I’ve now read the histories of St. Lucas that are printed in the booklets published on the occasions of the 25th (in German!), 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries. It struck me as I read them that over the years St. Lucas has not been afraid to take a risk when it seemed the Lord was calling the congregation to something new. In other words, St. Lucas has consistently acted in faith in the Lord in whose name the congregation has gathered for 125 years.
On March 21, 1886 a group of members from St. Paul’s downtown met at 804 S. Erie Street, the home of Louis Burman, and acted in faith to found a new Lutheran congregation on the southern edge of Toledo in order to reach out to—as the 75th anniversary program put it—“a strong group of Lutherans from Germany,” who were settling in that area. Prayers were said, plans were finalized, a pastor was called, and a Christian community of faith was born. It was a German language congregation founded to welcome German immigrants to a new spiritual home in their new land. The first year the fledgling congregation worshiped in the afternoon at what was then St. Stephen (destined to move to Broadway and Walbridge to become First English) Lutheran Church at the corner of Harrison and Oliver (the building still exists as a Baptist church today). Rev. A. Weber of St. Paul’s downtown served as the first pastor.
In a little over a year the new congregation took a risk in faith again, purchasing land at the corner of Frank St. and Walbridge Ave. with the intention of building a church and a parsonage. The minutes of the October 4, 1887 church council meeting note the completion of the first church, a small wooden frame structure. The parsonage was also completed that year and stood next to the church to the west (now a parking lot). In 1891 Pastor Weber resigned and the congregation called Rev. R.E.M. Engers of Defiance, Ohio to serve in the pastorate. The congregation again initiated spiritual risks. Already the congregation, apparently recognizing the potential to reach out with the gospel, began a six month experiment with bimonthly English language worship services. The worship experiment was accompanied by the formation of a Young People’s Society, a Ladies Aid, and a mixed choir. All of these ventures in mission were discontinued when Pastor Engers resigned in April of 1895, but they foreshadowed things to come.
The congregation, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, issued a letter of call to Pastor Hugo Hamfeldt of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Reedsville, Wisconsin. He began his call on July 21, 1895. Hugo Hamfeldt, more than any other pastor in the storied 125 year history of St. Lucas, left a lasting legacy and imprint. During Pastor Hamfeldt’s 42 year ministry the people of St. Lucas defined themselves as a community of faith that would adapt and take spiritual risks for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By 1897 the Ladies Aid, mixed choir and Young People’s Society (in 1914 to become Luther League) came permanently back as part of the St. Lucas landscape. Imagine how these groups empowered laypeople to participate in the ministry of St. Lucas! Imagine how the choir enhanced worship, the Ladies Aid assisted with mission projects, and the Young People’s Society enhanced the Christian formation of youth. You don’t have to imagine it because our choir, women’s organization (WELCA), and youth group (CYF2G) still do all those things today. Hamfeldt’s tenure also saw the advent of a benefit society for the sick, a healing ministry echoed 125 years later by our St. Lucas healing team. When one considers it, a healing ministry is especially appropriate for this community of faith named for St. Luke, the physician traveling companion of St. Paul.
In 1897 Pastor Hamfeldt began publishing a monthly Lutheran spiritual paper “Der Hausfreund” that helped spread the good news in the Toledo area. This progressive move on Pastor Hamfeldt’s part became a cooperative effort with St. Mark in East Toledo and then Zion on Belmont Ave. At one time the magazine went out to 1200 homes in the Toledo area. Outreach in the form of the printed word has played an important part in the history of St. Lucas. Mass neighborhood mailings have gone out in both the Berger and Billmeier pastorates as well. Today St. Lucas has adapted as technology allows with a website at www.stlucastoledo.org.
In 1910 the congregation stepped out in faith in a fresh way by taking on the construction of a new church building, necessitated by the growing number of people who were finding a spiritual home at St. Lucas. The last service in the frame church was held on May 8, 1910 ending with a festive and emotional procession from the old to embrace the new. The old frame church was demolished and on July 21, 1910 the cornerstone of the present structure was laid amid prayers that God would bring to completion the work begun. The present stone structure was finished in a year and the congregation dedicated its new worship center to the glory of God at its Silver Jubilee with a five day festival, July 25-29, 1911. As part of its 1911 dedication festivities the church received a German Bible inscribed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Was this new sanctuary project a spiritual risk? Yes. No doubt some wondered as the congregation undertook the project, “Where would the money come from? Will we be able to keep the building up? Can we really do this?” But our St. Lucas spiritual forebears took the challenge and trusted God in order to expand the mission of welcoming new children of God home. Ninety-five years later a much smaller St. Lucas congregation stepped out in faith to make our church accessible to those with disabilities by undertaking the addition of an elevator. The legacy of risk for the gospel continues.
Marvin Sielken’s 50th Jubilee history notes, “With the new church [building] old customs were abolished and new ones were introduced.” During the festival of the dedication Pastor Hamfeldt preached his first sermon in English. Showing itself to be a community that recognized the need to change with the times in order to best spread the gospel, St. Lucas had already introduced English in the Sunday School beginning with the youngest class, so the transition happened gradually over a ten year period. As that class was promoted each new class kept English until the whole Sunday School was taught in English. English worship was again introduced in October 1911 at once—and later twice—a month evening services. Within four years English services were offered Sunday mornings along with the traditional German services. The Hamfeldt years also saw the introduction of individual membership for each family member rather than the entire household regardless of age coming automatically when the father joined, and in 1913 St. Lucas adapted to new ways with the introduction of weekly offering envelopes and an expectation of weekly support from church members with a resultant increase in total giving for the mission of Christ here.
As the splendor of the new church attests, St. Lucas has always been a community of faith committed to majestic worship of God. The church building has seen redecorations to keep the sanctuary beautiful and up to date in 1931, 1945, 1961 and 1988. If you follow the history of the sanctuary in pictures in our Lower Church archives you will see that the congregation was consistently open to liturgical rearrangement of the sanctuary for the sake of enhancing and updating the worship atmosphere.
Pastor Hamfeldt died in office in November 1937 following a severe stroke in July of that year. His years had indeed seen a commitment to taking risks for the sake of welcoming more people home to St. Lucas in the name of Jesus. The congregation called Marvin Sielken, a son of the congregation fresh out of seminary, to be its fourth pastor in 1938. Pastor Sielken’s brief but important tenure served as a transition time following the long pastorate of Pastor Hamfeldt. It is described in the histories as a time of “great adjustment” in which “many changes took place.” Liturgical innovations included the introduction of a new hymnal that for the first time included music with the hymn words, the introduction of worship service bulletins, the installation of hymnal racks and card racks, and the donation of the artful custom- made seven branch candelabras for the altar. The church also raised its profile by adding an outdoor bulletin board and expanded the parish house with the purchase of a neighboring duplex for Sunday School use. All of these changes were designed to enhance the outreach and worship life of the congregation. I see them as the congregation responding to the Holy Spirit’s prodding to stay relevant.
Pastor Sielken resigned in 1943 to become a World War II navy chaplain. Before his death, having rejoined St. Lucas in retirement, he frequently told me the story of how he made the decision to become a chaplain upon driving a colleague from another denomination to the recruiting station in Detroit where the recruiter told him that Lutheran pastors were not volunteering in the same numbers as pastors from other denominations. St. Lucas called Rev. Dr. John E. Slater as its fifth pastor in 1944. He served for 17 years and presided over the demolition of the old parish house and the building of a new and modern Sunday School building in the years 1955-56. With the spacious and up to date new building St. Lucas was prepared to teach the gospel to the baby boom generation. It was a risk well worth taking for the sake of the gospel. Noted Lutheran leader and scholar, Dr. Joseph Sittler, preached at the dedication of the new building. Dr. Slater’s tenure also saw the innovative use of media in the Sunday School with the purchase of a new movie projector. Pastor Slater oversaw the introduction of yet another new hymnal, the red Service Book and Hymnal. Already in his golden jubilee history Pastor Sielken had noted, “Generally speaking we may say that St. Lucas is of a missionary disposition.” The birth of two mission societies in the Slater era attests to the congregation’s commitment to spreading the gospel. Pastor Slater left St. Lucas in July of 1961 to become a professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
Later in 1961 St. Lucas called Pastor John E. Berger of Messiah Lutheran Church in Newton Falls, Ohio to be its sixth pastor. At 33 years, the second longest serving pastor in its history, Pastor Berger’s tenure saw many changes and challenges for St. Lucas. The neighborhood began a gradual transition from working class culture to an inner city culture over that period. The histories attest to St. Lucas’ commitment to adjusting for the sake of the gospel, though, as the congregation sent Pastor Berger to an “Urban Training Center of Christian Mission” in Chicago as early as 1967. St. Lucas also recognized the need to change with the times through ecumenical outreach and cooperation and became a charter member of the Old South End ecumenical organization, C.R.O.S.S. (Christians Relating Our Savior in the South-end). This group has sponsored pulpit exchanges, unity Good Friday and Thanksgiving Eve services, the Feed Your Neighbor program, and children’s summer programs. Again, St. Lucas was a leader in embracing the new for the sake of the gospel. In this era in 1976 the congregation also engaged, Lyle Schaller, a nationally known church consultant and author to help define its mission and plan for the future. In October of that year St. Lucas launched an outreach effort through telephone calls, billboards, newspaper ads, bumper stickers, yard signs, pins and radio and television with the theme “I Found It”, a city-wide effort to reach out and spiritually welcome those who did not belong to a church. Demographic as well as social changes away from a “church culture” led to a slow decline in numbers attending during this era. The congregation’s anxiety was no doubt raised in the face of this adversity and the histories attest to an institutional stodginess setting in. The adoption of the new Lutheran hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship, was twice turned down over a ten year period before being introduced in the early nineties. Nevertheless, in this era there are multiple signs that St. Lucas continued to seek to adapt itself to the new mission with which God was challenging it. The organist of this era, William Nostrant, spoke of the use of new and simpler worship styles as St. Lucas embraced the informality of the age. St. Lucas celebrated its centennial in 1986 and two years later redecorated the worship space, renewing its beauty so that the sanctuary continued to remind worshipers of the splendor and majesty of our God.
That brings us to the present era. When Pastor Berger announced his retirement in 1992 the congregation made a decision to bring on a new “co-pastor” who would work with Pastor Berger for a year and then take the reins of ministry upon his retirement. This, it was hoped, would ease the transition following the long tenure of Pastor Berger. The innovation was a success. The transition was much gentler as folks had a chance to get used to the new pastor while saying good-bye to the previous one. The congregation called Pastor Martin E. Billmeier, a native of Saginaw, Michigan and pastor of Grace Lutheran in Elmore, Ohio to be its seventh pastor in 108 years. Installed in late February of 1994, he served with Pastor Berger until the latter’s retirement in January of 1995. Under the Billmeier pastorate St. Lucas has been called again to reinvent itself to make its ministry relevant in a vastly changed context. The neighborhood, like the general culture, had become more diverse and multicultural. At the same time the neighborhood had also transitioned to a place with old housing stock and lower income levels, and the flight of many businesses.
St. Lucas has responded in this era by clarifying its mission with a “three-pronged” strategy of commitment to the neighborhood, a niche ministry to the gay and lesbian community, and self-definition as a regional congregation welcoming members from many outlying cities and towns in Northwestern Ohio and Southeastern Michigan. St. Lucas has continued to take risks for the sake of the gospel in embracing this strategy. Our process of envisioning what God wants us to do for Christ’s sake has led to our Statement of Welcome as well as a new Purpose Statement and Guiding Principles. In line with all the previous eras at St. Lucas we are embracing liturgical diversity and innovation as we seek to re-frame the timeless good news of Jesus Christ for a new generation. We have three services with three styles of worship from casual worship to high church. In the main sanctuary we have introduced two new hymnals, With One Voice and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, both of which offer multicultural hymnody and liturgies as we seek to welcome home an even more diverse company of worshipers. For Lower Church worship we use the contemporary praise song hymnal Worship and Praise and the African American hymnal This Far By Faith. The elevator addition and website bear witness to our commitment to widen the circle of our mission. The Spirit has brought new people and new ministries of healing and outreach to those in financial need. New and culturally diverse faces have appeared as the Holy Spirit works in our midst and calls us to live up to our principles and vision as a church that for the last, and by God’s grace, the next, 125 years has committed itself to welcoming any and all home to the gospel good news that Jesus Christ has died, is raised, and lives still among us to give us hope, healing and a future.