"St. Croix County's oldest surviving church" (148 years old) has a new minister.

Gary Core, ordained in 2000, is in his third week as the new pastor for Hammond's First Congregational Church at 680 Broadway.

"We've only been in town for one month," Core said. "My wife's aunt lives here and heard that the church was looking for a minister. She gave my name to the pulpit committee."

At the time, Gary and his family were living in Bloomington, Minn. He had attended North Park Seminary in Chicago in 1994.

For a year-and-a-half, he interned in Baudette, Minn., on the border of Canada. After that, he was called to Dubois, Pa. to serve as pastor for the 100-member congregation there for six years.

Nancy and Scott Post, Hammond residents and members of the First Congregational Church for five years, said the search for a new minister was difficult.

"There were about five or six of us on the pulpit committee," Nancy recalled. "Paster Jed Watson left in January 2005, and we had interim speakers in the meantime. But we weren't really aggressive about finding a permanent minister until last fall."

The Posts said the toughest part of securing a pastor was that the church could only offer a permanent part-time position. Fortunately for the church, Core has a full-time job with benefits at Hitchcock Industries in Minneapolis. Otherwise, the 85-member congregation could not afford to hire a full-time minister.

Although Gary still commutes to his full-time desktop publishing job in the Cities, he said he and his family had already been looking at moving out into St. Croix County. Beth, his wife of 24 years, has relatives in the area; one actually works for the real estate company ReMax.

"He was our agent," Gary said with a laugh. "We close on the house the end of this month."

After "trying out" several guest speakers, the committee offered the job to Core and he officially began his new position the first week of July.

The Cores have five children: Matt, 34, lives in Grand Haben, Mich., Amber, 23, lives in Dubois, Pa., Alicia, 21, is at school in North Park, Ill., Ryan, 15, is a sophomore at St. Croix Central, and Katie, 2 1/2, stays at home with mom. Core said Beth hopes to start a home daycare once they are settled.

Core, a medium-built man with a ready laugh, is also the grandfather of four children. In his other ministerial duties, he had worked with youth as well as seniors. First Congregational Church does not have a children's program yet, but Core believes it is a matter of time.

"It's probably too soon to cast a vision of what direction the church will take in the next few years," Core said. "There's a lot of need for daycare and fellowship-- we'll see how we can meet that need."

The church itself is a reminder of its small-town roots. An older building, it still has 18 natural-wood pews and eight stained glass windows with the names of founding families incorporated into the designs. There is no air-conditioning, but fans provide a breeze, as well as propping open the front and back doors during the services. There is a newer addition to the back: a fellowship hall with kitchen.

Although Core's pastor experience has involved larger memberships, he said one of the greatest strengths of this particular church is the fact that it is fairly small.

"The special gifts of this church are the music and the faith of the older congregation who has been through a lot," Core said. "It's a feeling you don't get in newer communities.

"The challenge for this church is to keep its identity as it grows and welcomes new people in."

The church is hosting an open house during Hammond Heartland Days on Aug. 12 around 9 a.m. There will be literature available, as well as light refreshments and drinks. Everyone is welcome to attend.