For the last 75 years, LeEldra Morgan has spent almost every Sunday morning at Parkside Presbyterian Church on Madison’s East Side.
She was confirmed there in 1939 at age 15, later married her husband in the sanctuary, and watched as her two children took their confirmation vows there.
She recalls decades when the congregation bustled with activity and purpose — “a youth group, a very active couple’s club, three different women’s circles, a men’s association, and an awful lot of mission work.” At one point in the 1940s, the church had 365 adult members, plus scores of children.
Those days are past. The congregation, now down to 15 to 20 attendees on a Sunday morning, recently voted 17-4 to sell the building and disband. Morgan, 90, was among those who reluctantly voted to close.
“I saw it coming,” said Morgan, who tracked financial pledges for the church. “You can’t keep going if you don’t have the money.”
Members say the decline mirrors some larger societal trends, with mainline Protestant denominations losing members and younger people increasingly identifying themselves as “nones,” or those with no religious affiliation.
“Church isn’t like it used to be,” said Deb Roever, another longtime Parkside member. “When we were younger, everyone went to church. Now, you’re almost in a minority if you do. Kids in sports may have a game on Sunday morning, or Sunday is the only day family members don’t have anything else scheduled, so they want to stay home.”
Parkside was no longer attracting young families, and some of its older, key members moved away or could no longer attend, said congregant Dona Everingham.
“It just sort of spiraled,” she said. “We talked about it time and time again — What do we do? How do we get more members? We never came up with the answers.”
The final Sunday service is a few months off, likely in early June. Between now and then, the remaining members will seek to remember and honor all the good works the congregation accomplished over the decades. There were many.
The church, founded in 1919 on Few Street, moved to its current location just off East Washington Avenue on Lien Road in 1959-60. In 1994, according to church records, the church was honored for becoming the first Presbyterian congregation in the state to become an “AIDS Caring” community. It also was an early “More Light” congregation, meaning it fully included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.
“We used to be on the cutting edge of everything,” Roever said.
The Rev. E. Ellwood “Woody” Carey, who served the congregation from 1985 until his retirement in 1994, was well known for his activism and kind heart and pushed the congregation to do ever more in the community. Parkside members stocked food pantries, cooked meals for the poor, sheltered the homeless. (Carey died in 2012.)
“They’ve had such a vibrant ministry, and I think in some ways, by doing all that social justice work over the years, it may have worn them down,” said the Rev. Scott Marrese-Wheeler.
He served until recently as the congregation’s part-time, temporary supply minister. The church no longer has a called minister, and it will use guest pastors from here on out. Marrese-Wheeler has begun a new part-time ministry at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church in Cambridge.
Closing a church is like a death, he said, though he tried to help Parkside members see there is a way for the congregation “to die in a meaningful, holy way.” He hoped to offer them “images of a resurrection, although it certainly is not going to look like what they know,” he said.
Parkside is suspending services the last Sunday of each month so that its remaining members can sample services at other churches.
Soon, the church building will be put on the market. Members said one of their final acts will be to donate the proceeds to charity.