Cranfills Gap church celebrates 125th anniversary along with restoration

By Chelsea Quackenbush Tribune-Herald staff writer
Sunday June 13, 2010

Seven generations of the Knudson family have been a part of the Old Rock Church in Cranfills Gap.

Children are married, nieces and nephews are baptized and loved ones are mourned at the church and cemetery.

Family ties to the church, also known as St. Olaf’s Kirke, are not rare in this town.

More than 400 people came to mark the 125th anniversary of the newly restored church.
More than 400 people came to mark the 125th anniversary of the newly restored church.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald

Rita Hanson’s family has been part of the church for five generations. Geneva Finstad’s great-grandfather built it.

Finstad and her husband, Guy, spearheaded a restoration project for the church. It began a few years ago.

More than 400 people celebrated the restoration Saturday, as well as the church’s 125th anniversary.

“I grew up going to this church,” Geneva said. “I was baptized here. My oldest son was married here. My great-granddaughter was just baptized here.”

The Lutheran church was built in 1886 by Norwegian settlers.

Before Old Rock, townspeople attended the church in Norse, a nearby town with deep Norwegian roots. But settlement rapidly moved westward and they needed a church closer to home.

Finstad’s great-grandfather invited the pastor and some people over for dinner one Sunday after church, Finstad said. The pastor said he would preach at both churches if they built a new one, closer to their home.

The church body grew quickly after its inception, and weekly worship services were moved in 1917 to a location in the center of town.

Special services are still held at Old Rock, like the candlelight Christmas Eve service and the sunrise Easter service.

Weddings are the most common ceremony.

Elizabeth Toon dreamed of getting married at the church from the moment she saw it.

“She said ‘Daddy, I want to get married here,’ ” Elizabeth’s father, Larry Toon, recalled. “(The church) is very near and dear to our hearts.”

But Elizabeth’s dream was not fulfilled.

She was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2006 when she was 22.

Pastor Ann Koopman preaches from an elevated pulpit Saturday at St. Olaf’s Kirke in Cranfills Gap.
Pastor Ann Koopman preaches from an elevated pulpit Saturday at St. Olaf’s Kirke in Cranfills Gap.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald

Elizabeth Toon Charities

Her friends and family started Elizabeth Toon Charities, a nonprofit organization that supports children in need throughout Texas.

Elizabeth Toon Charities took a special interest in the Old Rock restoration project because of her dream.

The charity provided $92,000 to fund renovations of the church and cemetery. They plan on donating another $20,000 for ongoing improvements.

The Toon family first visited the church nine years ago this week, a coincidence that coincided with the 125th anniversary.

Larry Toon lauded the community’s enthusiasm for the project. He said the contracting company from San Antonio fell in love with the church, “just like everyone else does.”

“It’s a place where the whole community comes together,” he said. “You leave all your differences at the gate.”

Church members said the entire community came out to help with the restoration. They hired historical architects to bring it back to its original condition.

The church still lacks plumbing and electricity. Architects were amazed to uncover the perfect lines of limestone on the exterior.

Inside, they chipped away the paint until they found the original colors.

“The red and green are very common in Norway,” Geneva Finstad said.

The elevated pulpit remains the most unusual feature of the church.

Guy and Geneva Finstad coordinated the Old Rock restoration project a few years ago.
Guy and Geneva Finstad coordinated the Old Rock restoration project a few years ago.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald

Although it was originally lifted when built, the pastor had it lowered in 1912 “to be seen and heard,” Finstad said. “He wanted to be among the people, not above them.”

After a debate, the church decided to raise the pulpit back to its original place.

“It was inspiring” to preach from the elevated pulpit, pastor Ann Koopman said after the service Saturday. “It was new; you can see the faces, and you can really catch the spirit.”