KEYTESVILLE — Lizzy Kalinka grew up a quarter-mile from the Dalton Immanuel United Methodist Church on what’s now a Century Farm in the Dalton Bottoms.
She’s been attending the church all her life, as her family did before she was born. A memorial plaque on the right-hand side of the front doors includes her late father’s name.
“It’s nice opening that door and seeing my father’s name every Sunday,” she said.
Her childhood home was destroyed in 1993, forcing her to leave. She never gave up on her dream of moving back, and finally did last June. She was there for less than a year when the levee broke, sending water rushing into the Dalton Bottoms, engulfing buildings and putting miles of farmland out of production for the foreseeable future.
“We were safe when we were in Keytesville, but knowing we had strong ties — we had two Century Farms, our church was down there — we worked our butts off to make the move to Dalton,” Kalinka said.
Kalinka’s step-father built a mound for her house, so it’s stayed dry during this flood. The Dalton Immanuel United Methodist Church didn’t fare as well. The basement of the old German church flooded when the Missouri River first punched through a levee near Dalton in May.
The floodwaters receded in June, leaving behind a pool in the church basement. The water reached into the sanctuary, leaving a puddle a few inches deep where the floor slopes down to the altar, said church member Donald Grotjan, who has been going to Dalton Immanuel his whole life. His family donated the land the church was built on in 1913.
“I have never felt any closer to God anywhere on this Earth than in that little church,” Grotjan said.
Carpeting wicked water further up the floor, but damage to the sanctuary wasn’t as severe as it was in 1993, when the river rose up to the church’s stained-glass windows 3 feet off the ground, he said. Still, repairs are a big undertaking for the small church. And, after living through two historic floods in 26 years, they know they need to move to higher ground for the church to last, Grotjan said.
Move, raise or leave?
Kalinka is a Dalton superfan. She’s the community’s booster and a prolific collector of Dalton history.
She’s written a book about it, “Dalton, Missouri: Looking Back.” A Facebook page originally started to promote the book has turned into a Dalton fan page where Kalinka gives updates on “the most beautiful place on Earth” to more than 1,000 followers, with thousands more seeing the posts.
She will not again leave her beloved bottomland on the north side of the Missouri River, between the mouths of the Grand and Chariton rivers.
“We’ll be back as soon as the water goes down,” she said.
The bottomland congregation lived through flooding in 1993. They repaired the building, thinking they’d never see a flood like that again in their lifetime. Congregants kept coming to worship on Sundays, sitting in the same pews and reading from the same hymnals as their great-great grandparents, with the same German Bible on the altar.
The congregation is smaller now, and a quarter-century older. Having lived through two major floods, they know these inundations aren’t once-in-a-lifetime events.
Grotjan, arranged as floodwaters first receded in early June for “building movers” to look at the structure and estimate on how much it would cost to move. Then more rain came, pushing the river back through the third-of-a-mile hole it gashed in the levee, into the bottoms and the church again.
With the river back inside the church, the movers can’t come look at it, and getting them there in the near future could be a challenge, Grotjan said.
The Missouri River has been falling steadily since late last week. It dropped below “major” flood stage Monday at Glasgow, but it could quickly rise if too much rain falls in the basin. Releases from Gavin’s Point Dam are expected to stay high into the fall, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tries to drain its saturated reservoirs on the Upper Missouri River.
Raising the building could be another option if moving it isn’t feasible. It would be easier, but Grotjan said he’s not sure the church has enough land to build a mound high enough to keep it dry. In the meantime, the church is facing a difficult question: With an aging congregation, is moving the church worth all the work?
The church has been trying to build up its congregation for years without much success, he said. There are only about a dozen people who regularly attend service, and a few more scattered members.
More people have offered support since the flood. The church’s current pastor, Jim Robinson compared it to a story of a church that caught fire: The pastor was standing out front with a bucket brigade trying to put out the flames, and he saw a man he’d never seen before. The man said he was a member of the church, and the pastor asked why he’d never seen him at church before.
“He said, ‘I haven’t seen the church on fire before,’” Robinson said.
Kalinka sees opportunity to grow the church. She’s already heard from people who say they want to join. Members of the First Baptist Church in Dalton were quick to give their support, and they might want to come, too, she said.
The Methodist Conference rotates pastors between different churches. The church’s next pastor, Naftal Massela, is set to arrive in about three months. He is a former youth minister who could help attract more young people to the flock. The attention brought by moving the church could draw in more people, too, Grotjan said.
Another option for the building is to save it for its historic significance, said member Lowell Newsom, who grew up in the bottoms attending the Dalton Immanuel church, and returned after a career in the St. Louis-area.
It could serve as a community building, Newsom said. The old one-room schoolhouse functioned as the community center from after it closed in the 1950s until 2016. Dwindling membership and a basement flooded by torrential rain brought it’s end, and the building is now owned by St. Louis duck hunters with a cabin on Cut-Off Lake, he said.
If the church closes, the building goes to the Methodist church’s Missouri General Conference in Columbia, Newsom said. They don’t want the building, and there’s precedent for them selling a building back to a community for $1, he said.
For now, the focus is on saving the church, but there isn’t unanimous agreement on a long-term plan. Sitting around a table in the Keytesville Cafe with Newsom, Kalinka and Grotjan, Robinson said there are others in the congregation who were ready to shut down.
There are other churches they can go to, but some people will fall through the cracks if the congregation disperses, Robinson said.
“Some of those people will say, ‘I guess I just stay home today since I don’t have a church home,’” he said.
Finding another church won’t necessarily solve their issue, either, Robinson said. Every church has the same issues facing Dalton Immanuel.
“They’re going to need money, they’re going to need to do something to their building, and they’re going to have an imperfect pastor,” Robinson said.
The congregation will meet on Sunday to discuss its future. In the meantime, they’re hoping somebody forms an idea to save the church that’s within its means.