- Associated Press - Saturday, December 15, 2018

MANSFIELD, Ohio (AP) - The St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church will have its last service Sunday at what once was the church home for hundreds of German-speaking refugees.

Bishop Abraham Allende, who oversees 180 congregations in the Northeastern Ohio synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, will be addressing the congregation at the 1 p.m. service on Sunday, Dec. 16.

“Individual congregations, like human beings, are not immortal,” Allende said. “They eventually grow old and die. St. Peter’s was unique in that it was the only church that worshipped exclusively in German. It served a vitally important need for those immigrants who wanted to hear the Gospel in their native language. However, as with any immigrant population, the second and third generations assimilate into the American culture and no longer feel that need or that connection to their ancestral homeland.

“In the end, for those who remained at St. Peter’s, closing was the most faithful decision they could have made. They were commissioned by the Spirit of God to carry out an extraordinary mission of witness and service in Mansfield, ‘for the time being,’ but not forever.”

Allende said currently the Northeastern Ohio synod has two Lutheran congregations that worship in Spanish in the Akron-Canton area. Others celebrate occasional services in German and Finnish. The day will come when they, too, will find that the language of their ancestors no longer holds sway, he said.



“Sunday will be a bittersweet day for the people of St. Peter’s, but despite the sadness, they will also hear the promise that God loves us and as they leave that familiar setting they will hopefully continue to seek to be an instrument of God’s love no matter where our journey of faith may take us,” Allende said.

Parishioner Erna Clark was born in Vienna, and her parents also immigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia.

“It’s the only church I’ve ever known. I grew up here,” she said. “I will miss the church, but we are so blessed and happy it is going to house another congregation.”

The church building is being purchased by Sovereign Christ Church of Fredericktown, she said. Clark said there are about 10 parishioners left and 10 people unfortunately can’t keep a church running.

Friday, Elaine Siewert, whose husband Renato Siewert served as pastor for roughly 30 years until his death in 2016, said, “We’re the youngest parishioners.”

The St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1952 by Pastor Karl Lahm, who with his wife and family immigrated here from the former Yugoslavia.

Lahm, followed by Pastor Siewert, were the two long-term pastors who preached the Sunday sermons in German.

Gunther Lahm, son of Karl Lahm, who founded St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was 3 years old when his parents came to America. The 1966 Malabar High School graduate recalled how Christmastime at the church was special as his father had all the children recite poems, sing songs and tell the Christmas story in German.

“It was all in German,” he said proudly.

Jobs were plentiful in Mansfield when his father and other refugees came to town, he said. Many worked at factories including Westinghouse, Tappan, Ohio Brass and other prominent manufacturers.

“It is important to note that after my dad retired, the church had a tough time finding a German-speaking pastor. My dad continued to preach in German on special occasions and other Lutheran pastors would fill in with services in English,” Gunther Lahm said.

Both Clark and Elaine Siewert were dusting the pews Friday, reminiscing about all the friendships, former pastors and the history of the church.

“Pastor Lahm confirmed me,” Clark said.

Clark said there has always been an organist even though the congregation is small.

“This whole congregation sings,” Siewert said.

Siewert, who speaks German, Portuguese and English, looked up one of her favorite hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in one of two German hymnals.

Hymns were initially sung in German because a lot of parishioners didn’t speak English “and because it was their mother language and they felt more comfortable,” said Siewert.

Clark said the sermons are no longer in German anymore but said parishioners sing hymns in English or German.

“I like to sing the hymns in German. We always sang in German growing up,” Clark said. “We had Saturday school at the church where we learned to read and write in German.”

Siewert said her husband served as pastor at the 371 Central Ave. church from 1986 to 2016. “When he first came to this church he was a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbus and at the same time he was doing his clinical pastoral education at Riverside Hospital,” she said.

“A professor asked him to come and he did and he liked it. Our children were very small and it was just like family because we didn’t have family then,” she said. “But then we had to return to Brazil and we returned for three years. He was a pastor there. When we received a call from this congregation to come back, we did.” She and her husband both grew up in Brazil.

“When the call came in June of 1982, asking if we wanted to come back (to St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church), my husband didn’t even have to ask me, I said yes.”

Siewert said Sunday’s service will be festive. The bishop and Adjunct Pastor Ron Daily, who comes twice a month, are both coming, she added.

But reality was sinking in as they looked around the sanctuary.

The concept of family is going to be gone after Sunday as parishioners will disperse to various churches in town, Siewert said.

“When my children were small, they called a lot of the members here aunts and uncles and grandma and grandpa. This church family, it’s been like family getting together,” she said.

___

Information from: News Journal, http://www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com

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