Sunrise service marks 80 years

By NANCY WHYTE

The Northside Easter Sunrise Service at Riverview Park, a celebration that has become an annual Easter tradition for many North Borough families, is observing its 80th anniversary on Sunday, April 20.

Each Easter morning, religious leaders and worshippers from a wide variety of denominations gather together to celebrate their Christian beliefs. The service, as usual, will be held at 6:30 a.m. in Riverview Park, in front of the observatory.

The interdenominational service is designed not to conflict or compete with other church services on Easter. Held at dawn, the outdoor gathering lasts about an hour, and attendees are out in time to attend their own church observances and festivities.

This year's event is due in no small part to the efforts of Alice Nichols Hoffmaster. She continues a decades-long family tradition; for most of the past 80 years, the Nichols family has played a crucial role in the planning, organization and presentation of the Easter event.

Found in her parent's attic, Hoffmaster possesses a binder containing records from the early 1940s concerning the sunrise services. In 1943, the minutes of a meeting of the group calling themselves the Northside Easter Sunrise Service Association, list Laura Nichols as president, Grace Nichols Hubbard as secretary, Harry Irvin (who would later become a mayor of Bellevue during the 1970s) as treasurer, and Helen Nichols in charge of advertising.

The group was definitely well-organized. The binder contains many examples of detailed record-keeping, outlines of who was to perform which task, copies of letters sent and replies received, newspaper clippings, past agendas, old advertising posters, and occasionally, interesting off-the-cuff, side comments and observations.

Most of the records are typewritten, obviously prepared on an old, standard "bing-near-the-end-of-the-typed-line" model without electricity, wrap-around words, spell-check, erase-tape or the ability to cut, paste and save. Other pages are neatly and stylishly handwritten.

History comes alive through the binder's records. In 1944, during the hardest-fought days of WWII, a letter inviting a pastor to attend states, "In the midst of a world torn in suffering and desolation, let us put more emphasis than ever in observing the sacrifice of the One who died for a suffering world."

The binder contains an interesting entry concerning the 1969 service. That year, Vonda Kay Van Kyke, former Miss America of 1965, attended and gave an Easter message.

In the 1980s, Robert "Bob" Nichols told his daughter Alice that he'd missed only two of the sunrise services -- and that was due to being away for military service during WWII. Traditionally, Bob Nichols played music at each sunrise service on an organ, piano or electronic keyboard. Participating meant so much to him that, at the last sunrise service he attended, his son pushed Bob in a wheelchair up to the instrument.

Speaking of her father's life-long dedication to the service, Alice says her dad was "a quiet man who was not ashamed to share his faith. He loved this service and what it meant to the community." She adds that he was also very willing to ask people to participate similarly in service to "spread the love of God."

After the 2009 service, an aged Bob and his wife Peggy reluctantly acknowledged they were no longer able to do the work necessary to keep the annual event going. Riverview United Presbyterian Church officials were contacted and accepted the responsibility. In an e-mail to Hoffmaster, Rev. Kellie Weekley Mills stated, "The session voted last night to accept the responsibilities of continuing the Sunrise Service tradition. Your dad was amazing to do this for so long, and to do so much of it himself!"

Sadly, both Bob and Peggy Nichols died on the same day in March 2010, shortly before Easter. The sunrise service that year was dedicated to them.

Last year, when Hoffmaster contacted the Riverview U.P. Church officials to see how she could help prepare for the service, she was told the church would be unable to run it. They did, however, willingly assist by having the church open as an alternate venue should bad weather interfere, and also by placing a large sign to promote the event.

At that point, Hoffmaster, who had participated behind-the-scenes in helping with the service since returning from Florida in 2002, and who has maintained a Web site for the event since 2008, was faced with a difficult decision. She asked herself, "Do I let it die, a product of the times, or do I try to keep it going?"

The latter thought won. She returned to the building in which she had attended services as a child, when it was the Emmanuel Baptist Church. Now the Emmanuel Christian Church, she approached Pastor Tom Fodi to see if he could help her organize the service, particularly in finding the participants, speakers and the music. Fodi, who had previously participated several times in the event, was pleased to organize the 2013 service. Hoffmaster assisted with tasks including designing ads, writing the service program, sending out letters, and obtaining the park permit.

But circumstances change and this year, Fodi was unable to take the lead on the service. So, once again it was up to Hoffmaster to keep the tradition going. She returned to Riverview United Presbyterian Church. The new minister, Steven Werth, was pleased to help and is looking forward to this Easter morning.

Although not directing the 2014 service, the Emmanuel Christian Church is contributing greatly by providing the music, sound system, and for the second year in a row, Tim Hartman will be the worship leader.

Individuals planning on attending this year's service are reminded to dress warmly, and bringing a lawn chair is suggested. The service is funded entirely by donations; free-will offerings will be accepted. Everyone is welcome to attend this interdenominational sunrise service. For more information and directions, go to www.NorthsideEasterSunrise.com.

A few years ago, Hoffmaster's Aunt Helen wrote about her earliest recollections of the sunrise service. She stated she was pleased that many of the responsibilities were now "being carried on by the next generation of some of the original committee members." And in closing her letter, Helen penned, "Some of those original members are now in Heaven, but it is our desire that the Easter Sunrise Service in Riverview Park will continue until Jesus Christ comes to take His own to be with Him."

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