In Elton, a Church Struggles to Survive

ELTON, LA (AP) — Elton United Methodist Church, which dates from about 1911, is facing an uncertain future and may close due to financial struggles, a dwindling congregation and an aging structure.

         The Rev. Steven Bellard says his church's finances and shrinking attendance threaten imminent closure.

         Members are asking the community to help save the church, which was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places in 1994 because of its Gothic Revival-style architect.

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         "We are financially strapped and need a miracle and the right gift of the Holy Ghost," Bellard said. "Our first goal is to reach out and spread the Gospel, and hopefully all the blocks will fall in place."

         Congregation member Trudy Patterson said generations of families have worshipped at the church. "This is the church I was christened in, my parents and grandparents came here and we had my mom's funeral here when she passed away in April," Patterson said. "Where would I go if we closed? I have been coming here forever, and it's a part of my life. We have to preserve our church, but we are struggling and getting no help."

         "A lot would be affected in this community if the church closed," Bellard said, noting the church's support of food pantries, school supply drives and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "Just because we are small doesn't mean we don't have anything to give."

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         Bellard said attendance has tapered off in recent years. About a dozen people regularly attend the Sunday morning service, but more are needed, he said.

         "It's been a long time coming," he said of the decline. "The young people in town don't stay in town. It's a farming community, and young people don't want to stay. They move to bigger towns and find better-paying jobs."

         Elton's population has dropped from 2,711 in 2000 to 1,121 in 2013, according to census data. Mayor Cathy Hollingsworth says the town's current population is 1,193.

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         Closing the church has been considered for some time, Bellard said. "We are not saying we are going to close," he said. "If we do, we are not going down without a fight."

         The church structure is showing signs of stress.

         The bell tower steeple has structural problems, including rotten boards, which fall and allow water to leak into the church. There is damage to the fascia board on the tower and holes in the interior ceiling. The entire building needs to be painted.

         Without repairs, the building will become unusable, Patterson said. The repair cost is estimated at $16,000, she said.

         The church does not have the money to pay for repairs, she said.

         Roy Manuel, who returned to the congregation about 10 years ago after moving back to Elton from Baton Rouge, said more involvement from young people is needed. Many longtime church members have difficulty getting to church because of their health, he said.

         Rudy Tonn, who has attended the church since 1940, said many members who no longer attend regularly still have a connection to Elton United Methodist.

         "Even if people don't come any more, many of them return to be buried here," Tonn said. "It's a place of refuge and place to be buried."

         Laverne Putnam has been a member since 1953. "Many of the members have grown up in this church," she said. "They went to Sunday school and vacation Bible school here."

         Although Hollingsworth does not attend the church, she said she understand the congregation's community importance.

         "This is these people's church," Hollingsworth said. "I can't imagine closing these doors to its members. This building is a church, and it means a lot to these people. When we lost St. Paul's Church to a fire in 1982, we fought to rebuild a new church."

         Doug Firestone and his family moved to Elton in 2010 from Lafayette and joined Elton United Methodist.

         "The congregation welcomed us in and made us feel like a part of the family," he said, noting that his 9-year-old daughter is the youngest member of the church. "Losing this church would be devastating. Where would we go? I know I wouldn't want to go to a different church."

         Elton Alderman Margaret Langley, who is not a member of the church, is optimistic the church can stay open and its members can turn it around.

         "These are strong-willed people, and they will fight till the end," Langley said.

         – by AP/ Doris Maricle for The American Press

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