As if nothing has changed, members of the Columbia United Church of Christ Congregational Church file in, knocking snow off their shoes and greeting each other like family.
The 13 attendees on a recent Sunday — there are 29 on the church rolls — make their way to their accustomed pews, the same spots most have been sitting in for decades. They gravitate toward the back, leaving the first six rows empty.
After the pastor's welcome they sing the first lines of the opening hymn: "Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant."
They are indeed joyful — and not just because it is Christmas.
They have inherited $15 million.
Millicent Atkins, the woman who left Northern State University $15 million in her will, also left the same amount to the Columbia church.
Now the church, which at one time held services in the basement to save on winter heating bills, will be the steward of millions of dollars.
"You might call it shocking," said Bob Zastrow, church moderator. "It was totally unexpected, considering the amount. It is staggering. We knew she was wealthy, but we didn't know what would happen when she passed away."
The fact that Atkins left so much money to the church is somewhat a mystery.
Atkins, who died July 25 at age 93, was a successful farmer and businesswoman who had attended the Columbia church in her youth and young adulthood. An only child who never married, she had inherited land from her father and added more after his death.
While she always stayed connected to the church, she hadn't attended regularly in more than 50 years. She had moved to Aberdeen after her father died in 1955 and had not returned. People saw her in town at community events and when she visited her ag land tenants. Townspeople say she loved to drive around the area and look at the crops.
Over the years, she sent modest donations to the church, but not every year, church clerk Judy Albrecht said.
She was a very private person, said Connie Dennert, a church member who knew her.
"She did not have many close friends, but I don't know anybody who didn't like her," she said. "There were a few times when we needed money and she wrote us a check."
In addition to giving the Columbia church and NSU $15 million, Atkins bequeathed $15 million to the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture in St. Paul, Minn.
The amounts they will eventually receive likely will be much higher.
Atkins' assets, which will be sold in 10 years, include 4,127 acres of prime farm land in Brown County, which has been escalating in value. Until the assets are sold, each beneficiary will receive an annual payment from farm rent and investment income.
Dacotah Bank's trust department is in charge of administering the estate.
Atkins wrote her will in 1959 and never updated it.
In addition to the primary beneficiaries, there is a short list of organizations and people who will receive from $500 to $10,000. She never altered the amounts to adjust for inflation.
She spent the final months of her life in a nursing home in Ipswich.
Why she never updated her will and why she chose the beneficiaries she did is not fully known. Church members said they believe that Atkins always had a soft spot in her heart for the church.
"I think she had a strong attachment to the church because she attended Sunday school here as a child," Zastrow said. "She had a connection that goes way back."
Now the congregation has the privilege to decide how to spend the money.
Some want to make upgrades they have been thinking about for years, such as making the church handicapped accessible and remodeling the kitchen. Some want to buy seat cushions for the wooden pews. But all know that making a few physical changes will cost little, compared with the amount of money they will receive.
"We might fix a few things, but everyone that I have talked to said we should give the money to individuals and organizations that are deserving, and there are a lot of them," Zastrow said. "I know everyone agrees we are not going to build a new church."
There is excitement about being able to spend the money. It will be a chance for the church to extend its ministry and make the world a better place, the members say.
In the congregational system, all 29 members have a voice and all will be included, they say.
"With 29 members, we could all just pick a charity," said Nyla Zastrow, Bob Zastrow's wife..
The congregation hasn't seen any money yet, said Karen Daly, a longtime member and treasurer for the past 12 years.
There are a few legal issues to work out, so the church might not see an annual payment before the end of the year, said Bob Zastrow. The legal issues are expected to be resolved soon, and then payments will begin, he said.
The first inkling that the church might be named as a major beneficiary in Atkins' will was last Christmas. The church received an anonymous donation of $97,000 which, Dennert said, everyone knew was from Atkins.
The congregation immediately put the money in the bank and did not spend it, Daly said. The money was allowed to accrue interest, while congregation members continued their normal giving.
Even with the knowledge that the church will receives millions of dollars, the usher still passes the collection plate.
The Rev. Sheila Apland-Ottenbacher said the decisions about the money will be made by the congregation, with the church council taking the lead.
Apland-Ottenbacher has served as the church's part-time minister for about 13 years. She has a full-time job at Kmart. Her 8-year-old-son, William, is the only child in the congregation.
"My hope for the congregation is that we can continue to talk about what we would want done and make decisions as a whole," she said. "I hope we can stay together as a group and work out our decisions harmoniously."
Zastrow has his own explanation of why Atkins left the money to a church in a town of 136 people.
"The good things in life you never forget," he said.