A Publication of WTVP

That old-time rural religion

by Steve Tarter | Photos by Ron Johnson |

For 182 years, Blue Ridge Church near Chillicothe has proven ‘a spiritual anchor’ in central Illinois farm country

The small country church may be the last of the rural outposts resisting the fate that’s befallen such reminders of the past as the one-room schoolhouse, the blacksmith shop and the old-time soda fountain.

Blue Ridge Church, a chapel 22 miles north of Peoria at the border between Chillicothe and Edelstein, has a long history but a short supply of congregants.

‘I think the small country church still has a place in this world’
— Ellen Donsbach

Contrary to rumors, the Blue Ridge Church has not closed, and it continues to invite any who seek “a spiritual anchor,” noted Mary Meyer and her daughter, Carolyn Blair, in a recent notice for a Chillicothe newspaper.

Wanted: A pastor

Meyer, 90, recalled her first memories of the church, which was founded in 1841. “My mother and dad always sat in the back pew with me. I don’t know if the reason we sat there was because of me,” she said, laughing. “We had Sunday school held in the back of the church,” she added, pointing to an area that now holds extra pews.

But handling overflow crowds isn’t a problem at Blue Ridge these days.

“It’s hard drawing people to a small country church,” said Bobbi Wages, Meyer’s granddaughter and overseer of the church’s Facebook page. “We’re trying to get our name out there. A lot of people think the church has closed.”

Previously known as Blue Ridge United Methodist Church, the church is now non-denominational.

Some 20 people were in attendance at an August service at this house of worship, which now has another challenge, said Blair. “We’re looking for a minister. Right now, pastors in the area like Don Kennedy, a retired pastor at the Cedar Hills Baptist Church in Dunlap, help us out,” she said.

“There’s been a shortage of pastors,” added Meyer.

Members gather at Blue Ridge Church, 22426 N. Blue Ridge Road, Edelstein

Sunrise, sunset

A lot has changed in the area since the church was first founded, according to a history written by Meyer’s grandfather, Henry H. Nurse, in 1917.

“There were no houses between Northampton and Blue Ridge, nor between Blue Ridge and Boyd’s Grove, except on the stage road between Peoria and Galena,” wrote Nurse in the pocket-sized history preserved at the church. That history also details the construction of the present church, erected in 1898 to replace the original sanctuary, which had fallen “into a dilapidated and dangerous condition.”

Since Roswell Nurse came from New York to settle in the region in 1836, 10 generations of Nurses have grown up in the Blue Ridge area and in this very church, said Meyer.

In Blue Ridge Cemetery, located across the street from the church, “a third of the graves there are Nurses,” said Brian Nurse, 73, who drives with wife Sue from their home in the Quad Cities to attend services.

“We come down every Sunday,” he said, adding that he prefers the cozy confines of the Blue Ridge chapel to the church near his home. Nurse pointed to the stained-glass window at the church depicting the “Blue Ridge pioneers,” which was made in California and presented to the church in 1961 by his grandfather’s brother, “Dr.” Frank Nurse. The doctor title was bestowed on Frank Nurse as an erudite man who spoke five or six languages, said Nurse.

The cemetery carries special meaning for Meyer, who recalls walking through the graveyard after every church service as a child. “It was just something we did,” she said.

The cemetery also has been the site for an annual Memorial Day service “since Civil War days,” said Meyer. “People will gather around the flagpole there and sing ‘God Bless America.’”

Other Blue Ridge traditions have fallen by the wayside as the congregation has declined. The Blue Ridge Men’s Group, which disbanded a decade ago, used to hold an annual pancake-and-sausage breakfast that always proved popular, said Meyer. The church still holds an annual sausage sale in the spring, she said.

Rural resilience

The Blue Ridge faithful haven’t given up. An open house will be held at the church at 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 1 with refreshments. “We want to bring in other families, people who want the church-family feeling,” said Blair.

The congregation also will hold its third annual vendor event at the Pearce Community Center, 610 W. Cedar St. in Chillicothe, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18 (the day when Chillicothe holds its Santa Claus Parade) to raise money for the church.

“That’s the time when we have a Blue Ridge bake sale. We do good there,” said parishioner Sally Snyder.

Ellen Donsbach, who got married at the church 33 years ago, is already busy planning a Thanksgiving dinner program, while Peggy Hicks works on special programs to supplement the Sunday service once each month. The program for the last Sunday in August featured a talk by Kristin Schmidt, who’s been teaching orchestra students in South Peoria for the past 12 years.

Carolyn Blair said it’s important to maintain Blue Ridge Church despite its dwindling congregation.

“There are reasons involving history and family, plus I think the small country church still has a place in this world,” she said. “Some of the younger people prefer a megachurch where you don’t have to hold a hymnal and read off a screen, but we still do it in the traditional manner. I know they have bands at some of the other churches and we’ve had performers play here, too, just not all the time.

“We just had someone come back who said they’d be coming every week. We want to do outreach programs to find others and welcome them in.”

It’s the kind of rural can-do spirit that has defined and sustained this small country church in Blue Ridge for 182 years, and counting.

Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations