The bell still rings on Thanksgiving Day: Complimentary holiday dinner celebrating its 10th year Thursday at former Waterville Lutheran Church

Long-time community centerpiece takes center stage again Thursday in Waterville... Once considered an anchor point of the community prior to its closure in 2010, the former Waterville Lutheran Church continues to be a centering point for the family of Betty and the late Edmond White. Hosting a community Thanksgiving meal in the church basement for the first time in 2012 as a way of saying thanks, the family - along with continued and growing support from the community - will be serving its 10th annual community Thanksgiving meal this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, November 25, bringing the community together once again at the church at least one time each year. Submitted photo.

by Stephanie Kelley

For 133 years, the bell from a little white church in Waterville rang out on Sunday mornings. It rang for every wedding and every funeral. It rang for every celebration and every holiday. And then, in 2010, it stopped. The little white church closed the doors and stood silent.

Across the Midwest, churches have anchored their communities. Served those in need. Baptized and buried generations of families. Housed social gatherings, and, once a week, brought entire communities together to the sound of church bells. The church was the spark that kept the town alive and a part of its identity. One could find fellowship and a whole lot of potluck within its walls.

For Betty White, born Betty JoAnn Johnson in 1930, the little white church, known as Waterville Lutheran Church, was more than a building. It was the place she was baptized and confirmed, the place she married her husband, Edmond N. White, and the place she buried him, Christmas 1999. It was a place where her seven children were baptized and confirmed. A place of Sunday School lessons, civic meetings, and even parent information.

Waterville resident Diane Rathbun remembers it this way, “If you misbehaved any place in town, your folks probably knew it before you got home”.

Diane taught Sunday School, just as her mother had done before her, in the little white church her grandmother walked to every Sunday morning.

But, in 2010, that little white church that had kept them all glued together for 133 years, closed its doors and silenced its bell. Like so many other small towns, Waterville seemed to be fading away; its church and identity with it.

For Clark White, it was hard to see his mother’s church stand empty and silent, so, in 2012, he and his family hosted their very first community Thanksgiving meal in the rented church basement. “What we hoped for, what we wanted,” Clark said, “is for the community to come together. And we thought that... in the tradition of farm life or really most people’s homes, the meal always seems to draw people together. I wanted life brought back into the church... our family is grateful for the values we derived from growing up in Allamakee County and we wanted to be able to express gratitude by giving back. So this is our way of giving back. I think it’s just that simple.”

And, as many things do, their simple idea of fellowship grew into something bigger than just holiday food. In 2014, when the Cemetery Board voted to sell the church building, Clark and his husband, Christopher Jordan, along with his sister, Connie (White) Delaney, purchased the little white church that Clark and Connie’s mother grew up in and continued serving their annual Thanksgiving meal. Former congregants were welcomed to freely use the church building for community celebrations, weddings and funerals.

For Connie, “the emphasis for me and our commitment to do this was people like myself get nurtured in the community. We are educated in the schools, we belong to churches, we belong to activities. Many of us grow up and, by the very trajectory of our lives, we physically live other places. But there are few opportunities to come back and say ‘Thank you, Community. Thank you for the opportunity to grow up in this beautiful northeast Iowa’.”

Though the meal was meant to be a gift freely given to those who shared in it, Clark remarked that it’s hard to “contend with the generosity of the community!” So many have embraced the White family’s idea of togetherness. Many continue to give and help support this little white church community where the growing “family” meal happens. To further support the community, all of the supplies are purchased locally. When Clark or Christopher call the local Quillin’s store to order the year’s “12 big turkeys”, staff will ask how they can help and, as Christopher laughingly shares, “They’ll tell us all kinds of tips and tricks to make the cooking easier and better. Things I never would have thought of!”

For Clark and the White family, “scheduling it on Thanksgiving Day meant our family would not have the option to gather in the traditional sense. We agreed our family would gather with members of the community as a family. It simply redefined family as an ever-growing circle that continues”.

In Betty’s words, it’s a “sweet tradition” her children have created. “I’m proud of them wanting to do it and [I] enjoy the people who come and share that.”

The first year was anything but easy. In fact, as Clark remembers with humor, “It wasn’t funny then, but it is now. We had all these roasters going on Wednesday night and when we talked with Mom, she said, ‘Are you going to leave the church? You can’t do that with all those roasters! What if the church burns down?’ So - we slept in the church. We took shifts resting on the old pew downstairs. I didn’t sleep all night. After that first year, we decided we’re coming up with a different plan. We’re not doing that again!”

From there, it went much more smoothly. For Diane Rathbun, who also volunteers to help peel the endless pounds of potatoes each year, “It was sad to see when [the church] no longer had the ability to maintain itself. But, in a sense, [the church] is still alive... and the meal keeps something alive here.”

She recalled her first experience helping in the kitchen. “Clark said he had plenty of peelers and I said OK, but when I got up there I thought, I wish I’d have brought my own peeler. I told Clark, ‘You need new ones’ and the next year, he had new peelers, but I always bring my own now!” Once again, the night before Thanksgiving is filled with laughter and the sounds of fellowship in the church basement.

This fellowship was something special that the local community and even people even outside of Waterville wanted to experience again, some for the first time. One of the things that surprised Connie was how many people returned to Waterville saying, “I grew up, or my family grew up here, or my grandparents grew up here and I just wanted to come back and I heard about this and just wanted to come back and experience it.”

Even people from other states who had no connection to the little white church or its community were coming to experience Thanksgiving in Waterville. “So, it is just phenomenal,” said Connie.

In 2020, during the pandemic, it was certainly a bit more challenging for the White family and the volunteers. The need to transition to curbside pick-up was essential. “We ran short on some items because we prepackaged the meal,” Clark said. “You know, I grew up on a farm and we never ran out of food for a meal together; we made it happen. That was like a cardinal sin. And this year, there is an abundance of food!”

Even though the community can’t come together in the same way for their Thanksgiving meal again this year, Diane will still be peeling potatoes on Wednesday, Quillin’s will still be providing those “big turkeys”, and the White family and volunteers will be waiting to prepare the pre-ordered meals for everyone who comes on Thanksgiving to the little white church in the center of town.

As they have for ten years now, the White family invites everyone to enjoy their complimentary, community Thanksgiving meal. No strings attached. “People made the assumption... early on... that it’s for people that either are lonely or don’t have money to buy food,” remembers Connie. “But it’s more than that. A cross section of teachers, professionals, community leaders, rural families in the community come. Driven by a loyalty to a sense of fellowship and community; amazing farmers come... it is exquisite.”

So - whether one is alone this holiday season or with family, without food or with much, the little white church will be filled with the sounds of people serving one another and the people of Waterville will be there to share in the joy of community and fellowship. Again this year, the meals will be available for curbside pickup. These, then, are the “hidden joys” that people find when they’re serving each other, something the town of Waterville continues to do, year after year, in the little white church, in the center of town.

One can’t miss it. The church bell will be ringing as it does once again each Thanksgiving and each Sunday morning. The White family makes sure of that.

All meals must be reserved by calling 563-535-7102 November 22-24 from 9-4 p.m. Those reserved meals will be brought curbside to vehicles Thanksgiving Day (November 25) from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the former Waterville Lutheran Church in Waterville.

Donations are not accepted for this meal. Any donations will go directly to the preservation and upkeep of the church under the auspices of Open Door To The Soul, Co.