Archive for Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Church celebrates 100 years of worship

June 4, 2008

In 1908, members of St. Martin Lutheran Church couldn't have predicted the difficulties they would face in the first 100 years of their budding congregation.

Death, tornadoes, wartime tensions, financial hardships and a schism besieged the church and nearly caused its demise a few times. But the Rev. Robert Weinkauf said the congregation, which celebrated its centennial Sunday, has bounced back and remains strong today.

"We're looking forward to the next 100 years," he said.

A dinner and an afternoon service lead by guest pastors, the Rev. George Mundinger and the Rev. Arlin Holtz, who have been involved with the church for many years, commemorated the special occasion Sunday. However, the church's rough yet inspiring history may not have been known to its current members if congregation president Steve Mariano hadn't discovered the treasures locked in the church's basement safe.

Inside, he found the original minutes from the congregation's early meetings.

"We found some things that didn't make sense in the history we had," Mariano said. "This cleared things up. We're discovering things we've lost."

The text on the old tattered, yellowed pages of the crumbling book is not only entirely in German, but also ornate script. While Mariano could understand some of it, the book was sent to a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to be translated.

One of the first tragedies that struck the small congregation founded by German immigrants was the death of its first pastor and his wife shortly after its formation.

"One third of the congregation left and we don't know why," Mariano said. "We went from the high 90s to the 60s literally overnight because the pastor died. That's what caused financial hardships at first."

The church's practice of worshipping in both English and German was met with threats from the public and damage to the building during World War I, which prompted the congregation to stop worshipping in German to keep the peace until the war was over.

The church was damaged again in 1961 by a tornado and rebuilt on the same site along what is now Kansas Highway 7.

Perhaps the most significant change was the church's split in the 1970s. Weinkauf said the split was basically caused by a dispute over the interpretation of the Bible and God's word. While some members remained more orthodox in their views, a more liberal view of Scripture also began to surface. It was an issue almost all denominations were faced with during an almost 80-year period, Weinkauf said.

"Around the turn of the century, there were massive shifts in Scripture," he said.

The more orthodox side of the congregation was forced out and they worshiped in members' homes for a few years until funds could be obtained to build another church in 1981. The church remained without a full-time minister for 14 years and Weinkauf is the first pastor who hasn't been called out of retirement to serve the church since 1969, Mariano said. Since Weinkauf's installment, the church has enjoyed a growth in membership, which now matches its number in 1908 - just shy of 100 members.

Randy Wiehe, who has been a member of the church since the split said an increase in membership is one of the most significant changes in the church.

"It's starting to grow now," he said. "When it was first put up, it was really small and we struggled for a long time."

St. Martin will soon have another event to add to its interesting history because it is planning to combine with Emmaus Lutheran Church in Bonner Springs. St. Martin will open its doors to the members of this other small rural church because Emmaus does not have a building and a building committee is already looking at ways to expand the church.

"We should double our size," Mariano said. "We'll change the name, but the history will still be the same."

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