First Presbyterian Church (FPC) is celebrating a milestone – the 30th year since Pastor Kirk Morledge came to Waunakee’s “little white church” to lead the congregation.
Morledge recalled his early years in Waunakee as he spoke at the Waunakee Rotary Club’s Dec. 10 virtual meeting.
Waunakee’s population was 3,480 in 1990; today the population is 14,399. The village had no stoplights, no roundabouts, and you could actually walk across Main Street without looking for cars, he said.
Where Walgreens now stands was O’Malley’s Farm Café. Morledge was a bachelor at the time, and the only other pastor who was not married was Fr. Elmer, he said. The two met for breakfast every Friday at O’Malley’s.
“I still think about that whenever I pull into the old Walgreens,” Morledge said.
Morledge grew up in the area, attending Memorial High School where he played football, but because Memorial was in a different conference, he never traveled to Waunakee for competition.
When he came to Waunakee, he said, “In some ways, I was coming back to a place I had never been before,” Morledge said.
He remembered the search committee for a pastor. Carol Bleifield, who still attends the church, was on it. The committee had dinner at the Steffenhagens’ home, and Morledge called it “a magical evening… you could feel the Lord at work.”
Usually when Morledge attended dinners, he would be asked as a pastor, the professional, to say the prayer. But the committee members took this over before their meal of brats and corn.
The big news in Waunakee then was the controversy raging over the nativity scene at the Village Park. It made national news when the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.
Pastor Morledge said he called up the Freedom from Religion founder, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and talked to her.
“I discovered she wasn’t particular eager to talk to a local pastor,” Morledge said. But Gaylor did note that if people in Waunakee cared so much about a nativity scene at Christmastime, why didn’t any of the churches have one?
Peace Lutheran Church then began to erect a scene along Hwy. Q at Eighth Street. And the wheels began turning for the FPC congregation.
At FPC, the members came up with the idea of a live nativity, with people dressed up in biblical garb and with real animals, and the tradition has continued to this day. One very cold year, Morledge remembered, one of the sheep ventured over to the fire to keep warm and caught its wool on fire. Gary Keen came to the rescue, dropping the sheep and rolling it in the snow.
This year, the congregation has grappled with whether to host to the nativity during a pandemic and found a way to make it happen. It will be just two hours rather than two nights to avoid costume changes.
“It will be interesting to what Mary, Joseph and the three wise men will look like with masks on,” Morledge said.
Morledge finds it interesting that in Wisconsin, where Lutherans and Catholics settled, FPC was the second church built.
It was begun by a soldier in Abraham Lincoln’s army in the Civil War who moved to Waunakee and found others who were Protestant. In 1877, the eight members of the Presbyterian Society of Waunakee would gather on Sundays above Koltes Lumber to worship.
A church in New York voted to help sponsor the Waunakee congregation and sent a pitcher and chalice for communion that is used to this day.
In 1878, the members incorporated as a congregation and built the little white church on Second Street, where a preschool now operates from.
After Morledge arrived, the congregation decided to move a new building where more parking could be available. The members searched for suitable land, until Herb Statz overheard a conversation about the search at the grocery store and offered to sell the land on Hwy. Q.
Over Morledge’s years as FPC pastor, the community has grown, and with it, the ministry and outreach. Morledge said the congregation has taken care of him, finding him someone to marry – Faith, who was a high school girlfriend. Their wedding was the first marriage ceremony at the new church.
Morledge was also a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve and deployed twice, and the congregation kept the church operating in his absence.
They celebrated his 30 years on Dec. 1, and Morledge said time has flown by.
“Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes,” Morledge said.
This story has been corrected from its original version, in which Gary Keen's name was misspelled.