Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

For 52 years: A rural Minnesota church prepares for Holy Week with Last Supper Drama April 11, 2014

FOR CHRISTIANS LIKE MYSELF, Holy Week marks a period of reflection and repentance as we remember the final days in the life of Christ before his crucifixion and resurrection.

St. John's members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyere, Earl Meese, Vicgtor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John's.

St. John’s members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from “The Last Supper Drama.” Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyere, Earl Meese, Vicgtor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John’s.

For St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, a presentation of  “The Last Supper Drama” has been a long-standing Holy Week tradition. For 51 years, 52 this April 13, this congregation has presented the drama written by long ago pastor, the Rev. W. Rasche, and based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. It’s truly remarkable that a tradition like this would continue for more than five decades.

Twice, if not thrice, I’ve lost count, I’ve attended this Palm Sunday evening drama at this country church northeast of Faribault.

St. John's 50th presentation of The Last Supper Drama in the sanctuary.

St. John’s 50th presentation of “The Last Supper Drama” in the sanctuary. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

As darkness falls, voices hush, mood-setting music plays and a spotlight shines upon 12 performers role-playing the disciples.

It is a profound performance which presents a personal perspective on the relationships between Jesus and his followers.

I’d encourage you to attend. It’s worth the drive, worth your time.

There’s something about sitting straight-backed in a pew in the darkness of a Palm Sunday evening within the walls of an aged limestone church in the company of believers that comforts me and puts me in the proper meditative mindset for Holy Week. And that reaction is, I expect, exactly as St. John’s intends.

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

The parking lot at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation’s annual performance of “The Last Supper Drama”. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

FYI: St. John’s is located 10 miles northeast of Faribault. Take Minnesota State Highway 60 east for eight miles and then turn north onto Rice County 24. Drive two miles to 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

The drama begins at 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 13, and is followed by lunch afterward in the fellowship hall.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fifty-one years of presenting The Last Supper Drama at a rural Minnesota church March 22, 2013

St. John's members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyere, Earl Meese, Vicgtor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John's.

St. John’s members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyere, Earl Meese, Vicgtor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John’s.

THOUSANDS OF MILES from Milan, Italy, in the flat farm fields of Rice County in southeastern Minnesota, Leonardo da Vinci has left his mark on a small congregation.

For 50 consecutive years, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, has presented The Last Supper Drama, a theatrical interpretation of the master artist’s most famous painting created in 1495 as a mural in an Italian monastery.

St. John's 50th presentation of The Last Supper Drama in the sanctuary.

St. John’s 50th presentation of The Last Supper Drama in 2012.

I penned those two opening blog post paragraphs during Holy Week 2012, shortly after attending the St. John’s performance.

So update that number. The congregation is slated to present its 51st The Last Supper Drama at 8 p.m. on March 24, Palm Sunday.

I’d advise attending because you don’t get more grassroots basic than this in the retelling of Christ’s final meal with his 12 disciples via a script penned by a long ago St. John’s pastor.

Judas grips the bag of silver, his reward for betraying Christ.

Judas grips the bag of silver, his reward for betraying Christ, as seen in the 2012 drama.

Each disciple speaks of his personal relationship to Christ, making this a particularly introspective drama presented by members and former members of St. John’s.

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

The parking lot at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation’s annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

Truly, there’s something about slipping inside this rural 1800s limestone church as evening melds into night, settling upon aged pews among those who have worshiped here for generations, that is particularly comforting.

It is good for the soul to sing and pray and listen, to sweep your thoughts into a meditative mindset for Holy Week.

That this country congregation continues with a tradition begun in 1963 impresses me. Such uninterrupted longevity is a testament to faith, an appreciation of history and a clear understanding that still today, perhaps more than ever, The Last Supper Drama needs to be shared.

A view from the balcony before the drama begins shows the spotlight to the left and The Last Supper table below. The actors enter, spotlighted in the dark church, to take their seats at the table. There they "freeze" in place to mimic Leonardo da Vinci's painting.

A view from the balcony before the drama begins shows the spotlight to the left and The Last Supper table below. The actors enter, spotlighted in the dark church, to take their seats at the table. There they “freeze” in place to mimic Leonardo da Vinci’s painting.

FYI: St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is located 10 miles northeast of Faribault. Take Minnesota State Highway 60 east for eight miles and then turn north onto Rice County 24. Drive two miles to 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

Click here and then here to read my detailed The Last Supper Supper Drama posts from 2012.

Click here to read my post from 2011.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Last Supper Drama begins Holy Week at a rural Minnesota church April 3, 2012

St. John's 50th presentation of The Last Supper Drama in the sanctuary with the actors positioned just as the disciples are in Leonardo da Vinci's painting. However, in the drama, an empty chair represents Christ.

THOUSANDS OF MILES from Milan, Italy, in the flat farm fields of Rice County in southeastern Minnesota, Leonardo da Vinci has left his mark on a small congregation.

For 50 consecutive years, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, has presented The Last Supper Drama, a theatrical interpretation of the master artist’s most famous painting created in 1495 as a mural in an Italian monastery.

The rural Faribault church was nearly full for the golden anniversary of The Last Supper Drama.

Palm Sunday evening I joined a sanctuary full of worshipers to view the drama which inspires and moves for its touching, personal account of Christ’s last meal with his 12 disciples. In the script written so many years ago by a former St. John’s pastor, each of Jesus’ followers speaks of his personal relationship to the Lord.

In the reverent near-darkness of this late 1800s limestone church, the cast, in loud, clear, animated voices and with gestures fine-tuned by years of practice and presenting, truly bring to life da Vinci’s painting. They speak of their failures and deaths, of their love for Christ.

“Be not faithless, but believing,” advises doubting Thomas, played this evening by Thad Monroe.

Claims Don Katra as Matthew: “My life really began when I met and followed Him.”

Most of the actors are shown here as they pose for photos after the performance.

Judas grips the bag of silver, his reward for betraying Christ.

Even Gordie Wiegrefe as Judas the betrayer, admits, “It was too late. They wouldn’t take the silver back. I failed my Lord.”

The moment when Christ announces that one of his disciples will betray him is the precise moment da Vinci captures in his painting. In St. John’s performance, the defining moment of betrayal comes when Judas slams a jingling bag of 30 pieces of silver onto the table.

Later, after the drama concludes, St. John’s Pastor Lora Sturm tells worshipers, “Let us feel the light of His love as we enter the darkness of this Holy Week.”

A view from the balcony before the drama begins shows the spotlight to the left and The Last Supper table below. The actors enter, spotlighted in the dark church, to take their seats at the table. There they "freeze" in place to mimic Leonardo da Vinci's painting.

That message resonates as a spotlight first illuminates a cross suspended above the altar in the dark sanctuary, then moves down to an empty chair representing Christ and finally pans out to shine upon all 12 disciples. It is how the drama opens and ends, impressing upon attendees the darkness of Holy Week which concludes on Sunday in the glorious light of the resurrected Lord.

Spreadsheets on display Sunday evening listed those involved in the St. John's drama through-out its 50-year run.

FOLLOWING SUNDAY’S 50th anniversary performance, special recognition was given to those who have been part of St. John’s The Last Supper Drama. Original 1963 cast members Wallace Hildebrandt and Luverne Hafemeyer stood up to applause.

Other 50-year history trivia includes:

  • Seventy individuals have participated in the drama since 1963.
  • The role of John has been played by 10 actors.
  • The youngest actor was Kyle Keller who in 2011 assumed the role of Philip.
  • The oldest cast member was Kyle’s grandpa, Arnold Keller, who was 76 years old when he last acted in 1997.
  • Nine individuals have performed 20 or more times in the St. John’s drama.

Craig Keller has been the long-time drama organist, playing the same music every year. The script and music remain unchanged in 50 years. Craig's father, Arnold, was an original cast member.

After the performance the cast took their stools and footrests out of the church, grouping them together (left) in the sanctuary entry. Later they carried the seats into a balcony storage area. Each stool is labeled with a disciple's name. They are the original stools, first used 50 years ago.

This artistic rendition of The Last Supper hangs in the St. John's Fellowship Hall.

After the performance, folks gathered in the social hall for cookies and beverages.

A tray of cookies awaits audience members and performers.

TO READ A PREVIOUS POST I wrote about the 2011 drama, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural Faribault church presents 50th annual The Last Supper Drama March 29, 2012

St. John's members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyer, Earl Meese, Victor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin Bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township.

EVERY LENTEN SEASON since 1963, worshipers and actors have gathered inside the 1870 limestone sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ—Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, for The Last Supper Drama.

It is, says 2012 co-director Pauline Wiegrefe, a moving, emotional Palm Sunday drama that puts participants and attendees “in the mindset of Holy Week.”

Sunday, April 1, marks the 50th anniversary presentation of the drama penned by long-ago St. John’s pastor the Rev. Walter C. Rasche. He wrote the script while serving in an Indiana parish and brought it with him to Minnesota. When Rasche left St. John’s in 1969, The Last Supper Drama tradition continued.

The script, which features 12 men positioned like the disciples in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting and then speaking individually about their relationships with Christ, has remained unchanged in five decades.

Cast members in the 2011 The Last Supper Drama, left to right: Todd Lein, Craig Mueller, Alan Meyer, Grant Meese, Martin Budde, Paul Meyer, Thad Monroe, Kyle Keller, Doug Spike, Keith Keller, Randy Tatge and Brian Little. The white pillow on the empty chair represents Christ.

Likewise, the same hymn, “Here, Oh My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face,” continues as the single participatory musical selection. Craig Keller, drama organist, plays the same taped mood-setting organ music he’s used since 1968. Prior to that, introductory music emitted from a record player stationed behind the altar.

For original cast member and life-long St. John’s member Luverne Hafemeyer, 84 of Northfield, the drama is, he says, an emotional and inspirational experience that prepares him for Easter.

As a young farmer, Luverne jumped at the opportunity to join the original 1963 cast. During his high school years, except for an annual Youth Fellowship play presented in the nearby Nerstrand Town Hall, he had never acted. Farm work and gas rationing during WW II kept him from participating in high school activities.

But once Luverne joined The Last Supper Drama cast, he stayed on for 15 – 20 performances, finally relinquishing his role as James just five years ago. (Casts alternate from year to year.) He still helps sometimes with lighting and the post performance coffee hour.

His lines, however, remain engrained in his memory: “I am James the son of Zebedee, the elder brother of John…”

Like Luverne 50 years ago, all of today’s actors at this rural church come from a farm background. Co-director Pauline remembers her father, Arnold Keller, and her brother Keith practicing their lines while milking cows.

Actors, past and present, will be recognized during the 50th anniversary presentation set for 8 p.m. this Sunday inside the old stone church.

FYI: St. John’s United Church of Christ is located eight miles east of Faribault on Minnesota Highway 60 and then two miles north on Rice County Road 24 at 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

Visit the church website by clicking here.

To read a blog I posted about last year’s The Last Supper Drama, click here. You’ll find many more images of the drama posted here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Meet 10 Minnesota bloggers, a contest winner & more January 11, 2012

THEY WRITE FROM EVERY section of the state—from the southwestern Minnesota prairie to up north on the Gunflint Trail and the Iron Range to the heart of the Twin Cities metro area and places in between.

They are your next-door neighbor, the guy in the office, the young mother down the street, the 20-something…just regular folks who write online.

They are bloggers.

Thus, dear readers of Minnesota Prairie Roots, begins a feature package on 10 Minnesota bloggers, plus one (that would be me), just published in the winter issue of Minnesota Moments.

As a writer for this central Minnesota based magazine, I have the opportunity to present story proposals to the editor and then, when approved, pursue those ideas.

In the blogger package, you’ll meet these Minnesota bloggers with distinct voices: Aaron J. Brown, Nina Hedin, Ada Igoe, Beth Johanneck, Laura Karsjens, Gretchen O’Donnell, Gary Sankary, Brenda Score, Michael Wojahn and Emily Zweber. (Click here to read the story online.)

Prior to my search, I’d already been following about half of these writers. Finding the remaining five proved more challenging than I anticipated. Eventually I found them and if you check out their blogs, I think you will agree that they write in a way that’s as comfortable as sharing conversation over a cup of coffee.

MY SECOND MAJOR PROJECT for this issue focused on a contest, “Snapshots of Love,” which I created and curated. Magazine readers were invited to submit vintage black-and-white candid photos on the theme of love and then share what the photos told them about love.

We received some truly impressive images and stories that made selecting a winner difficult. However, in the end, Jeanne Everhart of Erhard was chosen as the winner with a 1948 picture of her and her sister riding the tricycle they shared. Her story will move you. View all of our contest entries by clicking here.

Jeanne Chase hitches a ride from her sister Sylvia in this 1948 photo taken at the sisters' home in Inman Township, Otter Tail County, Minn.

Since I came up with this contest idea, I also had to find prizes for our winner. I didn’t need to look far. Nina Hedin, one of the featured bloggers, also runs an etsy shop, Camp Honeybelle, and agreed to contribute a $25 gift certificate toward the prize package.

Bernie Nordman Wahl, a Duluth native now living in Billings, Montana, graciously created a card-a-month collection of vintage style greeting cards for our winner. Bernie sells her handmade cards on her Budugalee etsy shop. You simply must see her cards; this artist possesses a delightful sense of humor. Be sure also to visit Bernie’s One Mixed Bag blog. If Bernie still lived in Minnesota, she most definitely would have been included in my Minnesota bloggers feature.

But…, Bernie is in this issue. Her story, “A simple wooden plate equals love,” was published in our “moments in time” reader-submitted stories section. It’s a sweet story of family love.

Mary Bruno of St. Joseph-based Bruno Press and the subject of a story in Minnesota Moments’ fall issue, rounded out the prize package by contributing a letterpress, vintage graphics fine art print. If you’ve read my post on the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, you know how much I appreciate vintage printing.

One of the 26 handmade cards with a vintage flair crafted by Bernie Nordman Wahl for contest winner Jeanne Everhart.

VINTAGE COULD ALSO DEFINE the subject of one other story I  wrote for this issue—a “back in the day” piece on The Last Supper Drama which will be presented for the 50th time this Palm Sunday at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault. Yes, that’s right: 50 consecutive years.

I’ve attended this interpretation of The Last Supper twice and blogged about it. Click here to read that blog post. The photos published in the magazine printed way too dark, so the quality is not what you have come to expect in my photography. Please try to overlook that when you read the story.

A scene from the 2011 Last Supper Drama at St. John's UCC.

FINALLY, THIS CANNOT GO without mentioning. Swanville, Minnesota, native Joanne Fluke, who is a New York Times best-selling author, has a full-page ad on the inside front cover of this issue. She writes the “Hannah Swensen Mystery with Recipes!” series. She was the subject of a feature I wrote several years ago for the magazine. Her “Hannah” stories are set in fictitious Lake Eden, Minnesota.

Anyway, Joanne’s publisher, Kensington Publishing, is sponsoring a contest right now with a chance to win a Joanne Fluke gift basket.

So there, dear readers, you have just one more reason to check out the winter edition of Minnesota Moments.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 
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