Still Reforming After All These Years
In 2015 Friends and Members of First Trinity celebrated 150 years of God’s Grace. The anniversary year included guest preachers from First Trinity’s past including Matt Holmes, Rev. Connie Leinenger, Lauren Mache, Rev. John Breimier, Bishop Wayne Miller, and Rev. Ronald Nitz. Throughout the year memories were added to the time line in the community center kitchen celebrating some of the historic moments of our past. The Anniversary Celebration on November 1 began with a Dia De Los Muertos celebration including face painting, pan de la muerto, hot chocolate, a community offerenda, and a festive procession around the neighborhood. Worship that day included readings in English, Spanish, and German, original liturgical music by our director of music, Bob Leone, and special music by the First Trinity Choir. After worship we celebrated with food from many cultures, refreshments, raffles, stories and dancing in the community center auditorium. Cook County Commissioner John Daley stopped by with a commendation for the congregation from the Cook County Board. We are truly blessed to have survived and thrived as a congregation for 150 years and look forward to “still reforming” for 150 more!
Thank you to those who have given their time, talent and treasures to make today a success. Apologies to those we may have missed:
Alex, Alicia, Alizabeth, Ambria, Andrew, Barbara, Ben, Bob, Cary, Cathy, Charlie, Chris, Claudia, Dan, Dave, Diana, Diane, Erika, Giovanni, Greg, Isaiah, Jackie, James, Jill, Jim, Joel, Jovanna, Juilo, Lindsay, Mae, Marge, Maria, Meg, Meggan, Ralph, Rene, Renee, Richard, Roseann, Roxy, Toby, Tom, Tom, Will, Xavier, Yami, Zarana.
Thank you to the generous individuals and businesses that have donated raffle prizes and supplies for the day’s event:
Barbara Egan, Blue City Cycles, Bridgeport News, Cary Tate, Cathy Pocus, Chicago Bears, Chicago White Sox, Daisy Varughese, Eugene Barnett & Associates, Filbert’s Rootbeer, Husky Hog, Jinger O’Malley, Lagunitas, Liberation Press, Marge and Tom Fashing, Marquette Bank, Maureen Sullivan, MP Custom Made, Rene Paquin, Roseanne Mostacchio, Ruby Pinto, Simones, Tripp Lite, and Walkies Inc.
We’re proud of our history!
Keep reading for a condensed version of our story.
Or, if you prefer, see “First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, Chicago IL 60616 – First 150 Years, 1865-2015 by Richard Albrecht, retired associate in ministry. You may need to download Adobe Reader, a free PDF reader, to see it.
First Trinity’s storied history illustrates show how God’s grace may be present in any new beginnings. If the story were a fable, it would be the little church that could.
But this story is true.
“These 150 years have seen eras of God’s grace generously given in everything from schooling German immigrant children to giving away free clothes,” said Richard Albrecht, retired associate in ministry. “The parish has realized positive directions often because of and sometimes even in spite of human efforts.”
“God’s grace is sufficient,” he said.
First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, as the church is called today, was the Chicago’s third Lutheran church, and the first on the south side of the Chicago River.
It was born from St. Paul’s, the first Lutheran church that was established in 1846 on the city’s north side. The church grew and responded to the city’s burgeoning immigrant population by establishing daughter churches where demand called. By 1854, the west side formed Immanuel, and when that population grew, Trinity was born in 1865.
Church records show that Immanuel released 11 of its members to start Trinity and they met as a congregation in the home of Mr. Johann R. Landeck. By the fall of 1865, the fledgling congregation paid $1,000 for a piece of property 100 feet x 125 feet in an area referred to as “South Chicago,” in the southern limit of the “Prairie City” under the current north-south raised railroad tracks where the Dan Ryan expressway cars reach the southbound 90/94 exit sign. The congregation raised a one-story A-frame with a 10-foot steeple at the southeast corner of Kossuth and Hanover streets now known as 25th Pl. and Canal St.
The Rev. Ferdinand Doederlein accepted the call that November to serve as Trinity’s first pastor with a promised salary of $30 a month and free housing in the school apartment. Doederlein, who died in 1915 at 81, was born in Bavaria and came from what his obituary said was an “old, ecclesiastical family.” After he immigrated to the United States, his early work included working with Native Americans and with a Missouri congregation. He married Magdalena Nitschke, who taught languages at the synod’s first academy. Trinity’s congregation later built a small, one-story parsonage at 162 Kossuth for him and his family.
Within a year, voting membership rose from 11 to 60, and the congregation added a second floor to the building to serve as the church’s worship space. They founded a school on the first floor.
The little congregation kept growing so fast that by 1868, a new church was built a branch school just north of Archer at Ferrell, and the church’s second floor was devoted to additional teaching space for a newly appointed female teacher. The congregation then built a new church to worship in just west of the school at 153 Kossuth. It rose above the city skyline with a 150-steeple, one that toppled six years later in an F3 tornado.
Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, First Trinity diligently built roots in the community, partnering with nearby Lutheran churches to develop a network of social resources for the community, including founding the Concordia Cemetery Association; the German Evangelical Lutheran Orphan Home, now known as Lutheran Child and Family Services; a retirement home known today as the Lutheran Home and Services for the Aged; and the Luther Institute, which by the 1950s, grew to a district of three high schools. First Trinity and partner congregations, guided by strong beliefs in Lutheran education and that pupils should be educated close to home, built five more schools during this time, following immigration and industry patterns that shaped the neighborhoods of the South Side.
In 1913, the church moved yet again to what would become its permanent home at 643 W. 31st. St., with a parsonage at 3110 S. Lowe Ave. No pictures exist of the old church and no records detail how the congregation celebrated the move. However, stories passed down through generations say that after the organ with its water motor and other items had slowly been moved into the new building, the congregation held a procession. The members walked through the streets together to their new church led by someone holding up the angel that ever since has hung on the chancel’s east side.
First Trinity was also keeping up with the times. That year, member strung the 20-foot Christmas tree with something new — electric lights.
The congregation also began phasing out German as the preferred language of the church. In the early 1900’s, church pamphlets advertised occasional English services, and by 1917, “German” was dropped from the national church’s name to demonstrate loyalty to the United States during World War I.
Changing demographics would continue to trouble the church as it sought to adapt strategies and practices to thrive so that it could continue in its mission of sharing the message of God’s love.
With many wealthy Trinity people settling near 83rd and Paulina streets, in 1924 the LCMS Northern Illinois District Mission Board invited Trinity to help develop a new area, and with this, the “Trinity South” mission began with a branch school and church – by 1935, it would be renamed Timothy Lutheran Church. Services with Rev. Both officiating were held at the two sites.
“The plan,” a note taker wrote in church annals, “was to transplant our congregation from 31st to 83rd; for a while all went well…”). However, as years went by, the 83rd Street school and other numbers increased dramatically, while those at 31st Street trickled.
Still, First Trinity’s members actively opposed a filling station that was proposed to be built west of the 31st St. school, and delayed its construction until 1946. The 83rd St. location puzzled over the quintessentially Lutheran problem of encouraging folks to sit closer to the front of the church. An idea to temporarily remove rear pews did not seem to pass muster.
The Great Depression
At the dawning of the Great Depression, First Trinity owed several banks debt, including $85,000 borrowed from Englewood Trust & Savings Bank for the 83rd St. location, and $35,000 from the Aid Association for Lutherans for the 31st St. church. Community members of all ethnic backgrounds were struggling because money was scarce and jobs were hard to find. After the stock market crashed in October, salaries were lowered and maintaining properties grew difficult. First Trinity was no stranger to the financial troubles, and its debt would make the church vulnerable in coming years. It would be forced to seek financial assistance for its 83rd St. Mission Field, for example, and to seek additional assistance from the Mission Board in 1933.
“When I became a member of Trinity church, it was the intention of operating both churches as one institution until such a time as the membership at 31st Street would dwindle down to a point where it would be inadvisable to continue further, or if it would be possible to sell the property,” church records show an 83rd St. member saying. “But it now seems as though either possibility is a far way off.”
The 83rd St. location was flourishing, and demanding more of Rev. Both’s time. Selling properties during the Depression was not a viable option. The question remained: What to do about First Trinity on 31st St.? To solve the problem, a special committee was called, and it consulted with synod and other experts. One thing became clear: The churches needed to split. And in 1933, by unanimous vote, they did.
First Trinity was on its own. The 83rd St. church, the stronger of the two, thrived for decades until closed in 2009.
Throughout the Depression, First Trinity tried to balance its debt against church and community needs. When the weather was 10 degrees or less, worship was moved to the northeast classroom in the community center because attendance was small and it cost too much money to heat the entire church. It fought against the city’s plans to open a police station across the street from the school and church, and won. In 1940, the church celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, or 75th anniversary. And, in December 1942, the church defaulted on its loan to AAL. It had not been paid in years.
Still, as the country’s economic climate began to ease, First Trinity began to see some relief. In 1942, the church bought 100 new hymnals at $1 apiece, and The Ladies’ Aid bought flags representing the church and the United States to hang near the baptismal font. Within a year, Trinity made its first payment of $2,000 on the debt it owed. In 1945, the congregation legally changed the church’s name to English from German and added “First” to “Trinity.”
By the 1950’s things took a rosier glow, and the church began to modernize in line with the climate of rest of the country. Pastors were permitted to take on additional employment if enrollment numbers could not justify adequate salaries. German services were discontinued, and the church’s fourth pastor was firmly in place.
In 1956, AAL accepted $16,000 in cash and canceled the rest of the debt the church owed. A family from the church mortgaged its personal property to raise the $16,000 as a gift to the church.
The 1970s brought rapid and widespread change to First Trinity. It discontinued its Wednesday afternoon religious instruction for children. The youth group disbanded. In 1973, the church welcomed its first female president, Hildegard Rastutis, who may also have been the first woman voted into the office in LCMS history. During this time women increasingly were taking on roles as assisting ministers, and Rastutis was reelected in 1974.
One year later, Trinity voters moved the congregation from the Northern Illinois District to the non-geographic, more moderate English District of the LCMS. It was reflection of the time, when many LCMS churches were split in theological debate. In 1976, a group of churches would secede from the LCMS to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which in the late 1980s would become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. First Trinity voted to join AELC in 1978.
That year brought additional turmoil to the church voters suspended the pastoral ministry as deacons investigated the alleged misconduct of Rev. Gerald P. Peppler, whose own ministerial duties would be suspended during the investigation. He was later dismissed.
For 12 years, First Trinity foundered without a pastor. Some records were lost or not kept. However, by most accounts, members of the congregation worked hard to keep its ministry and mission afloat.
Worship was shifted in the 1980s to the chapel to avoid paying high fuel costs to heat the sanctuary. Fledgling community churches rented space on the grounds to hold their own services. Members were still looking for creative ways to fill the coffers: monthly bake sales, flea markets/rummage sales, craft sales. English as Second Language classes also were held.
In 1983, one of several mayoral primary debates met in and filled the church. Jane Byrne, Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington — all of whom would eventually lead the City of Chicago – met at the church to debate during that year’s election cycle. The church jointly ran the Doremus Congregational Church (UCC) food pantry. The CTA shut down the 31st Street bus route; First Trinity fights to restore the line today.
In spite of its challenges, internal and external, First Trinity nevertheless served as a refuge for anyone afflicted. In 1999, Betty Napora opened a room to serve as a food pantry, even after Doremus UCC was no longer able to support the work with food or monetary donations. Later that year, Irma Neil helped her run the “clothes closet,” which grew from an emergency to regular service. Within three years, the food pantry closed. However, it was reborn as “God’s Closet,” and offered clothes and small toiletries to the community.
A new era
During the 2000’s the church that for so long hovered on the brink of closure was breathed with new life. The Community Center coffeehouse started the fall season with excellent and nutritious food and live music. The young peoples’ “coffeehouse” became named “The Orphanage.” Bob Leone, minister of music, ushered in a new era of sacred and contemporary music, a feature that draws worshipers today.
In 2009, First Trinity installed the Rev. Thomas R. Gaulke as pastor. He was the church’s 11th minister, and the appointment marked the end of a dozen years of vacancy of that office.
In this new era, the congregation took steps to revive the church itself, finding ways to renovate offices, install a new roof on the church, and paint walls and ceilings.
In 2010, the Voters Assembly approved “Reconciling in Christ” status and a new constitution based on an ELCA model. RIC churches publicly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender believers.
First Trinity continues to work for economic and social justice for its community, and it has become a haven for those who embrace the message of God’s love.
In the past 150 years, First Trinity has celebrated more than 10,760 baptisms and 2,780 weddings. It officiated more than 4,270 funerals.
The number of souls it has touched through prayer, action and ministry is countless.
“It’s a very loving community that makes you feel like family,” said Claudia Hajdas, a member for 10 years. “I wish them another 150 years of success.”