A History of Grace Lutheran Church

Composed for the occasion of Grace’s 100th Anniversary in 2008
“’It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and became a great tree…’ This parable of our Lord describes the growth of the kingdom of God, and it is illustrated in the growth of Grace Lutheran Church.  A mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, grows to be a great tree through the wonders of God’s power and grace.”

The Reverend Dr. Dean Kilgust wrote this passage in his introduction to a handbook for leaders of Grace Lutheran Church.  The planting and growth of Grace Lutheran Church is, indeed, a story of “the wonders of God’s power and grace.”  Out of appreciation for Pastor Kilgust’s observation, the parable of the mustard seed was chosen by the 100th Anniversary Committee as the theme for the 100th Anniversary Banners.  The following version of the story of Grace Lutheran Church has been woven together from information quoted and paraphrased from all the other versions of the story.  It is, indeed, a story of “the wonders of God’s power and grace.”

The year was 1908.

Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. William Howard Taft was elected to be his successor.  Wilber Wright broke another record in his airplane. During a daring feat in LeMans, France he flew for one hour and 53 minutes and 59 seconds. He covered the distance of 61½ miles at an average height of 24 feet.

December 18, 1908 was a bitter cold night—18 degrees below zero.

That night that the City of Green Bay approved a new bascule bridge on Walnut Street. The contract was awarded to Greiling Brothers at the cost of $153,800.  On that same night 19 men and women gathered in a small, drafty, weather-beaten, wooden church on the corner of Madison and Moravian Streets.  The Reverend Paul F. Hein, the Executive Officer for the Home Mission Board of the Joint Synod of Ohio and Other States, spoke to the congregation that night. He assisted the congregation in drafting a temporary constitution and arranging other details.  Those who signed the constitution to create Grace Lutheran Church included: Rudolph Haupt, Charles Kohls, William Ziehms, Herman E Braatz, Herman Wihlfeil, Mrs. Wilhelmina Voight, Clara J. Hollman, Hattie C. Froemke, Mrs. Louise Pahl, James Church, Lydia Hollman, Mrs. Ada Larsen, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Luecker, Theresa Indra, Mrs. Emily Indra, Mrs. F.A. Diekmann, and Minnie L Diekmann.

It all began back in the summer of 1907.

There were three Lutheran Churches in Green Bay—all of them worshipped in their native languages. The Reverend Jacob A. Siegrist, a pastor at First Lutheran Church, trying to have services in English, appealed to the Home Mission Board for assistance.  The Reverend Dr. Edward G. Kuhlmann, who was doing mission work in Oshkosh, was sent to investigate the Green Bay mission field. The initial meeting took place in the ballroom of the Empire Building (later known as the Brusky Building) on Walnut Street. He spoke about his recent travels to Palestine. With this, weekly worship services were inaugurated at the Empire Hall.

The following summer it was determined that Pastor Kuhlmann was needed full-time in Oshkosh. He was replaced by Charles Birkhold in July 1908, a divinity student at Capital University in Columbus Ohio. When Birkhold left in the fall to return to his studies, he was replaced by another student by the name of Theodore Pagel.

On October 16, 1908,

the congregation began renting a vacant church building on the corner of Madison and Moravian Streets. It was owned by the former Central Baptist Church. It was in this church that the official organizational meeting took place on December 18, 1908.  This building soon received the nickname “The Little Brown Church.”

When Pagel returned to seminary in January 1909, he was replaced by another student, Otto Gerbich. It soon became clear to the Home Mission Board that the congregation would need a full-time resident pastor. The call went out to Louis Frederick Gast, a Candidate of Theology from the seminary at Columbus, Ohio.

Candidate Gast accepted the call

and preached his first sermon on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1909. He was formally installed on May 2, 1909 by Pastor Kuhlmann. In January of 1909, the first choir was formed. Miss Frieda Diekmann was the first director and organist.

Now Pastor Gast was a single young man when he came to Green Bay. And according to Mrs. Emma Evraets “more than one young woman set their caps for him. He was a nice young man.” But Mrs. Emma  Lhost doesn’t remember him dating members of the congregation. He did however meet and fall in love with charter member Meta Diekmann. They were married in the Little Brown Church and had a long life together.

The permanent constitution was signed on Reformation Day in 1909.

The little congregation purchased the church from the trustees of Central Baptist Church on March 21, 1910. The purchase also included an old dwelling and an empty lot measuring 110 by 120 feet.  On May 8, 1910, less than a year and a half after its birth, the congregation cut its ties with the Home Mission Board and became self-supporting.

A parsonage was built by the congregation in 1913. In 1936 it was moved across the street from the church when the church was undergoing another expansion.

On September 15, 1915

the congregation voted to build a new church on the site of the old one. The last worship service in the Little Brown Church was on Easter Sunday in 1916.  The new house of worship was a cathedral by comparison to the old church. The Reverend Dr. G. C. Gast, (a cousin of Pastor Gast) and Pastor Kuhlmann delivered the addresses for the dedication of the new church building on December 19, 1916. The new church could seat 500 people.  In 1921 three large European antique glass windows were installed in the church. They are entitled: “The Good Shepherd,” “Gethsemane,” and “Come Unto Me.”  1926 brought the addition of a Wangerin Organ. This was a gift from the Ladies’ Aid Society. The chimes on the organ were given from a legacy left by Mrs. Fred Kuehl.

While strongly tied to the Ohio Synod from its inception

the congregation was not officially received into the synod “for thirty years.”  According to the 75th Anniversary history, “opposition to Grace, as well as a few other newer congregations, was based on the fact that there were among the members of the congregation persons who belonged to ‘the lodge’ or some other secret society.  Pastor Gast was still a pastor of the Ohio Synod, but the congregation was not given membership status until this issue was clarified.  This was not unusual in those days.”

During the early 1930’s

the congregation debated about whether to build a new church or enlarge and improve the existing one. On January 5, 1936 the decision that favored the latter proposal was reached at the annual meeting. However, expansion plans did not go smoothly. The congregation was served with an injunction by the owner of the adjacent property seeking to restrain the congregation from expanding. The injunction was lifted by a civil suit, but it caused a delay until additional funds could be raised.  Ground was finally broken for the project on May 16, 1937, and the cornerstone was laid on Sunday, June 26, 1937 with much pomp and circumstance.  During the construction the worship services and Sunday School were held in the YMCA Gymnasium.  The enlarged, rebuilt church building was rededicated the week of February 27 to March 6, 1938. Speakers besides Pastor Gast were his cousin (who came back to Green Bay again from Columbus, Ohio), the Reverend F. C. Reuter of Appleton, Wisconsin, the Reverend C. J. Lane of Oshkosh Wisconsin, and the Reverend I. Wegner of DePere, Wisconsin. The evening before Ash Wednesday a Community Night was held at the church, with the mayor and other governmental and civic leaders as speakers.

The enlarged nave, which now included a balcony, could now hold 900 people. The sanctuary was widened to make room for 50 singers in the choir lofts on either side of the altar. The front and side walls were arched, and a stain glass window was installed above the altar.  This colorful window depicts the Resurrection of Christ.  The central Christian rites are symbolized in it including baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage, burial, worship, and preaching of the Law and Gospel.  The parlor, dining room and 21 Sunday School rooms were also part of the renovation. The basement included two assembly halls, one of which included a stage and large kitchen.

At the time of the rededication in 1938,

Grace Lutheran Church had grown to 1,200 communicants and about 1,600 baptized members. Growth of the congregation continued until in 1945, the congregation voted to call an assistant pastor, the Reverend William L. Gast, a nephew of Pastor Gast.  He accepted the call and was installed on February 4, 1948.

Pastor Louis F. Gast faithfully served the congregation for 43 years. When he came to Grace Lutheran Church there were 35 members. When he delivered his farewell sermon on Sunday, November 16, 1953 the congregation had grown to 2,500 confirmed members. The pictures of Pastor Gast and his wife Meta that hang in the parlor were given to the congregation by the Phoebe Circle. They are brushed oil paintings made by Schneider-Nuss and were not presented to the congregation until 1951. When Pastor Gast retired, the congregation presented him with a new car.

The Reverend Dr. Dean A. Kilgust

became the spiritual leader of Grace Lutheran on November 23, 1952. Before coming to Green Bay he had been an assistant pastor in Waverly, Iowa.  And the congregation continued to grow. In 1953, additional property next to the church was purchased for future expansion. An educational wing was dedicated on September 16, 1956. It was named Gast Hall in honor of Pastor Gast. The addition was three stories, and there were plans for it to be used by the entire congregation.  Included in the addition were Sunday School rooms, a choir room and two robing rooms, a council room, and a kitchen and chapel.

1959 saw the purchase of the Moravian Church

and parsonage located just to the east of the Grace. This church building was later relocated to Heritage Hill State Park in 1981. It is the oldest church building in the state. The land was originally deeded to the Moravian Church by William B. Astor, son of John Jacob Astor. Construction began on October 20, 1851, and it was consecrated on August 8, 1852.  In April 1961, the members of Grace named the building Martin Luther Chapel. This gave the ever-growing congregation more Sunday School rooms and additional worship space.

1968 was a year of change.

The Ecumenical Movement took hold in the Green Bay area and Pastor Kilgust was a leader in the movement.  On March 7, 1968, Pastor Kilgust was given the honor of preaching at St Willebrod’s Catholic Church during an interfaith Holy Hour for World Peace.  The world was starting to change and these changes affected life at Grace. In 1970 the first two women served on the church council. They were Marion Hougard and Norma Otterson. 1975 brought big changes to the constitution of the church.  Previous to 1975, the congregation had been run by “a vestry” which included four lay people and the pastor.  The new constitution included five boards, (Administrative Services, Training, Celebration, Personal Growth, and Outreach), and in 1982, the constitution was expanded to include a board of Stewardship.

In March of 1978, the congregation again faced a dilemma.

The Wangerin Organ was beginning to fail. The congregation approved the purchase of a new organ and the remodeling and redecoration of the sanctuary.  On December 13, 1981 the new Schlicker Pipe Organ installation was completed and the organ was dedicated.

In 1981 the first woman president, Ruth Trowbridge,

was elected to lead the church council. Since that time Mary Jean Skarphol, Dotty Juengst, and Beverly Larsen have all served as Church Council President.  1982 saw another renovation. This time the plan was called Phase II. The congregation was becoming more diverse, and people were having a hard time gaining access to the church. The reconstruction provided an elevator, handicapped accessible bathrooms, a new main entrance with a car port, a new Altar Guild room, a new Sacristy, and easier access to the sanctuary for disabled persons. All these improvements were completed and dedicated on March 10, 1985.  In the midst of them, in conjunction with the 75th Anniversary of the congregation, two new banners were dedicated: the Cross Stitch Anniversary Banner (November 20, 1983) and the “Life of the Church” banner ( December 18, 1983).

On June 28, 1987, Pastor Kilgust retired

from Grace Lutheran Church after 35 years of faithful service. Many people attended his retirement dinner including Roman Catholic Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, the Reverend Charles Bagby, Judge Patrick Crooks, and Dominic Olejniczak. Indeed, Pastor Kilgust not only touched Grace Lutheran Church, but also the Green Bay Area. The Reverend Dr. George Krempin (who had come to Grace in December 1974) assumed the duties of Senior Pastor.

In January 1988,
the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America became a reality,

and Grace Lutheran became affiliated with the new denomination. To celebrate all of the new ELCA Churches in the Green Bay area met on January 17, 1988 at the Embassy Suites in what was called ELCA Celebration of Unity.

August 11, 1989 was a dark day in the life of the congregation.

It was a day when an arson fire nearly destroyed the building of Grace Lutheran Church. The damage was extensive, with the cost of restoration reaching 1.5 million dollars. By the Grace of God and some very dedicated firemen the church building was saved. It was a troubling time, but it was also a time that drew us closer together. During the restoration the congregation worshiped and held Sunday School at the YWCA. Great joy filled the hearts of the members of Grace on December 1, 1989 when they were able worship in the sanctuary again. The Sunday School continued to meet at the YWCA until January 20, 1990, when the Gast Hall education wing of the church was ready to be occupied.  To celebrate the new friendship we forged with First United Methodist and Grace Presbyterian, an Ecumenical Service and Open House were held in Jackson Park on August 20, 1990. The dedication of the renovated church took place on Reformation Sunday, October 28, 1990.

Worship has always been an important part of the life of Grace Lutheran Church. 1991 saw the addition of another worship service. It was called “Grace Power and Light.” It took place on Saturday evenings.  In 1996 a study was undertaken to determine if there should be a change in the worship times. It was determined to change the worship times to 8:00 and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings. This would allow the children to attend worship services and attend Sunday School between services. It also allowed for an Adult Education and/or fellowship time.

Pastor Krempin retired from Grace Lutheran in May of 2000

after 26 years of service. He was much loved by the congregation and saw us through the fire and the reconstruction that followed.

During the last decade, the members of Grace have grown in creative ways of expressing their faith.  It was during this time that the Grace Beaux and Belles hand bell choir was formed, the Madrigal Dynners thrived, and the Sunday School led a radical and beautiful renovation of Gast Hall in order to implement a rotational Sunday School curriculum.  Members of Grace became driving forces in many newly forming ecumenical ministries:  providing support for all three homeless shelters, the Ecumenical Partnership for Housing, and the Easter Dinner.  The Future of Grace New Ministry Appeal planted the seeds for a revitalized youth program, a contemporary worship service, the Young at Heart meals program, and various parish health ministries.

A lengthy interim period in the midst of this creative time

ended with another creative solution: the call of a clergy couple, the Reverends Larry Lange and Julie Wrubbel-Lange, and a third pastor, the Reverend Jennifer (Lapinskas) Christenson, as the new pastoral team.  The members of Grace continued to expand their ministries with the guidance of the new pastoral team: numerous members of Grace stepped forward to visit homebound members, to attend to the growing demands on our Food Pantry, to design the Garden of Grace Memorial Garden, and to develop and maintain an excellent web site.  The Constitution was also revised to add the seventh board (Youth and Family Ministry) and to introduce more flexibility to members in developing missions and ministries.  Building on a gracious policy of welcome to our community, in 2007 Grace entered a partnership with the Green Bay Boy and Girl Choirs, providing them with much needed affordable office, rehearsal, and storage space.

“’It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and became a great tree…’ This parable of our Lord describes the growth of the kingdom of God and it is illustrated in the growth of Grace Lutheran Church.  A mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, grows to be a great tree through the wonders of God’s power and grace.”

Pastor Kilgust’s statement still rings true for Grace Lutheran Church as its members continue to grow in the depth of their commitment to shelter and sustenance for the least of our brothers and sisters and in cooperation with many churches and faith communities in Green Bay.  This growing faithfulness, rooted in Jesus Christ, is our hope and joy for the next one hundred years!

The 100th Anniversary Committee:

Pam Anderson, Cheryl Hanstedt-Bull, Mary Jean Skarphol, Dolly O’Dell, Carol Mead, Ginger Wistenberg

Advisors: Pastor Larry Lange, Bea Froelich