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Memory and Memorial: Asa & Anna Climenhaga on the Campus of Messiah College

The building now known as the Climenhaga Homestead was originally built by Asa and Anna Climenhaga in 1927. (Courtesy of Messiah College.)

Over our wedding weekend, Katie and I had the chance to stay in the Climenhaga Homestead on the campus of Messiah College. The beautifully restored building survives as a pseduo-bed-and-breakfast/meeting space for college constituents — and as a physical paean to its first owners, Asa and Anna Climenhaga.

As someone interested in the use of memory in historical studies, I was fascinated by the way the college chose to “remember” the Climenhagas in their Homestead documents. Here’s a taste:

In the spirit of the hospitality extended by Messiah’s first dean, Asa Climenhaga, and his wife, Anna, we hope that your stay on campus is delightful and that you feel “at home” in the Homestead.

Asa and Anna Climenhaga on the porch of their home, which they bequeathed to Messiah College in the 1960s. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Of course, Asa and Anna Climenhaga were more than just hospitable house-owners. Asa was the first dean of Messiah Bible School; he dabbled in painting (a fact memorialized in the present-day Homestead, which displays a number of his amateur watercolors in various rooms of the house) and even taught a few courses in the subject; he was an ordained minister and, for many years, an evangelist in the Brethren in Christ church; and he wrote the first history of the denomination. Anna was an accomplished student, earning valedictorian honors during her time at Messiah Bible School and securing a Master’s degree from Wittenburg College, and for many years a teacher of foreign languages at the college. Yet despite these accomplishments, today they are memorialized most prominently as “hospitable home-owners.”

Why would the college choose to use the memory of these two early college leaders in such a way? There’s certainly a well-researched precedent for the memorial. As E. Morris Sider records in his history of Messiah College,

Over the decades, the Climenhagas were substitute parents for many students, as the many dinners and parties they gave show. They were favorite class advisors, perhaps, one suspects, because they were more flexible on the rules than some other faculty. Having no children of their own, they adopted, as it were, the young people at the school. [1]

Without a doubt, Sider’s description of the Climenhagas is based not only on primary source documents but on oral interviews conducted with students who benefitted directly from the couple’s generosity. Surely such generosity merits public remembrance.

But, for the institution, there exists a possible ulterior motivation for such a memorialization. A section of Paul W. Nisly’s recent institutional history of the college might provide some insight. In a chapter on the school’s most recent developments, Nisly describes one of two themes especially important to Kim S. Phipps, the college’s current president:

Hospitality . . . was essential to the new president. As she said, “Physical hospitality requires us to allocate time and space to care for the needs of others. Intellectual hospitality necessitates a spirit of openness to others and the sharing of our knowledge and learning. . . . Spiritual hospitality suggests that we demonstrate respect for and appreciation of the beliefs of others, even while clinging to our convictions.” [2]

Regardless of exactly why the college chooses to publicly “remember” the Climenhagas as hospitable home-owners, the very existence of the Homestead shows the power of institutional priorities to shape interpretation of the past.


[1] E. Morris Sider, Messiah College: A History (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1984), 133.
[2] Paul W. Nisly, Shared Faith, Bold Vision, Enduring Promise: The Maturing Years of Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.: Messiah College, 2010), 206-207.

One response to “Memory and Memorial: Asa & Anna Climenhaga on the Campus of Messiah College

  1. I remember dining with Uncle Asa and Aunt Anna in their home. To me, the home was quite grand.
    Aunt Anna served an appetizer of a fruit cup which included peeled grapes. PEELED! I was absolutely awe-struck. She took the time to peel the grapes.

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