By Brandon Lemons
Friedens’ tagline is “Deep roots. Authentic relationships.” Over the next few weeks, I’m planning to write a handful of articles delving into Friedens’ deep roots and authentic relationships, along with why we celebrate these aspects of Friedens Church.
This article highlights the most obvious aspect of Friedens’ deep roots, which is the church’s history. It will go through the mid-1930s, which is when the church’s ministry transitioned from German to English.
Friedens is 167 years old. After meeting as a house-based Bible study for a year, Friedens German Evangelical Lutheran “Kirche” (German for “church”) was incorporated at 2:00pm on July 1, 1854. At that point, Wisconsin was only six years old as a state. The Civil War wouldn’t commence for another seven years. Friedens was founded by German immigrants; its German name “Friedens” means “peace”; and all of its ministry was in German for the next 70+ years. Friedens was the first Protestant church in Port Washington.
Friedens’ early years had many challenges. For one, the church struggled financially. In 1856, the congregation bought the piece of land on which the current building sits. (Isn’t it special for Friedens to still be in the same place?!) The next year, they built a wooden church building on this land. However, the congregation was unable to pay its loan, which was at 12% interest. Therefore, in 1859, “on order of the Sheriff,” the building and land were put up for public sale. A Mr. Ernest Barth purchased the land and building for $349.30. We should be very thankful for Mr. Barth, because he made this purchase to help the church. He didn’t want the church to change hands, so he gave the struggling young congregation ten years to pay the debt at no interest, which they did successfully.
It is encouraging to see this thoughtful and generous act that supported Friedens’ congregation so many years ago and continues to bless us today. Without Mr. Barth’s kindness, Friedens certainly wouldn’t be in the same location and may not even exist today. This is a powerful reminder that as we financially support Friedens Church, especially through the building project fund, we are investing in a cause that will benefit people generations into the future and on into eternity!
Jumping ahead a few decades, a new brick sanctuary was constructed on the same spot where the wooden building had previously stood. This new building, which we still use today, was completed in 1889 for a cost of $7,394.85. The sanctuary’s distinctive yellow “cream city” brick was made right here in Port Washington at the Guenther Brickyard, which is were Lower Lake Park currently resides.
In 1924, a difficult construction project was undertaken: digging a basement under the sanctuary, which housed a kitchen and fellowship hall (it’s where the Student Center and children’s classrooms are currently housed). Amazingly, this project took place 35 years after the sanctuary was built! Can you imagine how difficult that would have been – digging a full basement under an existing sanctuary?! They even had to extend the foundation approximately eight feet deeper, which is impressive given the massive weight of the brick sanctuary with 24-inch-thick walls! This foundation is currently visible in the children’s ministry hallway.
Change in churches is hard. This is one of the parts of Friedens’ history that fascinates and humors me. In 1902, Friedens’ congregation voted against installing electric lights in the sanctuary. I’m glad they decided a few years later to vote “yes” to this! In 1906, the congregation voted against allowing open caskets at funerals. In 1925, the congregation voted against using individual communion glasses. It seemed like initial congregational votes were almost always in the “no” direction. Perhaps the result of German stubbornness? Or just indicative of the fact that humans tend to resist anything that changes what is familiar? In 1919, Friedens’ congregation voted against having any worship services in English. In 1922, however, another vote allowed one English service per month (the rest were in German); this ratio of English-to-German services continued increasing during the next decade.
As I reflect on the first half of Friedens’ history, I am struck by the resilience of this congregation. There were many challenges, including many not listed here. (For instance, what did the church do when its song leader was arrested during the Port Washington Insurrection – a draft riot – in 1861? We don’t know, but it’s an interesting story that could have created some difficulties.) It’s a colorful, fascinating history.
I appreciate the deep roots of Friedens’ history. We live in an era and a society that fixate on what is new. But at 167 years and counting, Friedens has stood the test of time. Most churches that began that long ago have closed their doors or are on life support. But Friedens is thriving. One of the things this shows is a willingness to change, even when change is difficult. But as we will see next week, there are some things (hint: faithfulness to the Gospel and the Bible) that should never change!