Small group of Germans started St. Paul's UCC

The St. Paul German Free Protestant Church in a photo taken between 1885 and 1901.
The St. Paul German Free Protestant Church in a photo taken between 1885 and 1901.

Sometimes church histories are hard to come by or tend to gloss over the rough spots, but St. Paul's United Church of Christ has an excellent archive with lots of old material.

That includes a 1909 70th jubilee report of the church -- in German. The report candidly covers the ups and downs of the congregation.

"It is noticeable circumstance in the history of our congregation, that every time that there was a deviation from the old simple belief in the Bible, a period of blossoming had to make way for decline," the report noted.

(All material in quotation marks is from the report.)

An online history of the church says John Jacob Riess actually was the first pastor but became seriously ill in the summer of 1839 and was replaced.

Later in 1839, a group of Germans called the Rev. Wilhelm Flickinger as preacher and spiritual adviser. There were 27 subscribers who came up with $97. In a litany that still is familiar today, others promised their money later.

The congregation elected officers, ordered hymn books from Philadelphia and began searching for a construction site for a church. The church was built where Franklin School now stands in Belleville -- apparently a windy and cold spot.

There were services every Sunday as well as school during the week; "even though during the first winter the children as well as the congregation sang 'Lord God We Praise Thee' with chattering teeth, for the little church was only a hut without foundation, inside paneling, even without a floor or heating system; but the young congregation was pleased to have accomplished even that in spite of its great poverty."

The next year, Flickinger had to leave because the yearly salary of $150 as well as a school tuition of 50 cents a month for each child and the 13 christenings, seven weddings, and five funerals of the first year were not enough to support him. He went into farming.

A new pastor came for the salary of $150 and $100 school money and stayed for seven years. The church building was finished and the school had 40 to 50 kids regularly, including English and Catholic children. The church even occasionally hosted Catholic services by missionaries from Cahokia.

"The number of Germans was so small that they gladly united for the preservation of their interests and tolerated each other in their divergent religious convictions," the historian wrote. But not for long.

An 1851 church report talked of a blooming congregation and school. "God's richest blessing cannot and will not be withheld from these our exertions," the report said.

Then came the immigrants from the failed 1848 German revolution.

"These 1848 immigrants who in great numbers joined the existing St. Paul's Church, brought another spirit into the congregation than the one that blew until then. Their education as well as their critical talents undermined God's word and desired that pure reason in belief and life be preached. And because Pastor Johann Wettle, probably forced by conditions, gave a sharp sermon against it one Sunday, 'Everyone be damned, who set their reason above their faith,'" a revolution broke out in St. Paul's Church and they threw out Wettle, according to the 1909 report.

The 1851 ruckus ended with the splitting of the church and the school. Teachers were hired for the school. The new pastor said he could not live on a salary of $200 and resigned when the church refused a raise.

"Over this again to such a disagreement and bitter quarrel rose among the members, that many council members were overthrown, one party tried to remove the other from power, members left in masses, and another group was thrown out, complaints about peace disturbance and libel were even brought before the civil court and spread by the newspapers and fliers to the general public," the 1909 report said.

In 1852, the Rev. August Lepigne from Highland was called. He tried to revive the school, but by then free public schools had opened and took most of the pupils. Spirits were low.

The pastor's salary sank from $200 to $150 to $100. Lepigne left and founded a new German congregation, which would become Belleville Zion Lutheran Church in the Missouri Synod.

Amazingly, things worsened.

The collectors gave up their posts one after the other, because no one wanted to give more contributions and they didn't want to allow themselves to be laughed at and ridiculed. Finally, it was proposed that the pastor collect his own salary.

"As he rejected this as incompatible with his post, church services were completely discontinued and on July 23, 1857, the church was rented for $60 annually to the school board as a school building," the 70th jubilee report said.

Things were at a standstill, but the church council never gave up trying to reinstate the congregation. Meanwhile the old church building was returned by the school because it was too dilapidated and was sold for $200 and demolished.

"In 1859 a few faithful members possessed enough trust in God to begin a new church building to the amount of $4,000," the 1909 report said.

Things seemed on the rise again.

But the jubilee report noted that "in 1862 dark clouds gathered again on the horizon of the church soon after this time of revival. The pastor left the congregation under distressing circumstances and the prevailing calamity at the same time in the whole country made it impossible for the congregation to defray the cost so that the church which was burdened with debts of $2,686 was threatened several times."

After several more pastors, the Rev. Ferdinand Fleischer took over and lasted 13 years, "Longer than any pastor before," the report noted.

By the beginning of the 1900s things were improving. The congregation swelled to 200 members in a period of growth and expansion that would continue many years under the Rev. Otto Pessel, who came in 1905 and stayed for 30 years.

A host of new challenges would occur -- the change to English from German, the difficulty in getting communion wine during Prohibition, the Great Depression, wars. The Busch Opera House adjacent to the old church burned in 1901 and threatened the UCC building, blowing out all the church windows. The windows were replaced with beautiful stained glass. The windows retain some of the old German influence of the church. The dedications inscribed on them are in the German language.

The church has adapted and grown, said the current pastor, the Rev. Drew Kramer. There have been new buildings and plenty of activity to fill them for all ages, from quilting circles to scouting. Membership now is approximately 1,000.

The church built a new sanctuary in 1959 and it's recent multi-purpose room addition hosts many events, perhaps most well known being the annual Memorial Hospital Auxiliary book sale.

Their partnership with Belleville District 118 has helped the Franklin Neighborhood greatly. Recently the church donated three old houses and renovations for a food pantry and a training site for Belleville District 201.

"It's a very busy congregation and becoming increasingly focused," Kramer said. "We have a wonderful past and we are constantly redefining our future. It's exciting to be a part of this kind of a group."