Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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