More than 75 years ago, Lakewood was an open prairie with just a small country store.
Norton Clapp, an attorney who would go on to lead Weyerhaeuser Co., purchased 200 acres, including that store, around 1936. He developed the first shopping center west of the Mississippi River, a dubious enterprise at the time.
In 1939, the store was transformed into The Little Church on the Prairie, at the urging of Clapp’s wife, Mary.
Today, the church that once sat alone at a sparsely populated road junction is located near three busy streets at 6310 Motor Ave. SW in Lakewood, population 58,310 — the second-largest city in Pierce County.
The congregation, which still meets in the white colonial-style sanctuary, celebrates its 75th anniversary Saturday.
The sanctuary has been enlarged to seat 400 but retains its original look. The interior glistens in white, accented with red carpet and pew covers.
Joan Jackson knows the church for its heart, as well as its history.
“I have always felt comfortable and loved and at home,” said Jackson, a church member for 58 years.
The congregation reaches out to the community in many ways. It helps feed people in need, provides school supplies and meals for the Tillicum community center, and operates service projects on Make a Difference days three times a year. It also runs a preschool and day care.
“If we as a church see a need and it’s something we can help with and address, that’s been part of the mission,” said Jackson, 80. “I think that’s what we should do as Christians.”
The Rev. James Kim said the aging congregation is adding more young families with children while focusing on investing in the community.
“In many ways, God is telling us God’s not done with what he’s going to do through us with the Little Church,” said Kim, 45, the church’s senior pastor since 2010. “There is a sense of renewal and rebirth, of new life and lives being touched by the grace of God.”
About 240 people attend the church on Sundays. That a big drop from the late 1950s until the early 1980s, when membership peaked at 900 to 1,000.
Like most mainline Protestant churches, the congregation has declined and aged over the years. The Little Church on the Prairie is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Besides the historic sanctuary, the church facilities include classrooms and a fellowship hall.
Some declining congregations in the Tacoma area have chosen to sell their buildings and move. Kim said his faith family is staying put.
“So much of our history and legacy is tied up to our facilities,” Kim said. “There is no Little Church apart from this campus.”
Kim said the congregation grew slightly last year and that donations have been increasing for several years.
“We are not under any financial duress,” he said.
Jackson, who grew up in Tacoma, recalled riding horses in the area when she was young. And it’s no big mystery how the little church got its name.
“The church was literally sitting on a prairie,” she said.
“It’s a charming little building,” Jackson said. “It’s very peaceful.”
The building was originally a country store dating to 1920. Adjacent to the church, Norton Clapp built a shopping center that is today the Lakewood Colonial Center and Theatre, owned by an out-of-state private equity firm.
The Little Church started officially with 71 charter members, including Norton and Mary Clapp, on Sept. 18, 1939. The sanctuary could seat only 100 people.
The church holds on to its original look.
“It really does look like a colonial church from New England,” said Becky Huber, president of the Lakewood Historical Society.
Over the years, the church has became more than an artifact to her. Memorial services for several historical society members were held there.
“I felt very comfortable because it’s a small church,” said Huber, 65. “It’s not a megachurch by any means.”
She also liked what Kim, the church’s pastor, said in his messages.
“He is very much someone who believes each of us has a responsibility to minister to our community,” she said.
Huber became a member three years ago.
The Rev. Brad Epperson has experienced the church both from the pews and the pulpit. He grew up in the Little Church on the Prairie and was named its associate pastor in 2012.
He said it’s the people that stand out for him.
“This is a church where I was cared for, I was loved,” said Epperson, 34. “Now to be on the giving end of that is pretty cool.”