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Once A Pandemic Casualty In Kansas, Historic Church In Leavenworth Gets A Rebirth

Julie Denesha
Pushing a broom across the old wood floor of Little Stranger Church, Carrie Ritchey tries to spiff up the interior now that the conservation crew is finished with their work outside. The church was built in 1868, and it’s the oldest wooden church in Kansas.

Little Stranger Church is the oldest wooden church in Kansas. It was shuttered at the height of the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1919. During COVID-19, work on the church accelerated and people are already asking about holding weddings there again.

In 1919, the nation was facing a pandemic. Spanish influenza was raging. Cities across the country closed schools, theaters and churches. Kansas City banned weddings and funerals with more than 20 people. In Leavenworth, Kansas, The Little Stranger Church closed its doors and the congregation never met again.

But a little more than one hundred years later, in the midst of another pandemic, the church is getting new life.

Little Stranger Church is the oldest wood-frame church in Kansas. Settlers from across the river in Farley, Mo., built it in 1868 with wood milled from local cottonwood trees. Its name comes from nearby Little Stranger Creek.

Even after it stopped functioning as a church, the one-room building served as a gathering place for canning clubs, 4-H chapters and other groups. But over the years it fell into disrepair. The community discussed tearing it down.

Instead, citizens of Leavenworth opted for rebirth.

On a recent Sunday morning, Carrie Ritchey approaches the church door. The key in her hand is a sign of progress.

“My biggest thrill about this whole project this summer is now, instead of having to have a drill to take a piece of plywood off, I go up and unlock the door and walk in,” Ritchey says.

Five years ago, the church's old clapboard siding was weathered and gray. Many of the boards were missing. Now, newly whitewashed boards gleam in the sun. Old, broken doors have been replaced with sturdy replicas made of solid, white oak. Glass panes have replaced old boarded-up windows.

“It’s awesome now," says Ritchey. "I was so sorry to see the rugged gray leave, but I love the white paint. And when I look at those windows, I know that's what it should be.”

Ritchey, who has been coordinating the restoration efforts, looks at the church and sees the roots of her community.

“This is what early Kansas was, plain and simple," she says. "Nothing fancy. But to me, that's what the pioneers were. They were very plain.”

Starting around 2015, residents rallied around the church by reviving an old pie social tradition to raise funds for the restoration. Women around these parts win prizes at local fairs for their apple, rhubarb and coconut cream creations. But, with a $190,000 price tag to repair the foundation, fix the roof and replace the siding, outside help was clearly needed.

Ritchey and others succeeded in having Little Stranger Church listed on the National Register of Historic Places., which enabled them to apply for restoration grants. Ritchey reached out to Tara Sloan, who currently works in the tech industry in Seattle, but holds fond feelings for the church. Growing up in the area, she’d passed it many times while visiting her grandparents.

“I remember we'd roll up the road and when we saw the church, I knew we were almost to my grandparents house," says Sloan. "So it's like, oh, there's a church, we're almost there. So it's just kind of like a nice landmark.”

Julie Denesha
Working together, Carrie Ritchey (from left) and Tara Sloan led the charge to save Little Stranger Church and restore it back to life, with the help of grants from the Heritage Trust Fund grant program. Community support in the form of pie socials and raffles also kept the momentum going.

Sloan is savvy about grant-writing, website development and social media promotion. She took over those aspects while Ritchey supervised the work on the ground.

"I think the two of us together worked really well," Sloan says.

The church was mostly empty while Sloan was growing up, but she did catch glimpses of its interior.

Little Stranger Church
Canning clubs and 4-H groups met at Little Stranger Church during the 1940’s and 50’s.

"I do remember my grandpa opening up the doors to the church when I was little and we'd get to go inside once in a while," she says. "And honestly, it just seemed like kind of a spooky old building, but I thought it was pretty cool when I was really little.”

Sloan became much more familiar with Little Stranger Church once she embarked on the rigorous task of grant applications.

Julie Denesha
Grants from the Kansas Heritage Trust Fund grant program helped boost the efforts to renovate the Little Stranger Church.

“Yeah, they’re a lot of work, a lot of researching historical context and really arguing your case for why it's important and a lot of explanation about what needs to be done," says Sloan. "You have to have a lot of experts weigh in."

Julie Denesha
Bethany Falvey leads the Heritage Trust Fund grant program at the Kansas Historical Society. The state program gives matching funds to preserve buildings like Little Stranger Church.

Bethany Falvey, a grants coordinator at the Kansas Historical Society, says preservation projects help communities in multiple ways. The restoration of Little Stranger Church has created 22 jobs, she notes.

"So it's pretty amazing how one project can spark that ripple effect.”

With the help of the grants, Ritchey was able to hire a crew of skilled craftsmen from Lenexa-based Pishny Restoration Services. The firm specializes in the restoration of historic buildings, monuments, log cabins and cemeteries. The effect in Leavenworth has been dramatic.

“Sometimes we have projects where they replace a roof which protects the building or they repair the foundation," says Falvey. "And those aren't always, you know, great before and afters. This one, you've got a total transformation.”

Falvey says some projects have had trouble completing work with the complications of the pandemic. But she says the progress at Little Stranger has been impressive.

“They've completed the project quickly,” says Falvey. “The grants for 2020 were only awarded back in February. So they had everything lined up. It is a success when you see a project complete so quickly and smoothly.”

Julie Denesha
Jim Sloan and daughter Tara sweep away years of dust dust during a Sunday morning cleanup. Now that the building is stabilized and repaired, they can focus on projects inside.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the community is beginning to take notice. People are already asking about booking weddings at the church.

“With all the craziness going on, this has been great," says Ritchey. "It's been something to be excited about."

Little Stranger's fate in the midst of pandemics is not lost on its advocates. Raging influenza shut the church down in 1919.

"And that's part of its history," Ritchey says. "This pandemic, it got a new life. We're just all waiting until we get back together and have a big celebration.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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