Julie McDonald Commentary: Grand Opening Set for the Pioneer Church a Community Built

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In 1860, Mary Borst moved into a not-yet-completed white mansion her husband built for her on the banks of the Chehalis River in present-day Centralia. 

Although the Borsts educated their children at home, eventually Centralia’s founder, George Washington, an African American, built the first one-room school in the town he initially named Centerville.

In 1871, Mary’s parents James and Emeline built the first church on Fords Prairie, and, six years later, her father and brother, Jasper, dismantled and rebuilt it at Pine and Gold in Centerville, which later became Centralia.

This summer, a woman who portrays pioneer Mary Adeline (Roundtree) Borst in living history presentations will see a four-year-long effort celebrated with the grand opening of the Borst Pioneer Church in Borst Park. Bev York will be playing bagpipes outside the church from 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 7 as part of a short open house where old hymns will be sung and dozens of volunteers will be recognized. A more formal grand opening will take place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 18.

In early 2017, Jean Bluhm, an 86-year-old retired Centralia school teacher who lives in Chehalis with her husband, Mel, launched the effort to build the Pioneer Borst Church next to the historic Borst home and the one-room replica schoolhouse erected by a Centralia High School shop class in 1995. 

What was Bluhm’s motivation? Like Lee Grimes, founder of the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, Bluhm said God told her to do it. She’d written books about Joseph and Mary Borst and their historic home in Centralia. She’d volunteered as a docent at the historic home since 1985. And she’d been portraying the stalwart pioneer who buried at least five of her young children for decades. 

“He speaks to me all the time,” she said. Yet when he told her to build the church, she responded, “Oh, God, I’m so old, and I can’t remember very much anymore. I can’t build a church. He said, ‘I didn’t say build it. I just said go get the idea ready and spread the word.’”

So she did just that. She brainstormed with others in the Borst Pioneer Village Committee. They created a nonprofit. Three fundraising auctions followed with live music. Donations flowed in from eight of the dozens of churches contacted, including Vader Methodist, Adna Evangelical and Onalaska Church of God. Volunteers raised $29,000, and the city of Centralia, which owns the building that will be rented for weddings and other events, matched that amount. 

They applied for permits from the city. Then, during the summer of 2017, six octogenarians — four men and two women — spent a summer building the foundation of the 24- by 40-foot church. Bluhm hefted three long, rolled extension cords over her shoulder early each workday and strung them from the historic Borst house, which had the only electricity available. Her husband and his brother, Virgil Bluhm, oversaw the construction.

Five Centralia High School boys volunteered their time to help. The Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Bible Study group raised walls. Al Plank supervised a crew of volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Centralia Stake doing the rafters and a wheelchair ramp.

“I just love that man,” Bluhm said. “He’s wonderful.”

Businesses throughout Lewis County donated supplies and labor, including Spectrum Paint, which painted inside and outside, and Sybil and John Kuhn of Hub City Supply, which donated nearly $9,000 in hardwood flooring and installed it in June. The building has lights and power, thanks to Travers Electric. 

A golden glow reflects on the shiny floorboards thanks to Marcy Anholt, a talented stained-glass artist, who created a window for the church during ARTrails of Southwest Washington. 

Eldon Johnston did most of  the work on the 20 seven-foot-long wooden benches that will grace the interior — removable so the floor can be cleared for dancing. Donors contributed money to have a loved one’s name memorialized on each bench. Thomas Evans designed, built and helped erect the steeple. The Curfman Brothers are creating a stainless steel cross to put atop the steeple as in the original 1871 church. Arnie Davidson built a cabinet to store old Bibles, hymnals and songbooks in the church.  

The list of fabulous donors and volunteers goes on and on. Bluhm has captured in three scrapbooks photos and names chronicling construction of the community effort that built the Borst church. Despite a pandemic-induced delay and a few pauses when the money well dried up, volunteers erected the replica church beside the house and school within four years.

Miracles abounded. During the first meeting at the replica one-room Borst School, Bluhm’s grandson, Kyle Markstrom, noted something haywire with the heating system so it was checked later that day.

“Flames were flying out of the ceiling,” Bluhm said. “It would have burned the school.”

When the octogenarian crew took a brief but well-deserved break, one fell backward in his chair, just missing steel pipes protruding from the grass that could have caused serious injury. Donors gave generously. Businesses cut the costs for products or donated them outright. The Centralia Foundation gave financial help. The United Way of Lewis County handled the donations. People gave their time and talents to create a new community jewel in what has become a small Pioneer Village in Centralia with a home, school, church and gardens.

A list of donors and volunteers will be placed inside the church, acknowledging the community-wide efforts that built the church and fulfilled her dream. Among those volunteers will be little Noah “Buggy” Jon Markstrom, her great-grandson who died at 6 from cancer but helped clear debris from the worksite as his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents worked. The late George Andrews donated much of his architectural design time and Bluhm picked up the remaining costs.

“This is a wonderful community with people that really care,” Bluhm said. “You are all a part of this great mission of God’s to bring a replica pioneer church to our community. Praise His name and to God be the glory.”

She said the Pioneer Village offers a glimpse of Washington’s history: “A home for their family, a school to educate children to love our country, and a church for religious freedom.”

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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