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Historic church in New London may be razed if buyer not found

A buyer is being sought for the Lebanon Church in New London. If a buyer cannot be found in the next six months, the 140-year-old building could be razed. City officials say whether the building is purchased or razed, the process will come with a hefty price tag. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

NEW LONDON — Built by Swedish immigrants 140 years ago, a white steepled church perched on a rise overlooking New London’s Mill Pond may be standing for only another six months unless someone steps up to take ownership of the vacant building.

“It’s a building of historic value. It’s a building of historic interest,” said the Rev. Keith Pearson, pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in New London, which owns the church and three city blocks it sits on.

Pearson said the hope is that a group or individual with adequate resources to restore the building will come forward with a feasible plan.

“It may be too late and the cost to preserve it too great,” said Pearson. “But maybe not.”

Based on a congregational vote taken earlier this month, if a new owner isn’t found by next spring, the building will be demolished, ending a visual reminder of Kandiyohi County’s early history.

The Lebanon Church, a congregation that got its start in a log cabin in 1859 as the “New Sweden” church, was the first organized church in Kandiyohi County.

The building is one of the oldest structures still standing in the county.

It ceased being used as a church around 1971 when Lebanon merged its Swedish heritage with Trinity Lutheran’s Norwegian heritage to form Peace Lutheran Church.

Peace Lutheran retained ownership of the Lebanon property, which until recently had housed artifacts from the Monongalia Historical Society. (The Trinity property was sold and currently houses the Seventh-Day Adventist church.)

Time and a lack of maintenance have not been friendly to the Lebanon Church.

There’s black mold on the basement ceiling, and shingles and wood trim from the roof litter the sidewalk. Pieces of tin flashing from the steeple flap in the wind.

A powerful hail storm that pounded the city of New London in August added insult to injury, with more exterior damage and numerous holes punched into the stained glass windows.

The insurance agent’s advice after the storm was to “take the check and hire a bulldozer,” said Pearson.

The congregation voted to delay that action for six months to give time for a potential owner to emerge.

An ad hoc community group is researching options, including potential grants and potential owners.

There may be some interested parties, including families with a “long history with the church,” said committee member Craig Edwards. “We’re seeing what’s out there,” said Edwards, who also serves on the New London City Council. “We’re getting the word out.”

The city has said it will not take ownership of the building.

“The city can’t really afford it,” said Mayor Bill Gossman.

Early estimates put basic external repairs at $150,000 to $500,000, but a St. Cloud architect firm that toured the building recently said it could cost $1 million to make the old church usable for public use as a city hall or municipal library, for example.

“It’s sad the building has been in disrepair for so long, and its fate is questionable if it will survive,” said Gossman.

People are interested in preserving it, said Gossman, but he acknowledged it will take someone with “deep pockets” or perhaps an “angel investor” to make it happen.

Art Norby, a sculptor from New London, had attempted to raise funds earlier this year to restore the church as an art center. Those efforts failed and Norby abandoned the project. In the process, the Monongalia Historical Society moved its artifacts out of the building and put them in storage.

This week Peace Lutheran removed its religious artifacts from the building to preserve them from consequences of being stored in a deteriorating building.

Pearson said restoring the building is “not within the means or mission” of the Peace Lutheran congregation.

Even demolishing it will be costly to the church, with estimates of $40,000 to $50,000. The cost will increase if asbestos abatement is required.

The church council has explored razing the building and selling the land for residential development or to expand the Lebanon Cemetery.

Either option would likely result in a negative financial return for the church, said Pearson, who is concerned the building could pose a health and safety hazard unless it’s razed or restored soon.

If the end result is demolition, Pearson said the historic religious items will be preserved, along with the ministry of the church that began in 1859.

“We will honor that congregation. We’ll honor their place in history,” said Pearson. “We hope that story continues to be told despite the outcome of the building.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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