LEIGH — St. Paul’s Lutheran Church sits prominently atop a hill among the rolling fields of corn and soybeans in northern Platte County.
It’s been there for more than 130 years.
Each year when the leaves begin to change color and those crops turn from green to gold, the tiny, white church becomes the hub of activity for this rural community.
On the second Sunday in October, people come from miles around for the annual harvest supper, a tradition started decades ago that remains just as strong today.
“The community looks forward to this every year,” said Jean Wendt, who has been in charge of organizing the meal for about a decade.
Wendt joined the church southwest of Leigh around 1997, when she and her husband Bruce, a lifelong member at St. Paul’s Lutheran, moved from Columbus to his family’s farm about 2 miles down the road.
She’s part of a new generation of church members working alongside their children and grandchildren to ensure the annual gathering keeps going.
On Sunday, a group of dedicated volunteers packed the small kitchen in the church basement to feed a hungry crowd that started filtering in around 4:30 p.m.
It takes a group effort from the roughly 100 members of the congregation to prepare and serve a meal for 200 to 250 people, counting takeout orders. That includes those who make food ahead of time at home, a crew that started cooking around 2 p.m. Sunday at the church, young children who bus tables and husbands working along an assembly line formed to wash dishes.
“It pretty much takes the whole congregation. Everybody does something,” said Denise McAfee, who’s known for her gravy-making skills.
She’s been helping out at the harvest supper since she was young, when the church’s Ladies Aid group still ran the event.
“I started out scraping plates when I was probably 7 years old,” McAfee said. “I’ve been at it a while.”
Nobody is quite sure when the dinner first started — a good guess is sometime during the 1950s — but they all agree on what’s kept it going.
“Tradition,” McAfee said.
“It brings us all together,” added Karen Hillen while working alongside McAfee in the kitchen on Sunday evening.
The turkey, pork loin, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy and an assortment of homemade salads and desserts get people in the door, and the conversation with friends, neighbors and fellow church members keeps them there well after the meal is finished.
“They just don’t eat and leave,” said Wendt.
The Rev. Marsha Jark-Swain, who is in her 15th year with St. Paul’s Lutheran, called the event the “glue” that brings the congregation and rural community together.
“It gives them an opportunity to see the church,” she said of the non-members who come from Columbus, Creston, Leigh and other area towns to enjoy the meal.
The supper is also a fundraiser for the church. It replaced the food stand the Ladies Aid used to operate each year at the Platte County Fair.
Norene Kuhr, who was joined at Sunday’s supper by a niece from Wisner, was part of the Ladies Aid when it still organized the event.
At age 80, she still makes food for the meal at home but stopped working in the church kitchen two years ago.
She said the harvest supper brings a “togetherness” to the area.
“They come once and they usually come back,” said Kuhr, one of four women who still meet as part of a quilting group that formed when the Ladies Aid dissolved.
Kuhr knows times are changing and people seem busier now, which makes it increasingly difficult to fill the pews for church services, but there’s one Sunday in October that will continue to bring people to St. Paul’s Lutheran.
“It’s an event like this that helps us remain,” she said.