By Laurie Oswald Robinson
When Katy Pasnick came from Chicago to Pawnee Rock, Kans., in 2004 to care for her grandfather, Earl Schmidt, a longtime member of Bergthal Mennonite Church, she planned to stay for a month.
The month came and went. But the 35-year-old still lives on the multigenerational farm homestead. It’s where Earl and the late Maxlyn Schmidt raised Katy’s mother, Ann, and were part of the church that began in 1875.
The church – closing its doors this summer due to dwindling numbers – has become a second home to Pasnick. It’s where she’s been deeply engaged with church family and has helped to spearhead the annual School Kit Sunday each fall when more than 1,000 kits are created.
“One day when I heard my grandfather – who had lost our grandmother two years before that – talk on our voice mail, he sounded so sad,” Pasnick said. “I was in a corporate job that I wanted to leave, so I decided to quit and move to Pawnee Rock for a month to care for him.
“Eight years later, I am still here. I love this community and this church, and I have found a sense of roots and family history. … My grandfather moved to Kidron Bethel [in North Newton, Kans.], but I decided to stay on the farm and drive to Newton every Friday to spend the day with him.”
Even though the pace of life in rural Kansas is much slower than the Chicago suburbs, she keeps busy and happy – caring for her 90-year-old grandfather who has Parkinson’s, working at Dillons part-time, tending the fires at the homestead and working on the school kit project.
School kit creation is a family tradition that Pasnick re-connected with on the prairies. Her grandmother passed on passion for the project to her daughter, Ann, who sewed and filled dozens of school kits at the Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church where Katy grew up. So when Bergthal member Wynona Unruh mentored Pasnick for a couple of years before handing over the baton to the young woman, Pasnick was primed to take the reins with the help of hard workers.
“After we close our doors, I hope people remember us as a small but mighty group that was welcoming and helpful and joyful,” she said. “We put everything we’ve got into whatever project and activity we do.
“I’ve learned that being involved with your community is really important. In the suburbs, I didn’t know some of my neighbors and wasn’t worried about meeting them. I learned how much we can get done when we have a common goal.”
School Kit Sunday is one of the highlights of the Bergthal church calendar, and everyone from the youngest to the oldest finds a job packing the bags. The highest count was in 2011 when a Ralph Buller Memorial enabled the congregation to pack more than 1,500 kits.
Before the church closes this summer, it will host one last School Kit Sunday. Pastor Lynn Schlosser hopes this event will help the congregation to complete its circle.
“Because we were smaller, we could give ourselves permission to pick and choose how to invest our energies and focus on special areas, like school kits,” she said.
“We are very sad to let go but have a deep sense the time is right. We have been a very progressive little church, and it will be hard for our folks to find another church like this in our immediate area.”
Bergthal’s closing will not cause Pasnick to close her chapter on Kansas, she said. She loves coming home from the checkout to the peaceful prairies, the lack of traffic, the deep friendships and the family historical markers that have marked her soul.
“It is all pretty sad for me, because it’s the first church where I felt I really belonged, and there aren’t any other Mennonite congregations nearby. … But this is home.”