Sunday, April 01, 2001

Communion dispenser eases volunteers' lives

Louisville inventor sells to mega-churches

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — The volunteers dreaded going to church on Thursday evenings to begin filling the more than 350 trays for Sunday's Holy Communion.

        It took seven people up to 30 hours over three days to perform the tedious task of filling the communion cups for the congregation at Southeast Christian Church, which has more than 15,000 members.

        Not any more. Not since inventor Wilfred Greenlee joined the church and came up with a machine that cuts the preparation time to 1 1/2 hours.

        The Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine is made of a stainless steel bucket with 40 plastic tubes that run through a sheet of Plexiglas into the cups of a communion tray. A push of a lever on the side allows just enough grape juice to fill each cup half full.

        “No overflowing and no spills,” said Mr. Greenlee, 78.

        A retired engineer from the former International Harvester plant in Louisville, he holds patents for a tractor transmission, a helicopter camera mount and the communion dispenser.

        “I've invented things all my life,” said Mr. Greenlee, who was raised on a farm in southeast Missouri. “I left school when I was 14, but I kept learning new things. I just taught myself.”.

        His stainless steel communion dispenser is about 25 inches high and holds 24 quarts. According Mr. Greenlee's calculations, it can fill trays for 14,000 people in 90 minutes.

        “It's cut our volunteers down to two or three instead of five to seven and we only need one room to fill the trays,” said David McConnell, communion volunteer at Southeast Christian.

        Mr. Greenlee's product, which he's sold to churches in nine states, is one of several being marketed to so-called mega-churches with congregations numbering several thousand.

        Sarasota, Fla.-based ChurchPlaza Inc. caters exclusively to the multibillion-dollar church market. It offers such products as carpet that can double as a sports floor, movable partitions, theater seating and stackable chairs.

        Thomas McElheny, 53, ChurchPlaza's CEO, said mega-churches appeal to many people because the larger facilities are better prepared to host more activities.

        “The idea of a larger congregation is different for all of us in the beginning because people on average don't like to change,” said Mr. McConnell, one of the communion volunteers. “Will's machine sat on the counter for weeks before anyone used it. Everyone was happy with the old way.”

        Mr. Greenlee's communion machine, which he makes by hand in a workshop at his house, sells for $2,995.

        “I'm not going to make a huge profit on the invention,” Mr. Greenlee said. “But as long as I satisfy the church then that satisfies me.”

        Mr. Greenlee is also working on a machine that would put the cups in each communion tray before using the dispenser.

        Mr. McConnell said if Mr. Greenlee keeps inventing, the volunteers may not be needed any more.

        “He's going to make our jobs obsolete,” Mr. McConnell said.


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