‘The pandemic killed us': Church running since 1848 to hold final service Sunday

First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines
First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines in Iowa will hold it's final service on April 24, 2022, after nearly 170 years of ministry. |

After declining for years, the First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines in Iowa, which has been in operation since 1848, will gather for its final collective hallelujah on Sunday, unable to rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were declining and the pandemic killed us,” Kathy Smith, who has been a member of the church since 1984, told the Des Moines Register.

Already, the nearly 170-year-old church is offering up things for sale such as “hymnals, Bibles, communion sets, sanctuary furniture, choir music, tables, chairs, dishes, kitchen supplies” that will be available at the end of Sunday’s service, according to a notice published by the church. Some items will be available for pick up earlier. The church property is also expected to be sold to another church, business or commercial developer according to KCCI.

“It's really, really hard. As you can see, this is a beautiful place,” the church’s pastor, the Rev. Doug Basler, told KCCI.

He explained that the church only has 40 members. And the last service they had amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, only 15 people showed up.

“It was just hard for us to rebound and gain any momentum after the COVID year,” Basler told KCCI.

The Christian Post called the church on Friday for comment but did not receive a response by press time. 

The First Presbyterian Church, according to the Des Moines Register, was founded by John Stewart Dean in a log building next to the Des Moines River, where the Simon Estes Amphitheater now sits. When the congregation got too large for that space the church held services in the Supreme Court Room in Iowa's "Brick State House" which served as Iowa's Capitol Building from 1856 to 1882. In the early 1900s, it moved to a building at East 12th and Maple in the city.

Mary Lou Aspengren, 94, who is believed to be the church’s longest-serving member, told KCCI she attended her first Sunday school session at the church in 1938 at the East 12th and Maple location. In 1950, according to the Des Moines Register, a fire destroyed the interior of the church and it was rebuilt. The building of a freeway eventually forced the church to move to 31000 Easton Blvd., where they have been since July 1962.

Pastor Basler only joined the First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines a year ago. He had moved from Washington state to take care of his elderly father and had high hopes that the church would flourish again as it did in the past.

"This is where people on any given Sunday might meet God in a very particular way," he told the Des Moines Register.

"The hope was once we started gathering together again we'd reconnect with some of the people who scattered during the COVID year," Basler added. "We just found that didn't happen."

Gallup poll released earlier this year suggested that just under half of American respondents (49%) have formal church membership, marking an 80-year low. In 1937, 70% of Americans had a formal church membership. 

Data from the National Public Opinion Reference Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from May 29 to Aug. 25, 2021, found that fewer than half (45%) of adults in the United States say they pray daily, a decrease of 13 percentage points from 2007. In 2014, 55% said they prayed daily.

Even though self-identified Christians are still the largest religious demographic in the U.S., they make up a collective 63% of the adult population. When the Pew Research Center began measuring religious identity in 2007, self-identified Christians outnumbered “nones” 78% to 16%.

The study noted the decline in Christians nationwide was mostly concentrated among respondents who identified as Protestant. Their numbers declined by 10% in the last decade and 4% in the last five years.

Last December, the 221-year-old First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, permanently closed its doors on Christmas Eve due to declining membership and attendance.

The Potter’s House of Denver also announced plans in December to sell its $12.2 million megachurch in Arapahoe County, Colorado, and go completely virtual amid declining donations amid the pandemic. 

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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