed by a serenade by area jazz musicians.

In 1988 some improvements were made in the sanctuary. More effective lighting and a better sound system were installed. The dais was enlarged to accommodate the organ and piano and more pews were added. Carpeting was laid in the narthex, corridor and fellowship hall and the walls were painted.

Rev. Townsend was honored with the Iverson-Freking Ecumenical Recognition Award in 1989. This award is given annually by the Bethany-St. Joseph Corporation.

During the next few years, the music ministry of the church received extra attention. In1988 a Baldwin grand piano was purchased with donations from members and friends of the church. In1992 a Rogers digital church organ was purchased with assistance from the Presbyterian Women and memorials. New choir robes and stoles were donated to the church and those they replaced were donated to the Oakwood United Methodist Church in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

The first annual Jazz on the Green with Rev. Allan Townsend and his Wonderful World Jazz Band was held in June 1992 on the north lawn of the church. This event was to benefit Causeway, an Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers organization to aid the elderly.

Because Rev. Leonard Beenken (1960-1970) was pastor during the period when the congregation was involved in the move to a new location, the congregation honored him during the morning worship on Nov. 22, 1992, and at a dinner following the service.

On April 27, 1994, the congregation celebrated and dedicated the renovated and expanded parking lot.

In that same year through the generosity of a member of the congregation, the sanctuary, fellowship hall, choir room, narthex, nursery and offices were air-conditioned.

The last 125 years have consisted of a variety of things:

  • Joy of making new friends and sorrow of parting from old friends.
  • Concern about how a small church could survive some of the difficult years and thankfulness when progress was made during the good years.
  • Holding on to the good things of the past but being willing to make changes for growth.
  • Participation by many people who gave of themselves in leadership, teaching, committee work, manual labor, musical participation, financial assistance, and in countless other ways.
  • Through these experiences members of a congregation grow in love and concern for others, learn what it means to be a Christian, and strengthen their faith in God who makes it all possible.