Recalling Sunday School at Stanley Union Church & asking everybody an “Unanswered Question”


DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept. 13, 2022 — I’ve been thinking about how I used to spend Sundays with my family and even more about the Stanley Union Church where I grew up.  It was a non-denominational country church in rural northeast Iowa, though it was in the town of Stanley, pop. 81.  I was confirmed as a member in that church, and then as an adult, transferred my membership to Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines where I now live.

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Mary Riche, now a partner & columnist at

At Stanley Union, we had an arrangement with the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, that provided us with our ministers — students working on their master of divinity degrees.  I remember my mother telling me that she did not mind having those student ministers, especially the ones who had raised a “bit of hell” in their lives, because they could relate to the folks in the pews!  I’ve never forgotten that wise perspective.

I’m also remembering the story about a question I asked that didn’t get answered at Sunday School.  That story got told and retold lots of times because of its content.  More about it after some more reminiscing.

On Sundays at the Riche farm, the routine did not vary.  My mom Verda, my dad Frank, my younger sister Bette, and I all got dressed up in our Sunday church outfits. We drove the short distance on unpaved roads to spend most of the morning at the Stanley Union for church and Sunday School.

I don’t remember what I wore though I know my sister and I were always dressed in our finest.  I do remember my parents getting dressed up and looking mighty fine.  My mother wearing her Sunday dress, one of two and always with a scarf, and my dad wearing his Sunday suit.

They were both hard working farmers and preferred wearing their work clothes.  Most days, Dad wore jeans or everyday coveralls, with the slide flap often flapping, and cotton or flannel western-style shirts.  Mother was always outdoors, which she preferred to indoor work, and more comfortable wearing and working in her jeans.  She was wearing jeans as a young woman, years before they were pricey, fashionable and considered acceptable all the time and everywhere, for women of all ages, as they are now.

I was in church and Sunday School every week because that’s what was expected in the Riche household, though weather occasionally gave Dad an acceptable reason to be in the fields instead of in church. There were no exceptions for Mom, Bette and me.

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The Stanley Union Church today.  (Photo from the church’s Facebook page and used here with their permission.)

Regrettably, I can’t remember if we went to Sunday School before, after or during the worship service.  I do remember it was held in the church basement where church women were our teachers, and I vividly remember my badge/pin with the ribbons for years of perfect attendance, which almost touched the waistband of my Sunday dress.

I became one of the church pianists at an early age, probably when I was 10 or possibly earlier.   I remember loving those times.  Interestingly, I don’t remember being nervous playing in church, though I can’t imagine I wasn’t.  However, this was an audience of friends, many our farm neighbors, so it was a crowd that might have been more sensitive to my young age than to my skills.

Sometimes Bette and I sang duets in church, because music was a big part of how we spent our sparse leisure time on the farm.  Dad had a soft singing voice, and the man could carry a tune, even if he didn’t join the Riche women who were often singing at the piano.  He loved the Lawrence Welk show, the Lennon sisters, and JoAnn Castle, the honky-tonk piano player.  I loved making him smile when I played “Near You,” a song first made popular by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, two of his favorite country singers, and then by Roger Williams, one of my early favorite pianists.

My mother sang often, in a soprano voice, on pitch most of the time, but when she wasn’t, she made up for it with enthusiasm.  She warbled loudly through every hymn at church.   Her favorite was “Old Rugged Cross,” and I still tear up when I hear that hymn and think of her and that voice.  And one of my favorite hymns is “In the Garden,” because it reminds me of her and her garden.  I’m guessing I also warble now when I sing it because I’m usually close to tears.

After church at noon, Mother always made the same Sunday dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, maybe green beans, and dessert.   Only after I went to college did I begin to call the evening meal “dinner” and the noon-time meal “lunch.”

Bette and I took turns every other Sunday sharing the chicken heart and gizzard because we both considered them the best parts of the chicken!  That’s probably where I first remember learning the importance of sharing, though I do recall times when Mother had to referee when we lost track of whose turn was up next.

I’ve not eaten a chicken heart or gizzard since I left home, and I honestly don’t remember how we came to think of those parts as delicacies.

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Stained glass in the Stanley Union Church today.  (Photo used here with church permission.)

Here’s the story about the question that didn’t get answered in Sunday School.

It involved 6- or 7-year-old me, my Sunday School teacher whose name I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t recall, and Flossie Maley – our neighbor, close family friend and wise about teachings of the Bible.  She and my mother had read their Bibles several times; in fact, my mother’s Bible was marked up with her favorite passages and notes, and they were both adept at reciting verses of scripture.

We were learning how God made creation and that Adam and Eve were the first people in the garden of Eden.  They had two sons, Cain and Abel and that’s how we all got here.  Right then, I raised my hand and asked, “If it was only Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, how did Cain and Abel have children?”

I chuckle as I think about that question today, as an adult, and I understand the implication.  I can assure you of my innocence, that I had no real clue about what I was asking, or why the Sunday School teacher might have been embarrassed or alarmed.  However, I must have been convincing, because here’s what happened next, as my mother told me later in life.

The teacher said it was such a good question that she couldn’t answer it; that I needed to ask my mother for the answer – after church. Which was O.K. by me since my mother had been a teacher before she married my dad.  I knew she was smart, so I’m sure I was fine being told to ask my mother.

I dutifully asked her, and as she recalled later, her response was similar to that of the Sunday School teacher.

Mother said she was both surprised and shocked to hear my question, yet a bit “tickled” by the idea that my curiosity knew no bounds.  Evidently, she had been living with my curiosity and questions at home, and this was just one more.

However, she was also personally embarrassed because sex was not something she was comfortable discussing with adults and certainly not with her 6- or 7-year-old daughter.

So, Mother didn’t answer either.

She took me to see Flossie Maley, her older and wiser friend, to ask my question.

Who knows how long these adults were fretting about my question, because I’m pretty sure I had moved onto other important thoughts like, how can I convince my parents to buy me a pony?  I really wanted a pony, and it would be another two years before Danny Boy, an older Shetland pony, came to live with the Riches.

And guess what Flossie told me?

She said, and again, this is according to my mother, who witnessed it, that some questions have no real answers, and that some questions had answers that came when we were older and in high school.  I do remember during my childhood that I was told lots of times I wasn’t old enough to hear this or that, to read this or that, t or to go to this or that.  So that response was probably familiar to me.

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Riche family graves in the Stanley Cemtery. 

Mother hadn’t scolded me about asking the question.  Flossie didn’t scold me, either, or speak with a harsh tone.

In fact, Flossie told me to keep asking questions, because she said I was good at asking questions, and there are lots of questions that needed to be asked.

They both encouraged me, and perhaps that was a faint beginning to my interest in journalism that led to my undergraduate studies and college degree in that field.

However, as I think about this story today and remember it with such fondness, I also realize my original question remains unanswered.  I think I’ll schedule a meeting with one of my pastors at Plymouth Church.

Maybe I’ll finally get an answer!

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13 thoughts on “Recalling Sunday School at Stanley Union Church & asking everybody an “Unanswered Question”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. Enjoyed and brought back many memories of my own. So happy for you and Chuck and with the gift you both have of telling these stories looking forward to many more. Chuck once had my husband Arden share an article when he was on vacation, and Arden enjoyed the whole experience and we have a copy of it to this day. He was always grateful for that experience.

    Robyn Stokstad, Des Moines

  2. This sounds so much like the Monroe Presbyterian Church where I grew up. Sunday School was in the basement. Often, there were only 3-4 kids in my class. The teachers were sweet ladies who helped us color pictures of animals marching into the ark or make cut out crosses. We learned songs! However, no hard questions were asked or answered. Thanks so much for sharing! See you Sunday! We may not have our Sunday dresses on, but we will ask and answer hard questions, right?

    Artis Reis, Des Moines

  3. Enjoyed your story. Your childhood sounds very much like mine in the part of church every Sunday and even the
    Sunday dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and dessert. Thanks for sharing.

    Lois Kauffman, Audubon IA

  4. Mary, I still have my Sunday School pin! What a surprise! Many memories on the farm. Love you, Sis. See you soon! XXOO.

    Bette Bobcowski, Blackwood NJ

  5. I truly enjoyed reading about your childhood. I only knew your Family as the owners of Verda’s store in Aurora. Attending the Lutheran Church there was always followed by a visit to the candy counter in the store!

    Judy Roepke Moore

  6. Mary, I am loving your writing! Also, we were thrilled to be able to watch your lovely wedding. Thank you and Chuck so much for sending the site to us. I was deeply touched by the beauty and sweetness of your joining your lives. This romanticist was thrilled. I, too, have had this same question about how the earth was populated. It seems this question has been answered by simply requesting the enquirer to wait linger for an answer. I am now close to 84 and still wondering. You are a lovely lady who seems to be a perfect “fit” for dear Chuck. I wish for you two so very much happiness and many years to celebrate that happiness and good health.

    Anne Bates Horner, Tennessee

  7. Thanks for the memories, Mary! I remember your mom and dad well. We used to go to Verda’s store after church and Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Aurora. My grandma lived across the street from them.

    Wanda Haverkamp

  8. Sounds a lot like my growing up in First Baptist church in Dunkerton. Main song at my mom’s funeral was “In The Garden”! Thanks Mary.

    Jed Magee, Jefferson IA

  9. The neighbor sent me the link to your story about growing up at Stanley. As you probably remember, my sister Viv and I lived up the dirt road to the north of your folks, east of town. I remember your dad going by every day to feed his cattle on your other farm. I also remember you being a checkout at the Sunmart grocery store. I often think of you and Bette when I drive by your home farm. I often wondered where you girls ended up. My wife Barb and I live on the home farm. Sorry I missed your tour of Stanley and congratulations on your marriage!

    Don Ehlers, Stanley IA

  10. I enjoyed reading this story, Mary. As a “city girl,” I can’t identify, but it provides me more understanding of you. My parents dropped me off at a nearby Methodist Church for Sunday School with a dime in my pocket for the basket. I’ll never know why. I didn’t have a real church home until I found Plymouth.

    Bonnie Green, Des Moines

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