“I’m going to cry, and I’m going to laugh,” Pastor Phyllis Kitchen told her congregation as she concluded her last Sunday service as Pastor of Hecla Union Congregationalist Church.
She said that she was leaving with mixed emotions, but confidence that she was doing what was right.
“I believe with all my heart that God has great plans for this church and that He knows the plan for each of us.”
Hecla Union Congregationalist Church is a little white church that sits atop a great hill on the corner of Cooper Street and Moore Road in Westmoreland. Its walls are white inside as well. Light comes through stained glass window panes that are purple, green, yellow, and blue. On that alter there is a rugged wooden cross that has a crown of thorns, soon it will be Easter, but on March 31 congregation was preparing for Pastor Kitchen’s retirement party.
In Jeremiah 2:13, God is described as the “spring of living water.” The congregation sang the hymn of the same name, “It makes me glad and happy all the way; now glory, grace, and blessing mark the path I’ve trod.”
Phyllis Kitchen has trod a glorious path during her tenure with the church.
“I’ve come up with some statistics for mom’s 18 years as pastor,” her daughter Sarah Gaudin reported. “She has done 864 Sunday morning services, 90 special services, 13 new members have joined the church, six weddings, and 12 baptisms.”
Those statistics didn’t include a surprise “renewal of vows,” that Pastor Kitchen performed that morning for her sister Bonnie and her husband Ken, who will celebrate their forty-eighth anniversary this week.
Additionally, she has done “celebrations of life,” for church members who have died, hosted National Day of Prayer for several years, done Bible studies and vacation Bible school, performed magic tricks at services, and has even dressed up as a clown. That morning she sat down on the altar next to two of the youngest members for the children’s portion of the services.
“She has done so much to make Hecla Church a bigger part of the community,” Christine Hansen said then paused for a moment and added with a catch in her breath. “…but she’s going to be truly missed.”
A few hours later people packed into Hecla Hall, the community center that was built behind the church in 1929. It’s a long building with wood floors, a kitchen set-up on one side and a stage on the other.
Garry Thaler has been a member of Hecla Union Congregational Church since he as one week old. That was sixty-three years ago. He remembers meeting friends in the Hecla Hall to play indoor basketball and shuffleboard, and how it was the site of Halloween and Christmas parties.
“There was a time,” he says, “when it used to be the focal point of the community. Phyllis has really brought this place back to life.”
The hall was filled with people and there were long tables covered in white cloths and lots of food.
“There’s nothing like an old-fashioned church covered dinner,” Pastor Kitchen said as she came to our table.
I sat with Wendy Rice Morrison, the pastor of the Westmoreland United Methodist Church and her family.
“This party is really nice because it shows so much support for Pastor Kitchen,” Morrison’s daughter Hannah, who is in 10th grade said.
Sarah Gaudin began the program by thanking everyone for coming to celebrate her mother’s career.
“Instead of calling this a retirement party let call it a celebration of God’s work that she has done here in Hecla Church and in the community.”
The theme of the event was “Hecla’s Unsung Heroes.”
In an especially emotional moment, Gaudin introduced her father, Carlton Kitchen as one of those “unsung heroes,” by reading a poem she adapted for the evening.
“Often taken for granted, never glorified, still he keeps on going for the person by his side. He stands behind her every day for she was called from above to spread the message of God’s love. And just as she was called, he was handpicked too, for it takes someone special to do what he must do.”
“The patience of that gentleman and the grace of that woman is really something to see,” Dennis McElroy said before giving the benediction.
One of Hecla Church’s youngest members, Ashton Stoddard, read the poem “The Pastor’s Heart” by Sandra L. Adams at the gathering.
“A well-spoken message stirs a heart to rejoice. There is nothing like a strong, resilient voice.”
Stoddard spoke with a strong, resilient voice of his own. He has remarkable poise and confidence for someone who is only nine years old.
“There is no better gift to impart, then the gift of a caring, pastor’s heart,” Stoddard read to the crowd.
Gaudin then opened the floor to anyone gathered who wanted to share special memories.
“I don’t need this,” Rod VonPackal, an Antiochian Orthodox Priest shooed away the microphone in a booming voice. “She has that spirit that very few people have. It’s quiet. Phyllis and Carlton are just ‘down-home folk,’ they met in a church correct?…”
“No,” Carlton said.
“We met on a dance floor!” Phyllis interjected.
“At a wedding,” he added.
“We were at a wedding,” she recalled. “He was the best man, and his girlfriend at the time was the Maid of Honor.”
Their eyes met and magic happened.
“Carlton you made the right choice,” VonPackal said.
“Well it’s too late now,” Carlton joked, and everyone burst into laughter.
“These two just have that spirituality and their church has an “open door” that is rare,” VonPackal concluded. “They have a natural ministry. Couples are so important to a church ministry.”
Pastor Morrison’s 7th grade son Dakota spoke next.
“If we can’t call it a retirement, we can call it a celebration for a job well done,” he said.
For David Callister who plays the music for church services, it’s hard to believe she won’t be there this Sunday pointing up or down to indicating to him how to adjust the volume.
“Her messages through the Lord will ever embrace my heart and soul,” he says.
Last weekend began with spring-like weather. In yards across Westmoreland, the crocuses have pushed through the last of the snow and bloomed purple, cream colored, and white in our yards, forsythia is about to burst into yellow. But Sunday morning during services, Pastor Phyllis Kitchen was framed by snow falling outside the windows.
Like the capricious weather of late March and early April, it is a time of transition for the little church. Phyllis Kitchen is leaving but she won’t be gone. She came from the pews, and she will surely return to the pews.
“God has great plans for this church,” she said concluding Sunday morning’s service. “God cares so much about us that he knows the plan for us. When you leave this church, and until you come back again, may you know without a shadow of a doubt that He cradles you in the palm of his hands.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.