The History of St. John Lutheran, Sterling, Nebraska
In the spring of 1895 a number of families joined together to organize a Lutheran congregation. The name chosen was Evangelical Lutheran St. John’s. The original German name of the congregation was: Evangelisch-Lutherische St. Johannes Gemeinde, Sterling, Nebraska (St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church). Early documents and meeting minutes are still in German. Unfortunately, no records of the first two years are preserved; but the following are known to have been among the charter members: D. M. Boatsman, Brunke G. Schmidt, Chas. Lipps, Fokke Aden, Wilm Saathoff, Jacob J. Stindt, Gerald G. Schmidt, John Giesmann, and Henry Kruger.
Services at first were held at the Bethel Methodist Church; four miles south of the intersection of Highway 41 and Douglas Road. But soon arrangements were made to hold afternoon services in the Baptist Church in Sterling; at the intersection of Washington and Iowa Streets. Rev. H. Beckmann of Burr, Rev. G. Bergstraesser of Helena, and Rev. O. Lompe of Hanover, all pastors of the Iowa Synod, conducted these services.
In the early summer of 1895, a call was extended to Rev. H. Wendt, who had graduated from Wartburg Seminary the previous year and who was at that time assistant pastor in Dubuque, Iowa. The young, zealous pastor went to work to build up the membership. He conducted weekday schools several months a year at two places: southwest and southeast of Sterling. Soon a third weekday school was opened in Sterling.
Evidently the first two years were difficult, for according to the minutes of the annual meeting held in January of 1897, the congregation met to reorganize the recently abandoned organization. The by-laws were reviewed, paragraph by paragraph. After undergoing some changes the revised by-laws were accepted, new officers were elected, and the possibility of erecting their own church building was discussed.
On March 1, 1897, the congregation decided to erect its own sanctuary. D. M. Boatsman, B. Schmidt, Chas Lipps, F. Aden, and H. Landwehr were elected as a building committee. The new undertaking progressed rapidly and before fall the new church was dedicated to the service of God. The church faced east parallel to Ohio Street. In 1898 the church bell was purchased. The bell weighs 1400 lb. and continues to be used in the current bell tower. In August 1899, the congregation bought a house south of the church from Mr. Harris for a parsonage. The house cost $600.00.
The members of the congregation were concerned from the beginning in bringing up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. In order to do this more effectively, they decided to build a schoolhouse in the summer of 1902. Through regular instruction in this school many members of this congregation had a firm foundation laid for their Christian faith and profession. The schoolhouse measured 20 feet by 30 feet by 12 feet.
In the fall of 1903, Pastor Wendt (1895 to 1903) accepted a call to Dunlap, Iowa. The Rev. E. Schroeder of Syracuse, Nebraska, was called as the new pastor. During his pastorate, the English language was introduced in a limited way in the school and in the Luther League. Pastor Schroeder served the congregation well for ten years (1903 to 1913). He then accepted a call to Osage, Texas.
On June 1, 1903, it was decided that on New Year’s Eve the janitor shall ring the bell not more than 10 minutes. On January 4, 1904, it was decided to build a barn 16 ft. by 24 ft. and 14 ft. high, with an 8 ft. by 24 ft. stable attached. This barn was modified through the years and continued to serve as the parsonage garage until 2010. In 1904 it was also decided to build a hen house, 10 ft. by 12 ft., for the pastors.
In 1910, an extension was added to the church, with the following description: 30 ft. by 14 ft. and altar room 12 ft. wide and 8 ft. long and 16 ft. high with door on south built at a cost of $810.00
In 1914, the Rev. H. Wunderlich of Tripoli, Iowa, was called (1914 to 1920). Pastor Wunderlich served the congregation for six years during the difficult times of World War I. In 1916, the first pipe organ was dedicated in the old church. He then accepted a call to Otis, Kansas.
By a unanimous vote of the congregation, Rev. Schroeder was again called as pastor. He gladly accepted the call and returned to Sterling to serve four more years (1920 to 1924). It was an active time in the church with the formation of the Ladies Aid on August 3, 1921, and the start of a Men’s Organization during this period.
On July 4, 1920, the 25th Anniversary of the congregation was celebrated. Morning service was led by A. Grundel; and afternoon service by Rev. H. Wendt (former pastor); and an evening serviced lead by Rev. Schroeder.
1924 proved to be a period of great transition for the congregation. Pastor Julius H. Moehl of Cook, Nebraska (1924 to 1930), was called to replace Pastor Schroeder. During Pastor Moehl’s ministry, English services were introduced and an English Sunday School was organized. The ladies quilting group was also started. Lutheran League was organized in 1924 (it was originally called Wartburg League). The church newsletter during the early 1920’s was called: Zionsklaenge, or Sounds of Zion; and was printed in German. In 1927 the newsletter was renamed Bausteine, or Building Block, and began being printed in English and German. Beginning January 1928, English and German service were held every Sunday morning. Pastor Moehl also served as the first Central District President of the American Lutheran Church while pastor of St. John.
Another significant event occurred during Pastor Moehl’s ministry at Sterling, and event that has had lasting impact and a ministry that continues to today. The following four paragraphs are recorded from www.mosaicinfo.org/who-we-are/history
In 1925, three pastors and two laymen saw the need for a school for "teachable mentally retarded children." They met in Sterling at the former Martin Luther Academy, a school that had been closed for several years. The founders included the Revs. Julius Moehl, August Hoeger, and William Fruehling, and laymen John Aden and William Ehmen. The Martin Luther Home Society was organized on October 20, 1925.
As word spread that a home for children and adults with disabilities was opening in Sterling, families began bringing their children for placement, even though the Home was not ready.
Pastor Moehl, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Sterling, and his wife, Martha, had three small children of their own. Yet they took these students into their home and assumed responsibility for their care.
As the building aged and the student population grew, extensive renovation was needed or the Home would face the possibility of state closure. The decision was made to build a new facility. On June 1, 1956, a new Martin Luther Home opened in Beatrice, Neb.
Mosaic was formed July 1, 2003, by the consolidation of two Nebraska-born Lutheran ministries dedicated to the needs of people with disabilities. Bethphage began in 1913 in Axtell, Neb., and Martin Luther Homes began in 1925 in Sterling, Neb.
On October 24, 1925, the congregation voted to build a new parsonage. The following building committee was elected: Gerd Schmidt, M. Ehmen, J. G. Rulla, Henry Christline, and Geo Bentzinger. The parsonage was built on the same lots as the old one so the pastor’s family occupied a rented house, east of the church, while construction was in progress. The parsonage design is American Foursquare, which has similarities to Craftsman design but is simpler in nature.
For a number of years, it had become apparent that the church facility was inadequate for the needs of the congregation. The question of erecting a new building had been under consideration for quite some time. After much planning, under the leadership of Pastor Moehl, in January of 1930 the congregation decided to erect a new house of worship. Those on the building committee were Pastor Moehl, Wm. Giesmann, Henry Christline, Geo. Brinkman, Harm Saathoff, and Henry Kruger. The architect chosen was Harvey C. Peterson of Omaha, NE, with Nelson Construction Co., also of Omaha, receiving the general contract. The total cost of the 1930 church build was $44,674.18, which included the following:
Architectural fees $1,400.00
Furnace (Campbell Heating Co.) $1,820.00
Ossit Furniture Co. of Milwaukee, WI $2,920.00
(for pews, pulpit, altar)
Red French Kiln $1,005.00 (tile roof)
Light Fixtures $ 611.00
Wiring by John Aden $ 455.00
Plumbing by J. Janssen $ 419.00
Windows by Gaytee Studio $2,040.00
Hiners Pipe Organ $2,475.00
(traded in old organ for new)
The old church organ is now in use in North Baltimore, Ohio. Used since 1915.
The work proceeded rapidly and on October 10, 1930, the beautiful new sanctuary was dedicated for the worship of God and the ministry of His Word and Sacraments. At the same dedication, the Central District of the American Lutheran Church was organized in the new house of worship. Dr. Richter, who had been president for many years of the old Iowa Synod, preached the dedicatory sermon. At the district business meeting the following week, Pastor Moehl was elected President of the Central District. Since this new office would require his full time, Pastor Moehl tendered his resignation. It was accepted with much regret.
A call was extended to Pastor C. August Decker of Peoria, Illinois (1931 - 1945). He was then Stewardship Secretary of the Iowa Synod. He began his work in Sterling in January, 1931.
Difficult years followed due to drought, unemployment, depressed farm prices, together with the large debt ($31,000) still resting on the new church. (The Great Depression was October 29, 1929 to 1939). Soon thereafter, World War II began, with many members of the congregation serving. Due to the fine cooperation of the Church Council, the willing sacrifices of the members, and the fine support of the Ladies Aid, the congregation was able to pay its last indebtedness in January, 1944. (A story brought down from one Ladies Council to the next is of the many pies baked during the Great Depression. Pies baked and sold which likely enabled the congregation to pay the mortgage and keep the church building.) After serving the congregation faithfully during those difficult years, Pastor Decker resigned in 1945. The congregation celebrated its 50th Anniversary on July 29, 1945.
A call was extended to and accepted by Pastor John Voelk (1945 – 1953) who served the parish faithfully until August of 1953. Several members served in the Korean Conflict at this time.
Pastor Herman Damm then accepted the call to serve our congregation (1953 - 1956). During his ministry, the congregation joined the Central District of the American Lutheran Church. Up to this time, there had only been an affiliation with the denomination, but not with the district; even though the district had been established here in 1930. At that time the name of the congregation was also changed to St. John American Lutheran Church. Pastor and Mrs. Damm were also instrumental in organizing the Junior Lutherans (Luther League). Pastor Damm served here only three years until January 1956. During the vacancy, Dr. C. Madsen of Dana College served faithfully.
Pastor A. G. Langholz (1956 – 1968) then accepted the call and served faithfully until November of 1960, when he moved to Pocahontas, Iowa. In April of 1968 he decided to retire and accepted a call to become the visitation pastor at American Lutheran Church in Lincoln, NE. After two months there, he became gravely ill and passed from this earthly life on July 4, 1968. His service was held at St. John American Lutheran in Sterling on July 8, 1968.
From November 1959 to July 1961, the congregation was served on an interim basis by Pastor Harold Gronstal of Adams, Nebraska.
In late spring of 1961, a call was extended to Kenneth Rust (1961 – 1970), a graduating senior at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Pastor Rust accepted the call, was ordained at Galesburg, North Dakota, in June. He was installed and began serving St. John American Lutheran in August 1961 until November 1970.
During these seventy-five years the congregation, by the grace of God, experienced a steady growth. In 1965 it was decided that something should be done to alleviate the crowded conditions in our Sunday School rooms (i.e. church basement). After much discussion, the decision was made to build a classroom addition to the sanctuary with the advantage of an enlarged narthex. The ground-breaking service was held at the 9:00 a.m. worship service on Sunday, August 14, 1966. With the continued blessings of God, the members were able to give excellent support and bring the building project to completion in March of 1967.
Dr. Erwin G. Fritschel, President of the Central District brought the message and performed the dedicatory rites at the Service of Dedication on March 12, 1967. The education wing provides 4,352 feet of floor space and includes an enlarged entry way for the sanctuary, rest rooms, office and classroom space. Total cost of the addition was $44,543, which was within a few dollars of the cost of the main sanctuary in 1930.
The architect for the education wing was Woodrow Hull of Lincoln, NE, with the West Brothers Construction Company of Fairmont, NE, receiving the general contract. Members of the Building Committee were John Goldenstein, Ervin Berg Clinton Boldt, Belden Christline, Martin Eilers, Harve Giesmann, Marvin Heusmann, Edmund Juilfs, Merlyn Saathoff and Victor Schmidt. The Finance Committee consisted of Dellen Berg, Rolland Aden, Arnold Giesmann, Willie Harms, Dan Hauptmeier, Ralph Haynes, Shannon Hazen, Norman Heusmann, Ben Parde, Raymond Schmidt, Francis Van Groningen, and Orville Wusk. Church Council members who served during planning and construction were William Bartels, Arnold Giesmann, Richard Straube, Willie Harms, Floy Hestermann, Nanco Nieveen, Ellen Berg, Wilmer Brinkman, Marvin Heusman, Marvin Parde, Richard Rosenthal, James Zuhlkoff, Norval Woltemath, Rollan Aden, John Goldenstein, and Harm Harms. The debt was paid and mortgage burned on December 25, 1971.
At a special meeting of the congregation on Sunday evening, June 28, 1970, the decision was made to install air-conditioning in the sanctuary. This project was completed and in operation by Sunday, July 12, with those present for worship on that day enjoying the comforts of this modern convenience.
The 75th anniversary of the congregation was observed on August 8th and 9th of 1970. That fall Pastor Rust accepted a call to a congregation in Belgrade, Minnesota. He left on November 16th, 1970. Pastor Herboldt, pastor from Cook, NE, served as supply pastor until May of 1971.
In May, 1971, Pastor Wendell Debner, who had served as Assistant Pastor at Immanuel Lutheran in Omaha, accepted the call to come to Sterling. He was installed on May 2, 1971, by Pastor William Jurgens. Pastor Debner served until April of 1977, having accepted a call to Albion, NE. Once again Pastor Herboldt served during this vacancy.
On August 15, 1977, Pastor Don Wilken of Eaton, Colorado, began his ministry at St. John. He served until November of 1981, when he took a call to Albion, NE. During this vacancy, Pastor Don Holm of Lincoln conducted Sunday services and Pastor Bruce Johnson of Adams performed other services such as funerals and confirmation class.
On April 4, 1982, Pastor Ernst T. Bentsen of Zion Lutheran, Limon, Colorado was installed by Rev. Davide Freseman of Avoca. During his pastorate, the South St. John Evangelical Church closed on April 25, 1983. Twenty members were received as members of St. John, Sterling, on May 1, 1983. In July of 1984 we were again calling a pastor as Pastor Bentsen left to serve in California.
On December 16, 1984, Pastor Clayton Skurdahl was installed. He came from Colorado Springs, Colorado. On June 9, 1985, the church observed its 90th anniversary with an open house in the afternoon. Members of the congregation who had attained their 90th birthday by the end of 1985 were honored. Pastor Skurdahl served until January, 1988. After Pastor Skurdahl’s departure, Pastor Kathy Berkheimer served as interim pastor.
On January 1 of 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was formed out of the merger of the A. E. L. C., the L. C. A., and the A. L. C. churches. St. John had been a formative congregation in the old Central District of the American Lutheran Church.
The congregation was without a full-time pastor until August of 1988. At this time, Pastor Stanley W. Floth came to serve us. In February of 1990, the Men’s organization disbanded due to a lack of participation of members. In October of 1995, Pastor Floth went on disability status. Pastor Roger Hoffman, retired, served the congregation during this interim.
In 1995 the congregation celebrated its Centennial anniversary. Baptized membership in 1995 was 498 souls, confirmed membership of 389, with an average Sunday morning worship attendance of 161. Expenditures for the General fund and operations of the church, including salaries, was $79,627.38 for the year. The anniversary celebration was held on June 17-18, 1995. Most of the preceding history was compiled in preparation for the anniversary celebration and Centennial church directory.
On March 10, 1996, Pastor Doyle Karst began his ministry at St. John. Pastor Karst had previously served in Greeley, Colorado, as a chaplain at a Good Samaritan nursing home. Many changes and renovations were made during Pastor Karst’s long tenure of 13 years. Property upgrades include: installation of elevator, changes to education wing restrooms to make them handicap accessible, remodeling of church kitchen, renovation of sanctuary roof, refurbishing of sanctuary pews, and plexiglass covering of stained glass windows. Also notable under during this period was the “year of funerals,” 1997, wherein 18 members of St. John were called to the church triumphant. There were also fifteen baptisms that year as well! In 1999 Erma Hazen, Erma Hazen, office secretary of St. John for the past thirty years, retired. In 2001, St. John, along with 45 other ELCA congregations, voted to leave the denomination and form a new association called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. The LCMC’s inaugural convention was held on October 26, 2001. Pastor Karst served the congregation until May 31 of 2009
As of 2017, the association of which St. John was a charter member, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, numbers 935 congregations, 747 of which are in the United States. St. John, led by Pastor Karst, was also instrumental in the formation of the Heartland District of the LCMC.
Following a brief interim which was served by Pastor Tom Sahl, Pastor Mark Jamison began his ministry at St. John on February 1st of 2010. That same year a two-stall garage was added to the parsonage and the old garage removed. Ceiling fans were installed in the church and new windows in the education wing. Pastor Jamison and his wife Cindy were instrumental in revitalizing the music program of the congregation. A number of new members joined St. John from area ELCA churches, and from the United Methodist Church of Sterling which closed its doors in 2008. Projected worship (screens) was also begun in 2012. New Windows were installed in the parsonage in 2013; as well as a new metal roof on the education wing. Pastor Mark took a call to a congregation in South Dakota, and resigned from St. John as of July 1, 2013.
After another short interim, served by a number of different pastors, Pastor Steve Chellew of Harlan, Iowa began his ministry at St. John on February 1, 2014. During the interim the renovation of the Narthex was completed. In the fall of 2014 the long planned for “Peace Garden” in the front of the church, along with a sprinkler system for the lawn, was installed. A strong hail storm in May of 2015 lead to new roofs for the parsonage and the education wing, along with new siding on the wing and parts of the new garage. Remodeling of the church basement was completed in 2016, including replacing the stage with a storage area for tables and chairs. The kitchen of the parsonage was also remodeled over the winter of 2015/2016. Many smaller lighting and remodeling projects were also completed in both the church and parsonage. In 2017 the two roofs of the bell tower were replaced, followed by repairing the ceiling in the bell tower that had been water damaged. Records indicate that the last time the bell tower roofs had been totally replaced had been over thirty years ago. Administrative changes in 2016 included updating the church database system used for membership and contributions, and consolidating many of the smaller checking accounts into a Special Fund, eliminating the need for many different account treasurers.
First Baptism – William Saathoff, July 27, 1895
First Confirmation Class – March 29, 1896
Peter Gerdes, Carl Lipps, Antje Ross, Freiderika Stindt, Almt Janssen, Martha Aden, Folke Aden, Ida Aden, Harm Saathoff, Etta Saathoff, Heikemina Weber, Gesche Weber, Gesche Berg, Emma Boatsman, Taleka Sinnen, Gert Sinnen.
First Wedding – Wendt/Williams (all the record shows), 1896
First Funeral – Jakob J. Stindt, March 18, 1896
The first cemetery sexton was paid $10.00 per year. The cemetery began in 1897 when the cemetery committee organized and purchased land. In 1898 trees were planted in the cemetery, and a fence installed in 1899.
The first parsonage cost $600 (i.e. the parsonage in the 1890’s)
The first pastor was paid an annual salary of $500. In 1909 it was raised to $700. In 1914 to $900.
The first church building was 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 16 feet high (1897)
Other Items of Interest
Furnishings and vessels still in use from the original German church: Pastor’s chairs (i.e. thrones), the communion ware, the church bell, pews that are in the balcony, hymn boards.
Religious instruction in the early days was held on full days and daily for at least three months of the year. Fifty cents per month was charged per pupil whose parents were not contributing to the pastor’s salary.
One son of the congregation, Marvin Brinkman, completed seminary education.
Changes since 1950
1950 New Year’s Eve service dropped
1953 German service dropped
1954 A nine-man Church Council organized
1955 Church redecorated
1957 Envelope system adopted
1958 All women 21 years or over given vote at congregational assembly
1962 New church carpeting
1965 New hymnals purchased (Service Book and Hymnal)
1967 Individual communion cups used alternately with common cup
1968 Schoolhouse sold
1970 New furnaces with air conditioning and fluorescent lights in church basement
1970 Neon cross on bell tower in memory of Larry Rieken
1970 Early in the 70’s pew cushions added, early communion began
1972 Parking lot curb installed in north lot
1976 New glass doors for sanctuary entrance
1978 New foundation for parsonage, new furnace and air conditioner
1980 New hymnal (Lutheran Book of Worship)
1981 Church sandblasted
1983 Organ repair of $5,920
1987 Painted interior of church and new carpeting
1989 New furnaces in the church
1990 New air conditioning in the church
1993 New roof for education wing (peaked, original roof was flat)