First Presbyterian Church of Polson
A Brief History
The First Presbyterian Church of Polson was established in 1910, the year Polson was incorporated and the Flathead Indian Reservation was opened to homesteading. The first congregation comprised twenty-five men and women dedicated to faithful Christian ministry in the Polson area. Instrumental in establishing the church were the Rev. George M. Fisher, a Rev. Edwards, and George Washington White, a seminary student and future pastor of the church.
In May 1915, construction began on the present church, and the congregation held its first worship service in the partially constructed building in October.
The completed building was dedicated on October 16, 1916. A local newspaper, the Flathead Courier, proclaimed, “It is one of the finest buildings in the state and the interior finish in southern red gums adds to its charm and beauty.” A manse for the pastor was built in 1915 and housed ministers and their families until 1948, when it was sold and moved to make room for a parking lot. It was destroyed by fire in 1985.
The years of the Great Depression and World War II were periods of ups and downs, but the 1950s ushered in an era of stability for the church. Dr. William D. (Bill) Copeland, a former Rocky Mountain College president, was ordained by the Yellowstone Presbytery in 1951 and was invited to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Polson. He remained until his retirement in 1965, setting a record (at the time) for longevity of service. He and his wife, Evelyn, provided the inspired leadership necessary to help the congregation plot the future course of the church. Today’s church continues to honor his memory with the Copeland Memorial Ringers handbell choir.
The Copeland years also brought major improvements in the church’s physical plant, including chancel remodeling, installation of stained glass windows, and construction of a Christian Education building in 1960. The Fries family donation of $5,000 to the building program is memorialized in today’s Fries Room in the CE building.
The Rev. John Dutzar and his wife, Elsie, arrived in late 1965, again setting a new length of tenure by serving until retirement in 1980. With building projects completed, Rev. Dutzar was able to concentrate his ministry more on building the “body of the church,” with a strong one-on-one ministry and emphasis on evangelism, education, mission programs, and counseling. Church school, led by a well-trained staff, was the children center for learning and creativity. The Board of Deacons was organized during the Dutzar years, and more improvements were made to the church building as well.
Succeeding Rev. Dutzar in January 1981 was the Rev. Michael C. (Mike) Turner. His wife, Diane, served along with him in Christian Education, youth organizations, and music. In the spring of 1981, the Polson and Dayton churches entered into a yoking agreement to become the Flathead Lake Presbyterian Parish, with the minister serving both churches. A sizeable building fund allowed the church to build a new fellowship hall in 1983, which has since become a real multiple-purpose church and community center. In addition, the basement was remodeled to accommodate the Rainbow Early Learning Center for pre-kindergarten youngsters, and other improvements were made to the physical plant.
Pastor Turner stated that the purpose of his ministry was “to encourage development of relationships with God and with others.” He served the Polson and Dayton churches until 1988, when he accepted a call from a church in Wyoming. Sadly, he died in 1998 while on a 10-day trek with his dog in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.
The Rev. Darlene Makin became the first woman to serve the Polson and Dayton churches, serving as Interim Pastor from 1989 until 1990.
The Rev. Robert Raedeke joined the two churches in 1990, serving until 1995. He was noted for his Lenten Profiles. In dramatic monologues, six biblical personalities were featured during Lenten seasons, with Rev. Raedeke (or other individuals) dressed accordingly. The intent was to relate what people of the Bible might say if they had an opportunity to speak to contemporary audiences. During the Raedeke ministry, the initial planning and design for a major renovation and remodeling of the Polson church’s sanctuary got underway.
An interim minister, the Rev. Jim Riach, served from 1995–1997. A true Scot, his pronounced accent proved a bit challenging to the congregation for the first few Sundays, until they grew accustomed to his unique cadence and pronunciation.
The Rev. David Anson brought the Polson and Dayton churches into a new century, beginning his ministry in 1997 until his departure in 2018, when he “headed toward retirement”, as he put it in a letter to parishioners. Rev. Anson preached one sermon in the old sanctuary, when it was closed for a complete rebuilding. (Worship services took place in the Fellowship Hall in the interim.) The first worship service in the new sanctuary was held on Christmas Eve 1997.
During his ministry, Rev. Anson stressed mission and outreach, as well as Christian education and music. Many local, state, and international mission programs were launched during his tenure, and many of those continue to today. Our music program has been blessed by a strong chancel choir and equally strong handbell choir. Their music proves that singing and ringing are glorious ways to worship God.
Rev. Anson wrote in the Polson church’s 100-year history booklet some thoughts that are timeless and bear keeping in mind always:
“Who can be sure what the future will bring to Polson Presbyterian Church? God has a way of surprising us with new opportunities and callings. Above all, our congregation needs to be faithful in seeing God’s Spirit at work in the world around us and then learning to be a part of it…. Our constant prayer needs to be one of ‘Lord, lift our eyes and our heads above the confines of our daily lives that we might see you at work in the world. We look to you, not for some heavenly vision of what comes later, but that we might see the world around us as you see it. Help us to see the needs and the joys of our neighbors and strangers. Goad us to action that we might not sit idly by. Teach us what it means to be your presence in the world as we live our lives for you and your glory. Amen’”
The Rev. Dr. Ronald B. Fritts joined the Polson and Dayton churches as Interim Pastor in May 2019. His energetic and engaging sermons vividly convey what the words of Scripture mean for us in today’s world. His strong and abiding faith and his belief in Christ Jesus as the Son of God and savior of humankind is helping the Polson and Dayton churches carve a new path forward as we seek a fulltime pastor to lead us into the future.
In March 2020, for only the second time in its history, the Polson church closed its doors to worship and all gatherings due to the global Coronavirus pandemic. Church members benefitted from Pastor Fritts’ sermons and spiritually uplifting messages delivered through the Internet, proving that the “church” is comprised of its members, not of the building that serves as our meeting place.
* Drawn from the booklet, First Presbyterian Church Polson, Montana: 100 Years Glorifying God, Serving Mankind.