Closed church turns community center in Hiawatha

David Burke

6/26/2023

HIAWATHA, Kansas – When Hiawatha Trinity United Methodist Church closed in June 2021, Laura Fortmeyer and Cindy Barnes had the same thoughts, although they didn’t know it and barely knew each other. 

“Cindy and I were both looking for a place to address the needs we were seeing in the community at the same time,” said Fortmeyer, who was operating a community food bank at a Baptist church in town. “It took a while, but we all got together.” 

One pew remains in the sanctuary of the former Hiawatha Trinity UMC, now open as Trinity Center. Photos by David Burke

“I’ve had my youth group here. I knew the church building, and I love the building,” said Barnes, who attends Powhattan United Methodist Church. “I just thought, ‘We’ve got to save this building, it’s got to have a purpose.’ Laura was looking at it at the same time thinking, ‘I need a new place for the food bank, and what a place, what a location.’” 

Rev. Kevin Rea, who was pastor of Trinity and Powhattan from 2017 to 2021, introduced them to each other, and the groundwork for the Trinity Center was born. 

The center opened in February and had an open house June 21. 

Entering the picture was Rev. Dan Norwood, whose appointment at Hiawatha First UMC began the day after Trinity officially closed. Norwood came from down U.S. Highway 36 in Washington, Kansas, where he was in charge of the local food distribution program. 

“I got here and thought, ‘This is a great place to do something,’” Norwood said. 

“He tuned in right away, better than anybody else,” Fortmeyer said. 

“I was sympathetic to her plight, I guess,” Norwood said. “I loved her vision for it.” 

Trinity’s roots can be traced back to 1858 and its building to 1924. Decades ago, concrete ramps were installed from the street to both the sanctuary and the basement, which was a selling point for Fortmeyer and Barnes. 

“I’d been looking for more space and a place with more attributes,” Fortmeyer said. “There aren’t many congregations that have a church that is handicapped accessible. The location is right. … A food pantry in isolation is helpful, but there were a lot more needs, a lot more needs in the community. This building was on a neutral site and just had lots of potential. I walked in and thought, ‘This is a beautiful building. Something should be happening here.’” 

Norwood mentioned the possibilities of using the church to Scott Brewer, at the time treasurer and director of administrative services for the conference, and the Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, president of the board of trustees. Sabrina Aubuchon, administrative services coordinator, became the point person for the conference with Hiawatha. 

Volunteer Carrie Potter shows the expanded food bank in the basement of the former church.

“Sabrina’s the one who made this happen,” Fortmeyer said. “She’s very responsive.” 

The Trinity Center pays for utilities and insurance through the conference. 

“They don’t want to be subsidizing us, and they support what we’re doing,” Fortmeyer said. 

Most of the items in the church were sold and distributed after its closing — although one pew was brought back to the center — with the exception of several hard-to-move pianos. 

The parsonage, about 6 feet away from the church, sold quickly. 

The location at 105 S. 3rd St. is just blocks away from the town square, which includes the Brown County Courthouse. It’s right across from the Amberwell Hiawatha hospital, which “has its pros and cons,” Fortmeyer said. 

Immediate plans for the building include new flooring in some of the areas, improvements to the air-conditioning system, creating a food-prep area in one of the rooms, and upgrading the electrical outlets, which are scarce and lack the third, grounding prong. 

The expansion of the food bank, in the basement of the former church, meant not only more items available but a shift to a shopping style of distribution, where those in need are given a number of points depending on the size of their families.  

“There is a lot of food in this community that needs to be redistributed,” Fortmeyer said. “This is the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more that we could be doing.” 

The top level is open, with space for meetings. Narcotics Anonymous has weekly meetings in the space, with a list of many other groups as possibilities. The six-person steering committee — which includes Fortmeyer, Barnes and Norwood — wants to conduct focus groups and consultations to see what can be done with the space. 

Cindy Barnes explains employability barriers with a couple during the open house.

“We want to listen to people in the community and kind of assess what ideas are out there, what resources are out there, what needs are out there,” Fortmeyer said. 

Barnes said the possibilities include hosting more 12-step programs and groups for families of alcoholics and drug abusers, and support for families of incarcerated individuals. 

“That’s something the community really lacks,” she said. “People who are in those situations generally lack transportation and lack communication. If we can step in and help any way with that, we’d like to put that together and offer support for people who are unsupported.” 

“Part of our thinking is to be a space where things happen,” Fortmeyer said. “We want to offer space for people to get together.” 

The steering committee also wants to see the center used as a place to teach visual and musical arts. 

“Kids get art in school, and unless you pursue it yourself there’s not lots of access if they don’t have the funds to do it,” Fortmeyer said. 

“So it’s not a luxury just for certain people who are successful,” said Norwood, who played guitar and sang during the open house. 

The brochure available at the open house included a laundry list of activities that could happen at the center, including seniors fellowship, life-skills training and pregnancy support. 

Haley Barnes, Carol’s daughter and another member of the steering committee, works with foster families and said the center could be used for the needs of those families. 

Rev. Dan Norwood sings and plays guitar during the open house.

“What we can do is lead them to other resources,” Carol Barnes said. “That’s what thing we want to do is be a liaison between other support facilities, because a lot of people don’t know what is available in the area.” 

Fortmeyer said the building could be used as a center for a variety of groups and the people they serve. 

“There’s a lot of volunteers in Hiawatha already. There’s a really strong spirit,” she said. “But we want to mix people up a little more than they are.” 

Steering committee members say it’s open to any of the other churches in the town of 3,200. 

“People from various congregations can serve together, and we can be a place where a congregation has an initiative and needs a space to do it,” Fortmeyer said. 

“It’s accessible to people who aren’t church people, and it’s accessible to people who are church people,” Norwood added. “We can get partnerships built up.” 

It could also help the growing number of homeless in Hiawatha and Brown County. 

“There’s not a lot of affordable housing, and the conditions of some of the rental properties are not very good,” Norwood said. 

Steering committee members said they are open to any and all ideas. 

“If anybody’s got a great idea or great desire, we’ll follow up on it,” Norwood said. 

“We want to be a safe space for people to come,” Barnes added. “Not everywhere feels that way to people.” 

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.


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