Fists fly and punches land; win, lose, or draw, it's all about gaining trust and respect for missionaries from the First Presbyterian Church of Duluth.
An active tradition in the late 19th century, the First Presbyterian Church sent men to logging camps and the Iron Range to spread the gospel. Upon arrival, the missionaries challenged the best man in the area to a fight. In return, the missionary would gain the trust, respect and time they desired to preach.
“They would do what they needed to get attention,” said John Pressler, pastor at First Presbyterian for the past 12 years.
These men were deemed the Sunday School Missionaries, or Sunday School Fighters, by the oldest congregation in the city. That congregation still meets every Sunday, like it has for the last 144 years.
“Our missionaries fought for their credibility, literally,” Pressler said. “With their fists, these men earned the right to share the gospel. It's not about us, it's about grace.”
Since 1869, one year before public schools were organized in Duluth and four years after the end of the Civil War, First Presbyterian has continued this tradition and stayed dedicated to spreading the glory of God. In the 1930s and 1940s, membership soared to over 3,000 people, according to the church's 125-year anniversary booklet.
However, today, membership has fallen below 100 and with an aging congregation. Several of these members, who are over the age of 80, still greet visitors with a warm smile to make everyone feel right at home
After the founding of the church by Luke Marvin in 1869, sermons were given from a sewing machine used as a podium in his home, as said in the 75-year anniversary booklet. The congregation eventually moved to a schoolhouse, and then a smaller church location across from the present location. It wasn't until 1891 that the current church building on East Second Street was finished. The building cost $125,000 and was built by the contributions of about 10 to 20 people, none of whom were rich.
“Those pioneers considered spiritual values first, and we of the present generation should never forget this in our own way of considering our lives,” said Connie Cowan, an elder member of the church. “We've stayed true to the Bible, a lot of other churches haven't stayed so true.”
June Lindberg, a member of First Presbyterian Church, is founder Luke Marvin's great-granddaughter. Lindberg has been a member of the church since her birth nearly 90 years ago. Seeing a lot of the history of the church, Lindberg says that she stays with the church because of the great leaders, who helped push the church into its prime. This changed after men began to return from World War II.
“With a lot of the young guys coming back from the service, they had seen other parts of the country, and there were more job opportunities than there were here. People had to go somewhere they could find a job,” parish member Lucille Rugowski said.
Rays of sunshine pierced the stained glass windows, casting a colorful glow on a smaller than expected congregation. As Cowan glanced around the seemingly empty sanctuary she asked herself, “Where is everyone?”
Cowan continued to look around the room for members who typically don't miss service. Membership hovers around 77 parishioners today. First Presbyterian Church once stood surrounded by pines, but now sits trapped by the avenues and streets of a busy city.
“We're not in a good neighborhood,” said Cowan. “There's not a lot of houses around here, people have left to go to churches in their own neighborhood and a lot of the old timers have died off. Parking is also an issue, but there are empty spots in that lot.”
Remaining parishioners don't seem discouraged by the shrinking membership. They still move forward and do what they can to reach out to others, just as members before them did.
“It's not about us. It's not how hard we worked or how deserving we are; it's about the generosity of God,” Pastor John Pressler said. “We wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for God.”
This is a video taken by reporter Daniel Badhwa of the inside of the First Presbyterian Church to show the structure and beauty that remains in the building.