The congregation planned a ceremony to open a box that had been placed in the church's cornerstone in 1912, the year the red brick building at 225 Baldwin St. was completed. On Sunday, after services, about 50 members clustered around a table in front of the church as the Rev. Ken Markley pried open the small copper box. He invited Dorothy Greig, church historian, to pull out the contents.
"Eeew," Greig said when she peered in and pushed a finger inside the box.
Markley turned over the box, and a sodden black mass slid out. The items were almost indistinguishable but looked like they once might have been a small Bible or prayer book and a larger journal or diary. Pages, dark with age and mold, crumbled into fine pieces.
Markley said a friend who was a mason lent him tools to extricate the cornerstone and told him it would be an easy job. But the process took 12 hours and involved removing two layers of bricks and chiseling the box from the mortar into which it had sunk.
Markley's wife, Laura, said the cornerstone is under an eave where snow and rain drip down the bricks, so she wasn't surprised by the condition of the time capsule's items.
"We suspected that might happen," she said, also pointing out a small gap in the seams of the copper box that probably let moisture in.
Laura Markley, who owns Mid-City Cleaning and Restoration in Janesville, said she would try freeze-drying the contents to see if some of the pages could be separated or even salvaged.
Greig, 83, who is also the church's organist, was disappointed. "My grandparents were at the cornerstone celebration in 1912, and I was hoping to find something of them here," she said.
"I was baptized at this church at 9 months old, confirmed here, married here," she said. "I feel like I own it, too, like it's mine," she said.
Greig said the existing building replaced the first church, a wooden structure, on a lot bought for $1 in 1855.
The brick church was built for $14,500 in 1912 when, Ken Markley said, the congregation had about 200 members. Today, that number is closer to 75.
Since 1969, the church has shared its minister with Darien United Methodist Church.
"The earliest (19th-century) Methodist ministers were circuit riders, riding on horseback between congregations," Markley said. "They supposedly wore a gun on one side of their saddlebag and a Bible on the other and would drag people out of saloons. Most of our songs are saloon songs. You knew the melody—we'd just teach you new words."
For the cornerstone celebration, members of the congregation also set up a display inside the church that included wedding dresses and photos from church weddings over the years, scrapbooks and other memorabilia.
Congregants haven't yet decided what to place in a cornerstone time capsule they'll leave for members to open in 2112, but some items may include drawings from Sunday school students, the signatures of everyone who attended Sunday's service and a church history booklet.
"We thought about putting a DVD we'd taken of church activities in the box but then decided a disc wouldn't last that long and the technology would be far different then," said church member Bill Pietkauskis.
The question members are even more seriously considering is what kind of material the time capsule itself will be made of.
"That," Pietkauskis said, "is going to take some research."