Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Holy Week tradition at a rural Minnesota church April 12, 2019

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 NEARLY 60 YEARS NOW, a small country church in southern Minnesota has started Holy Week with a drama centered on Jesus’ disciples and their relationship with him. It is a powerful presentation that never fails to move me, although I’ve seen The Last Supper Drama multiple times.

 

Craig Keller has been the long-time drama organist, playing the same music every year. The script and music remain unchanged in nearly 60 years. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The original script and music remain unchanged through the decades. Only the actors change, often alternating performance years.

 

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

 

In the darkness of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, the 12 disciples seat themselves at a long table fronting the altar. The scene replicates Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, minus Jesus. An empty chair draped in white cloth represents Jesus in the St. John’s version.

 

Judas grips the bag of silver, his reward for betraying Christ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The annual Palm Sunday evening event begins Holy Week in a reverent, reflective and worshipful way.

 

 

I am grateful to this rural congregation for this faith gift. This drama focuses my thoughts on Christ as I remember his betrayal, suffering, death, burial and resurrection. Through the voices of those role-playing disciples, I connect on a personal level to these followers of Christ. That makes this drama especially powerful and effective.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Promo from St. John’s Facebook page

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Rural Faribault church continues 55-year tradition with The Last Supper Drama April 7, 2017

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.

 

AS A WOMAN OF FAITH, I appreciate the opportunity to begin Holy Week in a visually memorable and contemplative way by attending “The Last Supper Drama” at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. The drama begins at 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 9, as darkness falls.

For 55 years now, parishioners past and present, playing the roles of Jesus’ disciples, have presented this interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting. Each disciple actor stands and speaks of his personal relationship with Christ. It is moving, powerful and emotional to hear these monologues in the darkness of an aged limestone country church.

 

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

 

While the actors alternate from year to year, the script and music remain unchanged from the original of 1963. There is comfort in that, in tradition, in the unchanging story, in the reverent respect and in the focused spotlight on Christ.

It’s an inspirational way to start Holy Week, in a mindset of contemplation.

 

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.

 

FYI: Click here to see photos and stories from past performances of this drama.

St. John’s UCC is located east of Faribault at 19086 Jacobs Avenue, a county road off Minnesota State Highway 60.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A close-up Journey to the Cross March 29, 2015

Palm branches.

Palm branches.

PALM BRANCHES AND HOSANNAS. For the Christian church, both mark Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.

Small groups participated in 45-minute tours on "Journey to the Cross."

Small groups participated in 45-minute tours on “Journey to the Cross.”

This morning at the church I attend, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, Holy Week also began with a “Journey to the Cross” event. I was blessed to be a volunteer in this journey which led attendees through Christ’s final days to his glorious resurrection on Easter.

Participating kids (and some adults) carried passports. At nearly every station, stickers were distributed to place in the passports.

Participating kids (and some adults) carried passports. At nearly every station, stickers were distributed to place in the passports.

With passports in hand, kids and adults traveled from station to station, listening to performers role-play the parts of towns’ people, a temple worker, soldiers, an angel and others.

Participants had their hands washed by volunteers just as Christ washed his disciples' feet .

Participants had their hands washed by volunteers, following the example of Christ washing his disciples’ feet.

But this was about much more than sharing biblical history. This was about hands-on activities that reinforced the spoken word. This was about engaging the senses and experiencing Holy Week.

Matzo, unleavened bread from Jerusalem, was served as reprsentative of food from Jesus' time period.

Matzo, unleavened bread from Jerusalem, was served as representative of food from Jesus’ time period.

And therein lies the strength of “Journey to the Cross.” Participants received palm branches, felt the weight of the 30 silver coins Judas received for betraying Jesus, heard the crack of the whip against Jesus’ back, pounded nails into wood, tasted vinegar like that offered to Christ suffering on the cross, raised their voices in “He is risen!” at the vacant tomb and more.

A volunteer crafted this crow of thorns similar to the one Christ wore on the cross.

A volunteer crafted this crown of thorns similar to the one Christ wore on the cross. Tour participants saw it close up and could touch the crown.

I left with a deeper connection and understanding of what Christ endured. I could hear, see, feel, taste and smell the events of that final week. It was a memorable morning and the perfect contemplative beginning to Holy Week.

THE JOURNEY IN MORE PHOTOS:

Stop #1, Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

Volunteer Theresa speaks to participants about Jesus' ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Volunteer Theresa speaks to participants about Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Stop #2, Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver:

Randy, role-playing a temple worker.

Randy, role-playing a temple worker, tells how Judas betrayed Jesus.

Making coin rubbings in passports to remember how Judas betrayed Jesus with 30 pieces of silver.

Making coin rubbings in passports to remember how Judas betrayed Jesus with 30 pieces of silver.

Stop #3, Before the Passover meal on the Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet:

Actress Diane talks about Jesus gathering with his disciples and washing their feet.

Actress Diane talks about Jesus gathering with his disciples and washing their feet.

Rather than washing feet, hands were washed.

Rather than washing feet, hands were washed.

Stickers were handed out for placement in the passport after hands were washed.

Stickers were distributed for placement in the passport after the hand washing.

Stop #4, Remembering the Passover meal, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples:

Sings marked each station.

Signs marked each station.

Participants could sample various foods such as horseradish, matzo, grape juice and more.

Participants could sample various foods such as horseradish, matzo, grape juice and more.

Grape juice ready to be served.

Grape juice ready to be served.

Stop #5, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane:

A sign marks the station focusing on prayer.

A sign marks the station focusing on prayer.

Stop #6, Jesus was whipped, beaten and teased:

Volunteer Leann talks about the torture Jesus suffered even prior to his crucifixion.

Volunteer Leann talks about the torture Jesus suffered even prior to his crucifixion.

Wayne played perhaps the most memorable role, that of a soldier whipping Jesus.

Wayne played perhaps the most memorable role, that of a soldier whipping Jesus.

The whip cracked across the floor, toward the mannequin representing Jesus.

The whip cracks across the mannequin representing Jesus.

Stop #7, Christ is crucified on the cross:

The stage was set with a cross, hammer and nails. Participants pounded nails into wood. Christ was nailed to the cross.

The stage was set with a cross, hammer and nails. Participants pounded nails into wood to remember how Christ was nailed to the cross.

This artwork and nails were placed at the base of the cross.

This artwork and nails were placed at the base of the cross.

Stop #8: As Jesus died on the cross, he said he was thirsty. He was given vinegar to drink.  (I don’t have any photos from this station.) Participants could taste vinegar.

A photo of Christ's face from a stained glass window in my church, Trinity Lutheran, Faribault.

A photo of Christ’s face from a stained glass window in Trinity Lutheran, Faribault. This depicts Him after His resurrection.

Stop #9: Jesus’ tomb is found empty on Easter. (I don’t have any photos from this station.) Those on the tour joined the angel and the woman at the gravesite in celebrating Jesus resurrection with these words: He is risen!

Stop #10, The final check-in station allowed participants to talk and write about their experiences:

What a young girl, Jennifer, wrote.

What a young girl, Jennifer, wrote.

FYI: “Journey to the Cross” is available for purchase through Concordia Publishing House. Click here for more information.

It’s described as “an outreach and educational event for your congregation and community. Through activities based on Scripture, participants experience the joy of Palm Sunday, the disappointment of Judas’ betrayal, the devastation of the crucifixion, the jubilation of the resurrection, and so much more. This family program invites children and adults to walk the path that Jesus walked.”

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: “The disciples” March 27, 2015

Portraits # 14 & 15: The cast from The Last Supper Drama

The cast of the 2012 The Last Supper Drama poses like the Leonardo da Vinci painting.

The cast of the 2012 The Last Supper Drama poses like the Leonardo da Vinci painting.

For 53 years, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, has presented The Last Supper Drama.

It’s a remarkable way to begin Holy Week in the darkness of this aged country church. Here actors portraying Jesus’ disciples gather for the final meal with their Lord in a scene straight from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. Only Christ is missing, replaced by an empty chair.

Judas, in the foreground, is about to betray Jesus with 30 pieces of silver. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Judas, in the foreground, is about to betray Jesus with 30 pieces of silver. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

The drama was penned by long ago pastor, the Rev. Walter Rasche. Only the actors change in the performance that features each disciple speaking about his relationship with Christ.

It is powerful and moving, and a tribute to a congregation which has sustained this Holy Week tradition for more than five decades.

This year’s 53rd drama will be presented at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 29, in the church located at 19086 Jacobs Avenue, which is east of Faribault along Rice County Road 24. Food and fellowship follow.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 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