Mind & Spirit

St. Paul Lutheran Church & School Marks 125 Years

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More than a century after German immigrants launched their own church, this active community is still serving its west-side community. Learn what they’re up to and how they’re commemorating this important anniversary.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, in Rockford

In 1882, a group of nine German immigrants decided to start their own church, in order to follow their German Lutheran roots. The Rev. L. Von Schenk led the first services, held in the basement of the Swedish-based First Lutheran Church, until he left to lead a church in Ottawa, Ill., in 1885.

The tiny group persevered, meeting on their own in their households on Sundays when no supply pastor came to town. Membership grew as new members came from Wisconsin or dissolved churches. In 1888, Pastor L. Dorn was installed and established the German St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, UAC. In 1890, the congregation voted to change affiliation to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, which it remains today.

This year, the 300-plus active members of St. Paul Lutheran Church & School are celebrating their 125-year anniversary, with several special events and worship services.

“We’ve spread it out over the entire year, with the theme, ‘Generations Together in Christ for 125 Years,’” says the Rev. David Thies, senior pastor. “We had former pastors preach in June and July, and another is coming in August. On Sept. 8, we’re having a picnic that we’ve planned to coincide with back-to-school.”

The church has come a long way since its first structure was built in 1889, at 423 Chestnut St., with the pastor’s quarters and schoolroom on the first floor, and the worship space on the second floor. By 1900, the congregation was outgrowing its Chestnut Street church, and in 1903, the site of the present church, 600 N. Horsman, was purchased and a parsonage built. The cornerstone for the new church was laid in fall 1905, and construction completed in 1906; three bells given by the youth group were also installed, inscribed with the verse, “Glory to God in highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

At the Chestnut location, the Young People’s Society was formed – which continues today with the St. Paul Youth (SPY) program – as well as Sunday School and a Christian Day School. In the 21st century, St. Paul Lutheran School, at Kilburn Avenue and Locust Street, serves students from preschool through Grade 8.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, there were about 400 students in the school, and a major gymnasium was added,” says Thies, who’s been at St. Paul for 10 years. “We had fewer than 100 in 2011, but our enrollment in 2012 was up 40 percent, and we anticipate the numbers will continue to grow. Small class sizes ensure that students receive one-on-one attention from our faculty. The community has supported the school for more than 100 years.”

During World War I, the church ministered to the soldiers at Camp Grant, and later helped to establish Lutheran High School. “We continue to serve the community,” says Thies. “In 1996, St. Paul merged with what was then St. Matthew Lutheran Church, on Kilburn, paying off the congregation’s debt. It’s now referred to as our Northwest Site. We began a mission church seven years ago in Winnebago, which has since moved to Byron and it received its charter [as a self-supporting congregation] last year. We’re very proud of our church plantings.”

Another major change over the years is in the makeup of the congregation. “Being a German-founded church, its members were predominantly white for many years,” Thies says. “We have a far more diverse congregation today, and in 2012, we added Rev. Keffie Deen as associate pastor, the first black pastor in St. Paul’s history. We are a very welcoming church, and the congregation’s goal is to build bridges and relationships throughout the community.”

St. Paul’s “Neighborfest” has been helping to build those relationships for 22 years. “We hold it every July, and everyone in the neighborhood is invited,” says Thies. “We provide music, food, children’s activities. We draw between 200 and 250 visitors each year. It truly represents the history of St. Paul and its steadfast presence in the community for more than 100 years.”

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