Why Elgin group preserves, maintains historic 'Once-a-Year Church'
Nestled in a quiet tree-covered cemetery just west of Elgin is a beautifully preserved 1840s church that hasn't seen regular Sunday services in over a century.
If that's not unusual enough, a group formed to preserve the unique structure and surrounding cemetery recently held its centennial meeting. It was a gathering attended by more than 200 descendants of the area's first Scottish and Irish settlers that formed the congregation of the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church.
"It's a place that draws us together and keeps us connected," said Jody Schmeck, president of the Washington Cemetery Association.
Each June the group holds its annual meeting to conduct the formal business of the association.
This year's gathering was particularly well-attended and included games, cemetery tours, a history tent filled with genealogy materials, pictures, maps and help for those seeking their roots. A quintet of bagpipers played throughout the afternoon. A catered lunch under a large tent provided a perfect opportunity for many acquaintances to be renewed -- and new ones made.
The afternoon concluded with an annual business meeting and church service which included a roll call of deceased members and the playing of Taps. The little church was filled to overflowing and many sat outside the windows just as they did many years ago.
Land for the tiny church, built in 1844 or 1845, was given by Alexander McCornack whose original log cabin stood just west of the church. Church records indicate members previously worshipped in cabins of some of the other founding families including the McQueens, the Scheddens, and the McCornacks.
Timber for the structure was hewed in the nearby words and other lumber hauled by oxen from Chicago. The building was erected under the supervision of members William and Daniel Fraser and resembled one they attended in Scotland. One of the final touches was a sundial made by William Fraser and placed above the door.
Several years after the church was built, one of the members passed away and was buried just west of the church on property that then became a cemetery. Additional land was added over the years.
The passing years brought numerous changes. As families grew, their children relocated outside the area. Other founding families sold their land to new owners. In September 1906, the last regular church service was held in the building.
In 1916, the Washington Cemetery Association was formed to maintain and preserve the building and surrounding cemetery. Several years later bronze nameplates identifying original pew holders and similar to those used in Scotland were added to the pews.
In 1924 a bronze tablet bearing the names of the founders of the church was placed on the front of the building. In attendance were many descendants of the original members. In 1980 the unique Greek Revival church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Reminders of the early families are found in the nearby road names. Just to the west of the cemetery is McCornack Road. Other nearby roads include Damisch, Mason, Tyrrell and Coombs.
"Descendants of the first pioneers are now dispersed across the country," said Scott Damisch, whose family members were early settlers in the area.
"We've grown so large that many have lost track of how we are related. We do know we share a common ancestry and connection with this place and that's why we keep coming back year after year."