Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Presenting Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at a Minnesota church April 19, 2011

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.

AS THE FINAL wisps of daylight dissipate into darkness, the church windows glow with the subtle warmth of welcome on this Palm Sunday evening.

Inside, worshippers are already gathering in the tightly-knit pews, eyes focused on the long table before them.

As I wait, seated in a pew tucked under the rim of the balcony, I study the stained glass windows, the suspended ceiling lights where lady bugs cling, the golden cross high above the altar.

Then, shortly after 8 p.m., after the hymn and the invitation and recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the drama begins unfolding—for the 49th consecutive year.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is presenting its annual The Last Supper Drama.

The Rev. Lora Sturm provides brief historical background on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, the visual basis for the evening’s drama.

Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper inspired the dramatic presentation at St. John's. This print was donated to the church in memory of Arnold Keller.

And then the lights fade, slowly, until a spotlight shines only on the cross. Soon that light and the organ light are extinguished, plunging the sanctuary into near darkness save for the remnants of daylight filtering through the stained glass windows.

A quiet reverence, a sense of anticipation, falls upon the congregation in the moments of silence and darkness before the actors begin filing into the church. Small clusters of men, seemingly engaged in conversation, without words to be heard, walk toward the table set with bread and a chalice and a bag of silver, although I am not sure whether the betrayal money was there initially or was carried in by Judas, the betrayer.

In darkness, these actors, these 12 disciples, pose themselves, replicating the positions da Vinci painted into his famous The Last Supper painting. But no one plays the role of Jesus, represented instead by an empty chair draped in white cloth.

The actors position themselves to replicate da Vinci's The Last Supper, except for Jesus, who is represented by the empty white chair in the middle of the table setting.

When the lights flick on, the frozen scene catches me off guard, even though I’ve previously seen the performance. The stillness fills me with a certain sense of peace, yet uneasiness.

I know what is coming. Words from Scripture that will tell of Jesus’ forthcoming death. The accusation that one of the 12 will betray Christ. It is the moment da Vinci depicts in his art—that moment when the disciples learn that one of them will give up their Lord to death.

Yet, in this script penned by a St. John’s pastor, Walter Rasche, 49 years ago, it is the depth of faithfulness that causes me to pause and look inside. Would I be so faithful as to become a martyr, to die, like the disciples, by stoning or crucifixion or beheading?

In their monologues, each disciple speaks honestly of his struggles, his lack of faithfulness, his travels to preach the gospel, and, then, the blessed words of a better and more abundant life found in following Christ.

The actors freeze as they role-play the disciples.

Five of the six disciples sitting to Jesus right with Christ represented by the empty white chair.

The disciple/actors to Christ's left, including first-time actor, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, the youngest cast member.

Judas’ words—that he regrets betraying Christ with a kiss, turning him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver—sting.

Judas, front, betrays Jesus with a kiss and 30 pieces of silver.

But the pastor’s prayer afterward encourages and uplifts me: “…hear your voice calling us to follow you…you call us to simply follow…”

And then her benediction blesses me with peace: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee…”

As the actors exit, as the worshipers file out of the sanctuary, I linger, waiting for the opportunity to shoot photos, which weren’t allowed during the performance. The men return, pose at the table, some of them telling me how they watched this drama as boys and now role-play as men.

This year a boy-becoming-a-man, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, plays the part of Philip, standing behind his father, Keith, who has assumed the role of Matthew. The seventh grader is the youngest participant ever in the St. John’s re-enactment. He was talked into playing the part, but says now that he’ll be back.

With two casts, the actors (most of them) return every other year to assume the same character roles. Some travel from the Twin Cities back to this, their home church near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. They speak and gesture like seasoned actors, some growing beards for the occasion, others sporting fake, glued-on facial hair. Sharon Meyer jokes that she has the shaver charging at home, ready to shave off her dairy farmer husband’s beard. Alan Meyer has played the part of Andrew in the evening’s performance.

Occasionally, a new cast member like Kyle is recruited. He’s the grandson of Elsie Keller, who stands after the service next to a print of The Last Supper angled onto an easel in the church narthex. The Keller family gave the print to the church in memory of Elsie’s husband, Arnold, who died in 1999. On Palm Sunday the print is moved from its usual spot in the fellowship hall to this place of honor.

Elsie Keller, 85, stands next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John's in honor of her husband, Arnold.

The evening takes on special significance for this 85-year-old as she watches Thomas and thinks of her husband. Arnold played Thomas in the debut performance at St. John’s and continued with that role for many decades thereafter. Elsie, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. John’s, as was her husband, hasn’t missed a single performance of The Last Supper Drama.

Her son, Craig Keller, the church organist, tells me that the drama originally was staged on a Wednesday during Lent. At one time there were two evening performances and even an afternoon presentation with the windows covered in black plastic to block out the light.

On this evening, some half-dozen church pews remain empty and I wonder why this place is not packed with a standing-room only crowd.

I’ve been deeply impressed with so many facets of the drama—by the level of commitment within this country congregation to continue a nearly 50-year tradition, by the professionalism of the actors, by the words they’ve shared that make the painting and Scripture and apostles come to life and, certainly, by the actors’ ability to freeze without barely an eye blink or a twitch. How do they do it?

The congregation's original chalice is used each year in the drama.

"Take eat, this is my body..." bread on the table during The Last Supper Drama.

FYI: Next year plan to attend the 50th presentation of The Last Supper at 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday. St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is located about a 15-minute drive east of Faribault on Minnesota Highway 60 and then north on Rice County Road 24. At this point, I expect organizers may add activities to commemorate the 2012 anniversary production.

Credit goes to the following for their parts in presenting this year’ production: directors Shirley Little and Kelly Dahl; co-director Pauline Wiegrefe; organist Craig Keller; narrator Don Katra; prompter Steve Wille; lighting, Ben Heil; greeters Steve and Deb Wille; the youth fellowship ushers; the church council coffee hour servers; pastor Lora Sturm; and actors Alan Meyer, Grant Meese, Craig Mueller, Kyle Keller, Todd Lien, Thad Monroe, Keith Keller, Doug Spike, Marty Budde, Brian Little, Randy Tatge and Paul Meyer.

Thank you all for this exceptional gift during Holy Week.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling