Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Grassroots dining: Church dinners are the best March 28, 2011

GIVEN A CHOICE of eating at a church dinner or dining at a restaurant, I’ll choose the holy place. I appreciate the good home cooking and fellowship that comprise church dinners.

So Sunday my husband and I headed to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Wheeling Township, about a 15-minute drive from Faribault, for a Lenten Soup Luncheon.


St. John's United Church of Christ is northeast of Faribault about two miles off State Highway 60 on Rice County Road 24 near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

As soon as I stepped inside the fellowship hall attached to the old stone church and saw the spread, I regretted that I’d snacked on a doughnut at my church only an hour earlier.

This luncheon offered soups, salads, sandwiches and bars. A regular smorgasbord with nine salad and three soup options and, well, I didn’t count the varieties of bars but suffice to say any chocolate lover would have been happy.


Some of the bars offered for dessert. I tried the bar with the marshmallow topping on the back left.

Salads like tuna pasta, tangy rhubarb squares and 3-bean, and the spinach-strawberry I chose, awaited diners who could select plated salads and/or build their own.


Even the salad bar sign grabbed my attention. How cute and eye-catching and kitschy.

The plated and build-your-own salad bar fills two tables in the dining hall.

A few of the salad bar choices, including a tangy rhubarb square on the right in this photo.

After I’d selected my salad and placed it on a fancy silver tray, I headed to the kitchen where cooks were ladling potato-bacon chowder, hamburger vegetable soup and chicken noodle with dumpling soup from large roasting pans into hefty bowls.


The busy-as-a-beehive kitchen crew at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Volunteers were ready with roasters full of soups in the kitchen.

I started with the potato and eventually sampled the other two. The creamy and savory potato was my hands-down favorite, although I also appreciated the spicy kick to the hamburger veggie. I’ve never been big on chicken noodle soup or dumplings. The chicken soup is served at every Lenten Soup Luncheon the church hosts. Oyster stew and chili will be the other featured soups at the last luncheon from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.


The Lenten Soup Luncheon sign posted by the kitchen. The final luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

A diner's tray (not mine) that includes a bowl of chicken noodle soup with dumplings.

Church dinners are all about food and fellowship. I scored an invitation to visit a farm with a robotic milking operation while visiting with church members at my table.

Of course, no church dinner is complete without bread, so diners were offered an array of sandwiches. I inquired about the ground concoction on an open-faced sandwich, was told it was bologna and pickles, paused, thought, and picked it up. And you know, for someone who doesn’t really care for bologna, I liked the spread.


Plenty of sandwich choices like ham, tuna and, yes, even ground bologna and pickles were offered.

Except for lutefisk, I’ve never tasted a church dinner I didn’t like.

I notice and appreciate details like the lovely floral dishware. My husband and I learned that once you carry your food to your table on the fancy silver tray, you're supposed to take your plates and bowls off the tray and servers will pick it up for others to use. We even had big, hefty soup spoons for eating our soups. Now that impressed me.


There's no specific cost for the St. John's Lenten Soup Luncheon, which benefits the youth fellowship group, helping members finance mission trips and more. Cost for the meal is whatever you choose to donate. Just drop your money in the bucket before picking up a fancy silver tray at the salad bar.

FYI: Click here for more information about St. John’s United Church of Christ, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, located near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, rural Faribault. Watch for a future post featuring photos of the church interior and exterior.

PLEASE SUBMIT A COMMENT and tell me about a church dinner you enjoy and why.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “Grassroots dining: Church dinners are the best”

  1. Amy Says:

    That is my Grandma’s church, and where my mom grew up! If you would have continued driving toward Nerstrand you would have come to a farm with a big yellow barn and that is the farm they grew up on. Granted, the new owners painted the barn yellow, and we joke that Grandpa turned in his grave when they did…. But I have been out there for many lunches too, and have yet to be disappointed. Any church lunch that is served or a potluck, whether or not it has been well attended, always has great food!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Amy, I just learned something new about your family today. That luncheon yesterday was the best. I did not expect such a variety of food. You can’t beat delicious and home cooked.

      Don’t even get me started on potlucks. I love, love, love those too.

      So…, do you have luncheons, church dinners or potlucks at the Kansas church where Jon is currently vicaring?

      • Amy Says:

        We do, but not frequently. We make it a point to make any event a potluck!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I love that–making any event a potluck.

        The bologna and pickles spread could be a UCC tradition, I don’t know. I can’t believe I actually ate that when I could have had a ham sandwich. Just goes to show that sometimes we need to try foods outside of our comfort zones and we are pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m willing to eat lutefisk again. After all, I’m German and not Norwegian.

  2. Bernie Says:

    Where was the Jell-o? How can it be a church dinner in MN without the jell-o?
    That picture for the salad bar was cute.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You are so right, Bernie. A church dinner without Jell-O? I think one of the salads (not photographed) may have included Jell-O. But I’m not certain. How could I have missed that?

  3. Donna Lyon Says:

    Thinking about that bologna and pickle sandwich made me drool! My grandmother used to make that at home and also it was served at her church in Berne, Minnesota. I’m assuming UCC is United Church of Christ?
    She said it’s not bologna, but minced ham, that she purchased from the meat market in Pine Island.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Are there any other ingredients in the mixture, like mayo?

      And, yes, UCC is United Church of Christ. See the first part of the story.

      It’s interesting how these food evolve and become part of church dinners or family favorites. Glad I brought back some warm memories for you, Donna.

  4. Katie Shones Says:

    The chopped ham salad in this area (southeastern MN) usually contains
    ham, pickles, onion, and mayo. My grandmother also used to add pickle juice to the mayo and sometimes she would add chopped hard boiled eggs. Some people use Spam instead of ham. Some of the very best recipes I have accumulated over the years come from church cookbooks. I love browsing church cookbooks! I am with you, Audrey. I would much rather go to a church luncheon versus a cafe!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You’re right, Katie. You can’t beat a good church cookbook. In fact, nearly all of my cookbooks are from churches. Right now I have a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate “crazy cake” cooling on my counter. It’s the recipe my mom used when I was growing up and it’s published in my home church’s cookbook. I’m serving it tonight for bible study at my house. As all good Lutherans know, you can’t have a bible study without “a little lunch.”

  5. Karlie Keller Says:

    Thank you for posting some fabulous pictures of the Luncheon.
    We’re glad you enjoyed it so much.

    –St. John’s UCC Youth Fellowship

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You’re welcome, Karlie. Your youth group and the many volunteers served a truly delicious luncheon. I’ve already personally recommended it to many friends. I hope to attend your congregation’s German Fest sometime too. I’ve heard all sorts of good things about the ethnic food served at that autumn event.

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