Celebrating ‘the little white church on the hill’

Fern Prairie United Methodist Church marks 150th anniversary; will host Earth Day event, special guests throughout 2023

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Lights illuminate a sign in front of the historic Fern Prairie United Methodist Church on Monday, April 17, 2023. The church, located off Northeast Brunner Road, north of Camas, will celebrate its 150th anniversary throughout 2023. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

The church leaders gathered inside the Fern Prairie United Methodist Church on this rainy Monday morning are the very definition of memory keepers.

They can tell you exactly where longtime churchgoers, including their own families, sat during weekly Sunday morning services in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They can tell you about what happened when the Yacolt Burn dumped hot embers on the church’s roof in 1902, badly damaging the original building, and they can tell you how church members rebuilt on the church’s foundation two years after the Yacolt Burn. They can point out window frames that belonged to the former Harmony Methodist Church building before it was relocated and attached to the Fern Prairie Methodist Church in the 1920s, and to artwork, candelabras and church altar lacework donated — often in memory of deceased loved ones — by church members and former pastors.

Now, these lay leaders, Kathy Kahlar and Marilyn (Voogt) Oltmann, along with Joan Hackett, the wife of Rev. Keith Hackett, who served as the church’s pastor from 1982 to 1991, and who still preaches and delivers the Holy Communion at the Fern Prairie Methodist church on the fourth Sunday of the month — are hoping to share the church’s storied history with the greater Camas-Washougal community.

The Fern Prairie United Methodist Church, long known as “the little white church on the hill,” turns 150 this year, and church leaders plan to celebrate the church’s sesquicentennial for the next several months.

The church, located off Northeast Brunner Road north of Camas, will host an Earth Day awareness event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 22, featuring local resources available from entities such as the Port of Camas-Washougal, Clark PUD, and WasteConnections that, according to church members, “help promote Earth-friendly, sustainable living practices;” activities for the whole family; and education about how individuals can increase their “recycle, reduce and reuse” actions and become better stewards of the Earth.

Oltmann, the person behind the church’s first Earth Day awareness event, thought of the idea while visiting the “Earthships” — fully sustainable buildings constructed with recycled materials and equipped with design elements, including solar- and wind-power capturing technology and a self-contained sewage system, that allow occupants to collect their own water, grow their own food, produce their own electricity and live “off the grid” — in Taos, New Mexico.

“We want to celebrate what Methodism says about being good stewards of the Earth and about not being wasteful,” Oltmann explained.

Many longtime Camasonians, including Oltmann, know it was a Camasonian who helped kick-off the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In the church’s literature regarding its April 22 Earth Day awareness event, church leaders recognize Camas native Denis Hayes as a principal organizer of that first Earth Day event in 1970. This year, Earth Day organizers say they plan to celebrate “Earth Week” April 14-22, and “mobilize the masses through major events in every time zone.”

“By engaging governments, businesses, institutions and the more than 1 billion people who participate in Earth Day annually we can solve the world’s greatest problem: climate change.” President Kathleen Rogers stated in a news release about the 2023 “Earth Week” events. “There is unlimited opportunity to right the wrongs of past actions and build a new version of society. But, we have a very short window of time and we need everyone to ‘Invest in Our Planet’ now”

Events planned through October

Fern Prairie United Methodist Church leaders will continue to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary through October, and invite members of the public to join them for the following events. All events will take place during the church’s regular 10 a.m. Sunday service.

• Sunday, April 23: Rev. Hackett will visit the church in character, as Rev. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church.

• Sunday, May 14: “Family Connextions” — In recognition of the 2023 Mother’s Day holiday, church leaders will ask congregants and visitors to share stories of their own family members, particularly of their mothers. “We are like a family, and everyone is welcome here,” Kahlar said of the church’s tight-knit congregation, which varies in size from about a dozen members on most Sundays to 25 members — including a handful of children ages 2 to 14 — during the recent Easter service.

• Sunday, May 21: Rev. Carol Davies will reflect on their time at the Fern Prairie United Methodist Church in the early 1980s

• Sunday, June 11: Rev. Carol Mariano, the daughter of Neta and Vern Stebbins, longtime Fern Prairie community leaders, will lead Sunday services.

• Sunday, June 18: “Sharing Connexions” — Church leaders hope community members will attend the 10 a.m. Sunday services to share their stories about the historic Fern Prairie church.

• Sunday, July 16: Carl Landerholm will talk about their time at the church from 1995 to 2002

• Sunday, Aug. 27: Rev. Hackett will return during the church’s regular 10 a.m. service on, to reflect on his time leading the “little white church on the hill” from 1982 to 1991

• Sunday, Sept. 10: Rev. Hackett returns to remember Rev. Ruth Mathis, who led the church from 2007 to 2016.

• Sunday, Oct. 15: the months-long sesquicentennial celebration wraps up with a remembrance of Rev. Dorothy Northcutt, the church’s first female minister. In a letter sent to church members, Rev. Carol Mariano described Northcutt’s influence on her life: “It created quite a stir when she was appointed to Fern Prairie as their first female pastor,” Rev. Mariano said of Rev. Northcutt. “In fact, that caused some people to leave the church. But seeing her in a leadership role helped inspire me to go to seminary.”

Church leaders are hoping to grow the Fern Prairie Methodist church’s congregation.

Kahlar, Oltmann and Joan Hackett, now a member of the lay church’s five-person council, say the tiny Fern Prairie church is a place that might appeal to individuals and families seeking a smaller, tight-knit, more hands-on type of church —where everyone is welcome and where youth members often have the chance to be acolytes and assist the church leaders in their Sunday services.

The church is resurrecting its monthly newsletter, which will be available in print and mailed to all who desire a copy, as well as online. Those interested in learning more about the Fern Prairie church, which currently shares its building with the Russian-speaking Citizens of Heaven Church, should attend a 10 a.m. Sunday service at the church, located at 26112 N.E. Brunner Road, or visit PrairieUMC.