PORT TOWNSEND — Wendell Ankeny remembers the phone call he received on a spring day 12 years ago. An ordained minister, he was retiring as director of Ocean Park, a Methodist camp on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula.
Hearing that the minister at the Methodist church in Port Townsend was leaving, Ankeny had applied for the job, despite the fact that he was almost 65 and had retired officially from the ministry a few years earlier.
Ankeny had visited Trinity United Methodist Church in Port Townsend, so he knew two things: It had fewer than a dozen active members, and the church was barely hanging on. And he had heard through the ecclesiastical grapevine that the church, built in 1871, was slated to be closed in 2011.
The phone call in 2000 confirmed the rumor: the bishop was offering Ankeny the job as Trinity’s pastor for a one-year contract, at one-quarter pay.
Always a man with a sense of humor, he responded: “Does that mean I only have to preach one Sunday a month?”
Instead, Ankeny preached every Sunday that year and for the next 11 years, plus Good Friday and Christmas Eve, barring illness or vacation.
On July 8, at age 77, he is retiring from the ministry again, after working double duty to save the church, and the 141-year-old building, from shutting down.
“I had the tools, and the church needed the work,” Ankeny said. “I knew I had the energy to do it.”
As well as managing the camp, Wendell and his wife, Laurel Ankeny, actually had built a church in the Central American country of Belize back when they were leaders of a mission project at a church he served in Minnesota.
Born and raised in Blue Earth, Minn., Wendell had worked from the time he was 12 years old at the bowling alley, skating rink and cafe his father had built after World War II. Wendell earned $1 an hour flipping burgers and making ice cream sodas.
And in the summers when business fell off — it was a farming community — he worked for Green Giant as a pea harvest recording clerk and a yard worker at a corn processing plant. Graduating from Blue Earth High School in 1952, he worked at the bowling alley and for the gas company, married, served four years in the Navy and started a family.
But Ankeny had heard a call to ministry at church camp the summer he turned 12, a call he didn’t know what to do with at the time.
Throughout his teens and 20s, he kept hearing God calling. One day, he was driving a delivery truck on his two-state route when he suddenly lost his peripheral vision. He managed to get the truck off the highway — and remembers realizing that God was literally stopping him in his tracks.
At the age of 29, Ankeny enrolled in Mankato State University, 45 miles north of Blue Earth. He supported his wife and four children by working at KBEW, a radio station in Blue Earth: selling advertising and going on the air from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
“One of my programs was ‘Western with Wendy,’” he said, referring to his childhood nickname.
Majoring in sociology at Mankato, Ankeny did a research project on educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, who at the time were classified by the state as either “educatable” or “not trainable.”
Doing a house-to-house survey in his home county, Ankeny found that the former went to school and the latter stayed home. Seeing the need for a learning activity center, he applied for a grant to start one in Blue Earth.
When the grant wasn’t approved, he went to civic groups, and using the speaking skills honed on the radio, raised the money. The center opened in the Methodist church with four elementary school teachers and eight children.
“The first year we ran it without public funding,” he said. “The next year, we were funded by the state.”
In 1967, Ankeny was named one of the “10 Outstanding Young Men” in the state of Minnesota by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. And WCCO, the Minneapolis radio station he listened to as a child, presented him with a Good Neighbor award.
While in college, Ankeny also preached at a little church that paid him $20 a Sunday. After he graduated, he got a call from a United Methodist district superintendent in Milwaukee, offering him a job serving two churches in Wisconsin — despite the fact that he was just starting seminary.
How Ankeny describes himself in those first years as a pastor: “I was too green to burn.”
He commuted 100 miles to serve the Wisconsin churches while attending Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. Graduating in 1971, he served churches in the Midwest for the next decade and a half. During this time, Ankeny and his first wife divorced, and he remarried.
In 1987, he and Laurel, looking for new horizons, got on a motorcycle and rode to Washington state to take the job at Ocean Park. During their years there, they oversaw the building of a new dining lodge and transformed the rustic camp into a retreat center.
“We had a great Elderhostel program at camp for 10 years,” Ankeny recalled.
At Trinity, Ankeny served as the general contractor when the church, which had 80 years of deferred maintenance, was damaged in the Nisqually earthquake of 2001.
A story Ankeny has never shared before: Monroe Brothers House Movers of Quilcene was hired to jack up the building and bell tower, which had twisted in the quake, and to install support beams to prevent the sanctuary from falling into the basement.
“They never sent a bill,” Ankeny said.
The small congregation did apply for a $100,000 low-interest loan from the United Methodist Foundation to fund the renovation, but instead of going into debt, decided to raise the money by holding monthly concerts in the sanctuary. Called Candlelight Concerts, the evenings provided local musicians with a venue, and since those musicians donate their time, thousands of dollars have been raised for the renovation as well as for the local food bank, tsunami relief and other needs, local and international.
“It put us on the map in the community,” Ankeny said of the concert series. “The acoustics are wonderful. It raised a lot of money for the renovation, and we were able to start outreach to local entities.”
Ankeny also insisted from the start that Trinity pay something on its apportionments, the amount each congregation pays to support the mission of the United Methodist Church worldwide.
But in June 2001, with his one-year contract expiring, Ankeny thought he was out of a job and Trinity was out of time. He remembers sitting in the parsonage next door, wondering where he was going to go. He was saved by a last-minute reprieve — four members of Trinity had started up a petition, gathered 50 signatures and taken it to the bishop, who extended Ankeny’s contract for another year.
“I don’t know where they got 50 signatures,”Ankeny said. “There weren’t that many people in the church.”
During his 12 years as pastor, Ankeny welcomed 130 new members, most by profession of faith.
More people are joining this month, including two girls in the first confirmation class the church has had in decades.
Like many mainstream churches, Trinity thrived in the 1950s and ’60s but saw membership drop in the last quarter of the 20th century. Originally Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, Trinity is one of the five oldest Methodist congregations in Washington state and the oldest continuing congregation on the North Olympic Peninsula, having been founded in 1853 when a Methodist preacher paddled over from Whidbey Island in a canoe.
Daniel Foster, Puget Sound District superintendent of the UMC’s Pacific Northwest Conference, said when Ankeny arrived in Port Townsend in 2000, it was basically to oversee the closure of the church, shut the doors and turn off the lights.
“There wasn’t much hope on the part of the Conference leadership that Trinity would survive more than a year or two,” Foster said. “Yet with Wendell’s able leadership, the church not only survived, but grew into the active, thriving congregation it is today.
“None of it would have been possible without Wendell’s tireless and faithful service these past 12 years.”
Trinity did borrow $20,000 from the United Methodist Foundation of the Northwest to buy a new heating system and remodel the kitchen, a loan that has been paid back.
Foundation director Tom Wilson, who has known Ankeny since his Ocean Park days, said Ankeny’s arrival in Port Townsend served as the spark that energized the church.
The church is holding a retirement party for Ankeny on Saturday, June 16. The 4 p.m. gathering is open to the community at the Port Townsend Yacht Club, 2503 Washington St. Then on Sunday, July 1, he will serve communion to his parishioners for the last time. On the following Sunday, July 8, he will participate in the morning church service with the new pastor, Tony Brown.
“I’m proud to hand the whole operation to Tony debt-free,” Ankeny said. “It’s unusual to come into a church that doesn’t have an outstanding loan or the apportionments in arrears. The building is in excellent shape.
“That’s what I am most proud of.”
But that July 1 sermon may not be Ankeny’s last. Two weeks ago, he received a call, asking if he’d fill a pulpit in Idaho for three months.
He may not be able to accept — he recently had rotator-cuff surgery — but God may have other plans.Trinity United Methodist Church is located at 609 Taylor St., one block off Lawrence across from the back of the Port Townsend Community Center. Sunday service is at 10 a.m. with child care available. For more information, visit www.TrinityUMCpt.org or phone 360-385-0484.