Lyle Buettner lifted a blackened, rectangular lump from the muddy oxidized-green box and pronounced it a Bible.
Or, at least, that was the theory. “My guess is that this is a Bible, but if I open it, I’ll destroy it,” Buettner said.
Buettner assisted the centennial committee of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Collinsville on Tuesday with opening a time capsule that had been buried inside the church’s cornerstone in 1914, as the congregation’s third and final building was constructed. On Sept. 13, the congregation - which was founded in 1848 — will gather to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its building and everyone will see what was placed inside the time capsule before the building was constructed.
But committee members Lisa Durham, Diane Meyer and Karen Shimkus wanted to know what was inside first. They’d all seen enough videos of opening time capsules and finding nothing but mud and rot, and they didn’t want the congregation to be disappointed.
At first, it didn’t bode well for Holy Cross’s collection. Buettner, who is a special collections archivist at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, found that the copper box had turned green and oxidized inside the cement cornerstone. Apparently the Holy Cross leaders in 1914 thought the cornerstone would be sufficient to seal in the time capsule, but concrete is not waterproof, and the water eventually made its way to the papers inside.
Piece by piece Buettner uncovered the items and removed the worst of the mold and dirt. Among other items they found inside: an arithmetic book, a German catechism, a synod report, a Sunday School book, a copy of the Lutheran Witness, the Holy Cross constitution, a program from the cornerstone dedication, a wooden pen, a Bible history book, a photograph too badly deteriorated to be discernible, and two newspapers: the Advertiser and the Collinsville Herald, dated in October 1914.
“This is what they thought 100 years ago that we would want to know,” Meyer said. “It’s the little details.”
Holy Cross Lutheran Church was founded in 1848 by German immigrants, and services continued in German up until the death of Robert Prager. Prager, a German miner, was lynched by the residents of Collinsville in 1918, during the anti-German fervor of World War I. At that point, Meyer said, Holy Cross quietly switched to the English Language for its services.
That’s why Meyer and Shimkus in particular were surprised that so much of the material in the time capsule was in English. The Bible was in German, as were some of the other documents, and the program indicated three services the day of the dedication: two in German and one in English.
The new church was commissioned for $20,808 and the cornerstone was laid in 1914. At the last minute, there were protests raised about the inscription written in English, requesting that it be re-inscribed in German. But when the congregation was informed it would cost $43 — $1,026.14 in today’s dollars — to change the cornerstone, they dropped the issue. It took a year to build the church, which was dedicated in 1915. Since then it has stood in downtown Collinsville beside Holy Cross Lutheran School.
Shimkus said she was very excited to finally see the items inside. “We have immersed ourselves in this history for the last four months,” she said. “They believed something 100 years ago, and we believe it now. And 100 years from now, they will still believe in it.”
The original time capsule was sealed inside the cement cornerstone, and getting it out was no easy task. At first the company Holy Cross hired to do the job tried removing some bricks from above the cornerstone, and found that there was no little door or seam to indicate how to get inside. Eventually they used a metal detector calibrated to find copper and cut carefully into the concrete from the side, Meyer said.
Buettner said he was honored to be a part of the process. “For something this old, stored in the way that it was, it doesn’t surprise me that (the items) came out this way,” he said.
Durham said she was pleased so many of the items were still readable and distinguishable. “It’s amazing to thing that our hands are the first to touch these things in 100 years,” she said.
Holy Cross intends to replace the time capsule with a new one, including more solid objects from 2015, an iPhone loaded with photos and information, a full accounting of the items uncovered in the 1914 time capsule, and possibly a newspaper. This one will be placed inside a new black marble engraved cornerstone.
And, Meyer said, this time it’ll be sealed against the elements.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.