THE HISTORY AND PROGRESS OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCHES IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE, 1897--1988
By W. T. Block
One of the mysteries of the religious history of the Golden Triangle (Jefferson, Orange, and Hardin Counties) of Texas is the late arrival of Lutheranism. When the "German Lutheran Church" organized in Port Arthur in 1899, it had no more than about six charter members. In the 1900 census, only 26 Port Arthurans had been born in Germany, and half of those were probably Catholic (although there were several of Scandinavian birth, mostly sailors, who are presumed to have been Lutheran).
In 1880, five or six Bavarian and Austrian families (from Catholic provinces in Europe) organized the first Catholic congregation in Orange. Between 1860-1880, there were ten or eleven Prussian-born families (including the writer's grandfather) living in Port Neches, six more at Sabine Pass, and probably a like number of Prussians at Beaumont. Since as a result of the Peace of Augsburg, which saw Brandenberg-Prussia become a Lutheran state, it is a reasonable assumption that these Prussian immigrants were Lutheran as well. Yet, it appears that at no time did any of these families attempt to organize a Lutheran church, and in fact, when the Methodists organized at Port Neches in 1881 with sixteen charter members, one Prussian family became charter members of that church. The writer assumes there must have been specific reasons for their not organizing earlier, namely: the small number of Lutherans in the area perhaps; or all the Prussians were farmers, often living at some distance from town; or the slow transportation and lack of roads, for most people traveled by water whenever possible; and the sheer harshness of frontier life for farmers, which made dawn to dusk labor an absolute daily necessity.
Lutheranism is the world's largest Protestant denomination, totaling about 90 million persons. Lutheran liturgy first reached the American colonies when Dutch Lutherans arrived on Manhattan Island in 1624, and later Swedish Lutherans came to Fort Christina (Delaware) in 1638. About 1720 large numbers of persecuted German Lutherans began arriving in Pennsylvania from the Rhenish and Bavarian Palatinates, which were Catholic imperial provinces of the Holy Roman Emperor. The only southern migration of Lutherans in colonial times was the Austrian Salzberger colony on the Savannah River in Georgia in 1734. By the middle 1800's, a floodtide of German and Scandinavian Lutherans were arriving in the North Central and Mid-Western States, scattered from the Dakota territories to Ohio.
As late as the 1920's, Lutheranism in America was still a potpouri of languages, liturgies, and interpretations, embodied in a conglomerate of large and small synods, often divided by conservative and reformed dogmas, and organized along national (such as the Finnish Lutheran Church), or state (such as the Texas or Wisconsin Synod), or European provincial boundaries (such as the Slovakian Church). The conservative branch is still the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, organized in 1847. About 1930, the American Lutheran Church began merging with some of the small state and national synods, and in 1960, merged with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Free Church to become the American Lutheran Church. In 1962, four other Lutheran bodies merged to become Lutheran Church in America. In 1985, both of these bodies (but not including Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) merged to become the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Lutheran membership in the United States is at present about 9,000,000 persons.
In 1880, the only three Golden Triangle cities consisted of Beaumont and Orange, each with a population of 2,000 persons and economies tied to sawmilling, and Sabine Pass, the area's principal seaport, with a population of 500. By 1897, except for Sabine Pass, the panorama had not changed appreciably. Beaumont and Orange were larger, about 7,000 people each, with economies still tied to lumber and cypress shingles. However, Sabine Pass had been destroyed twice, at first by yellow fever and burning of the town during the Civil War, and later by the hurricane of October 12, 1886, which totally destroyed every building except two and drowned 86 people. Sabine Pass seemed destined from the outset to be replaced as a seaport by some inland town, and this occurred with the founding of Port Arthur in 1895, which by 1900 had grown to 900 people. Its proprietors, the Kansas City Southern Railroad and the Port Arthur Land Company, soon brought the sea to the rails by digging the 9-mile-long Port Arthur Ship Channel.
THE LUTHERAN CHURCH - MISSOURI SYNOD
Lutheran services first reached the Golden Triangle through the auspices of the Home Mission Board of the Southern District of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. On March 7, 1897, Pastor C. G. Kuppler of Lake Charles, La., preached to fifteen people in the courthouse in Beaumont. For more than a year, he conducted services in Beaumont once monthly, meeting in such places as the W. C. T. U. building and in the Presbyterian Church. In 1899, Rev. Kuppler obtained the assistance of a seminary student, Daniel Poellot of St. Louis Concordia College. By July 1, 1899, Pastor Kuppler could report to the Southern District of LC-Missouri Synod that there were sixty Lutheran souls and twenty communicant members of the congregation in Beaumont that was soon to become St. John's Lutheran Church.
On January 8, 1899 (at a time when there were only about 500 people living there), Rev. Kuppler conducted the first Lutheran services in Port Arthur in front of an audience of 12 persons. Student Dan Poellot held the second Lutheran service there on March 19, 1899. It is interesting that both Kuppler and Poellot had to catch the westbound passenger train out of Lake Charles at 3 o'clock A. M. on Sunday mornings, such early arousal from sleep being referred to by the nodding pastor as his "having to crucify the old Adam." On August 13, 1899, Pastor H. C. Gaertner was installed as pastor at Port Arthur (as well as that night at St. John's in Beaumont) of a small congregation of 18 persons, who styled themselves as the "Evangelical Trinity Congregation," but otherwise known locally as the "German Lutheran Church." This was the beginning of present-day Trinity Lutheran Church.
Trinity members used the "old Masonic hall" for their earliest services. For a brief time in 1899, the church went defunct, but was quickly reactivated. In August, 1900, the first sanctuary, 22 feet by 36 feet in size, was begun and was dedicated a year later. Also in 1901, Trinity Lutheran School was begun and was to continue for 85 years before closing permanently in 1987. In September, 1902, the church and school caught fire, a total loss, while the pastor was burning yellow jacket nests which had been plaguing the students. In 1905, a newspoaper reported:
"The German Lutheran Church in Stilwell Heights was built in 1903, to replace one that burned in 1902....Services are held every Sunday, usually in the German language. The school is in session nine months of the year and both German and English are taught...."
In April, 1924, the present church plant at 2400 Fifth St., which cost $50,000, was dedicated and 65 years later, Trinity Lutheran Church still occupies the same quarters. Its baptized membership is 532, and it ninth and current pastor is Rev. Timothy Dinger.
As Port Arthur's "mother church" of the Missouri Synod, Trinity congregation has started four mission churches in South Jefferson County and has often shared its membership with them, as follows: Good Shepherd, Port Arthur; St. Mark's, Port Arthur, and the Golden Triangle's only black Lutheran congregation; St. Paul's in Groves; and Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Nederland. Trinity congregation's annual budget is around $225,000.
Rev. H. C. Gaertner was also co-pastor of present-day St.John's Lutheran Church in Beaumont until 1903, when he was replaced by Pastor E. Fischer, who was Beaumont's first resident Lutheran minister. The first church sanctuary was purchased in 1906, the same year that the Texas District of Missouri Synod was organized and split away from the Southern District.
The current sanctuary of St. John's, which cost $13,000, was built at 1178 Avenue A in 1942. Since 1939, only two pastors have served the congregation, Rev. W. E. Meyer, 1939-1973; and Pastor D. D. Rathgeber from 1973 to the present (1988). St. John's has a baptized membership of 388 persons and an annual budget of about $85,000. St. John's has also 'mothered' two or three mission congregations, the most noteworthy being Redeemer Lutheran Church in Beaumont.
St. Mark's Lutheran Church of Port Arthur, at the Golden Triangle's only black Lutheran congregation, is also an LC-MS affiliate and is located alt 201 Fourteenth St. St. Mark's began as a mission of Trinity, having started in the same building that Trinity and St. Paul's of Groves had worshiped in at their beginnings. Rev. John Fey was the organizing pastor, and while St. Mark's was still in mission status, several seminarians from North Carolina also served there. The mission reached parish status in 1958, and called Pastor J. L. Eddleman, who served the congregation until 1977. The present pastor is Rev. Jimmy McCants. St. Mark's Church has 75 baptized members, and its annual budget is about $18,000.
St. Paul's Lutheran Church apparently began in the east end of Port Arthur, but since 1969, has become known as St. Paul's Church of Groves, also an LC-MS affiliate. It is unclear to the writer whether this was brought about by territorial annexations or changes between the two cities or whether St. Paul's simply built a new sanctuary in Groves. One of its early pastors after St. Paul's reached parish status, Rev. Arthur Rathgen, served the church from 1937 until his death in 1951. Rev. Jay Simonsen is the current pastor of the congregation located at 5801 West Jefferson Blvd. St. Paul's has 468 baptized members and operates on an annual budget of about $325,000.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Nederland, also an LC-MS affiliate, was organized in 1957 to serve the cities of Nederland and Port Neches, and its founding pastor was Rev. John Schmid, who remained until 1970. The first sanctuary was a rented, former restaurant at 308 Twin City, with about 25 people in attendance. The writer recalls his having to scrape dirt off the floors and sidewalls before beginning the repainting of the interior. Holy Cross purchased acreage in the 2700 block of Helena and built its first sanctuary, which is now an educational building, in 1959. In 1968 a member donated $150,000 to pay for the present sanctuary. The church became a self-sustaining parish in 1962. In 1970 Pastor Norbert Roschke succeeded Rev. Schmid and remained until his retirement in 1982 (Rev. Roschke still resides in Nederland). The current pastor of Holy Cross is Rev. Stanley Jones, who serves a baptized membership of 545. The church budget is around $180,000 annually.
Success in the city of Orange, Texas, came rather late for the Missouri Synod. Organizational services took place there between 1897-1899 as well by Pastor Kuppler of Lake Chrles, but one volume notes that "lodge problems had led to the abandonment of this attempt." Whether or not the author had reference to the Masonic Lodge is not clear to the writer, but Missouri Synod members are not permitted to join that lodge. In 1959 the present congregation of Grace Lutheran Church on North Sixteenth St. was organized, and the chapel was dedicated in 1961. The church was begun by a seminarian, Cand. Eugene Heckman, who remained as pastor until 1965. The present pastor, Rev. B. B. Blakelock, is currently in his 23rd year at that location. Baptized membership at Grace Lutheran is 302, and the writer has no information about its budget. Over the years, the city of Orange's economic downturns, which have included the closing of a navy base and several shipyards, have taken a large toll of Grace Lutheran's membership as they moved elsewhere in search of employment.
Redeemer Lutheran Church of Beaumont, formerly a mission of St. John's, began in 1959 under Cand. G. E. Isenberg, who remained there as pastor until 1964. In 1960, property for a church was purchased at 4330 Crow Road, and the chapel was built in 1961. During the past three years, both Rev. W. H. B. Fehl, Jr. and Rev. Glenn Budewig have served jointly as pastors, but Pastor Fehl retired early in 1988. Redeemer's baptized membership numbers 680, and its operating budget is about $171,000.
THE AMERICAN LUTHERAN CHURCH IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Although this synod no longer exists, having merged two years ago into the present Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, more than sixty years of the history of the remaining Lutheran churches in the Golden Triangle was under the old synod of the American Lutheran Church. The year 1924 marked the first entry into the Golden Triangle of the old Texas District of that Synod. In that year, Rev. H. Schliesser of the old Texas District (and a former missionary of the Iowa Synod) and the Rev. F. C. H. Scholz began canvassing both Port Arthur and Beaumont relative to the feasibility of organizing Lutheran congregations. The first service of what was to become St. John's American Lutheran Church was held at the old Port Arthur College building on Proctor St., with 30 or 40 people in attendance, on June 22, 1924. Within a month, many of the church auxiliaries, such as the Sunday School and Ladies' Aid Society, were also organized.
Pastor Scholz remained until September, 1926, and was succeeded by Rev. G. W. Schardt. The original chapel became the parsonage at 2701 Sixth St., and the new sanctuary was dedicated in August, 1928. A Reuter pipe organ was added in 1932. In 1933, St. John's mission became self-sustaining, and in 1937, Pastor T. J. Roth was installed as the new minister. After the latter had served a ten-year pastorate, the church recalled its former pastor, Rev. Schardt.
The longest ministerial tenure at St. John's was served by Pastor A. D. Klages, who arrived in 1953 and resigned in March, 1973. In 1976, long foreseeing the need for a new church plant, the trustees purchased vacant acreage on the future 75th Street in the extreme north end of Port Arthur, and in December, 1978, the modern, new sanctuary at 4600 75th was dedicated. In October, 1979, Rev. Charles Treptow was installed as pastor and remains to the present (1988). The baptized membership at St. John's American Lutheran Church is 500 persons, and its annual budget is around $100,000. St. John's celebrated its sixtieth anniversary on June 24, 1984.
The beginnings of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Beaumont are similar to those of St. John's, with the canvassing and ministries of Pastors Schliesser and Scholz. In 1926, two seminarians, Students M. C. Heinrich and A. L. Pfennig, spent much time canvassing in Beaumont as well. On September 4, 1927, Rev. Pfennig and Pastor George Schardt of St. John's organized Bethlehem Lutheran Church, receiving the signatures of the fifteen members who signed the original charter roster.
During its mission years, Bethlehem members met at the Woodman hall before purchasing a residence at 2005 Hazel for use as the first sanctuary. Also during its mission years, Bethlehem congregation was served variously by Pastors Heinrich, Pfennig, H. A. Knebel and O. J. Schmidt. The second sanctuary was dedicated in August, 1938, but the occasion was dampened sorrowfully by the tragic death of the young pastor, Rev. Ottmar Schmidt, two months later.
Rev. C. A. Woytek, a new graduate of Wartburg Seminary, was installed as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church on June 18, 1939, and also at Trinity congregation in Orange on the following day. Pastor Woytek's tenure of 38 years at Bethlehem spans two-thirds of the history of the church, and following his retirement to emeritus status in 1977, he still remains an active voice of Lutheranism in Beaumont.
In 1950, the new education building was added at a cost of $15,000. In 1951, a Baldwin electronic organ was added. In 1956, the Fiegelson property on an adjoining lot was purchased, and for a few years, became the Luther Hall. In 1960, the latter was torn down to make room for the present sanctuary, which was dedicated on June 18, 1961.
In 1961, Bethlehem's new organ, built in Austin and containing 1,075 pipes, was dedicated. In 1974, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, which was founded in 1957 by a Norwegian synod, chose to disband, and its members united with Bethlehem. The year 1977 brought several changes. Pastor Woytek decided to retire, and the church called Rev. Daniel Schorlemer to replace him. In 37 years time, the retiring pastor had seen his parish grow from 91 souls to 600 baptized members. On September 4, 1977, the church celebrated its Golden Anniversary. In 1981, Pastor Schorlemer received a call to San Antonio and was replaced by Rev. Douglas McBride, who is also the current pastor. In 1987, Mrs. Mary Woodland, wife of a Lamar University professor, was honored on her 25th anniversary as Director of Music. Bethlehem Lutheran, which is located at 777 North Fourth St., has at present 515 baptized members and an annual budget of $132,000.
The writer regrets that he has only minimal information about the three remaining ELCA congregations in the Golden Triangle. Trinity Lutheran Church, at 1819 North 16th St. in Orange, is a very old parish, perhaps dating back all the way to the beginnings of St. John's and Bethlehem congregations. In 1939, Pastor C. A. Woytek was installed there at the same time as at Bethlehem in Beaumont, indicating that both churches were still in mission status as of that year. But like Bethlehem church, the boom days of 1942 and the World War II years at Orange changed that status very quickly. The writer has learned that during the late 1940's and early 1950's, Rev. Paul Probst was pastor there, as was the Rev. Fred Scheffle during the 1970's. Trinity Lutheran, like its LCMS counterpart, Grace Lutheran, has probably suffered from more recent economic tremors at Orange as well, the closing of the naval base and all of the shipyards, and probably survives today as somewhat of a shadow of its former self because of members who moved away. Rev. H. S. Chancellor is the current pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church's 168 baptized members, whose operating budget is around $60,000.
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church at Lumberton began as a mission of Bethlehem, and the church secretary at Bethlehem is uncertain as to its present mission or parish status. In 1982, Rev. Richard Mumme was Gloria Dei's pastor, but has since been replaced by Rev. Walter Schindehette, the current pastor of the 115 baptized members of that congregation, located on Highway 96. The church's annual budget is about $60,000.
The final ELCA congregation in the Golden Triangle is St. Mark's Lutheran Church, located at 945 W. Round Bunch Road in Bridge City. In 1957, Rev. Klages of St. John's began the first services there, and a year later, installed Rev. E. A. Bieldman there. In 1964, St. Mark's cooperated with St. John's to extend a call to Seminarian Joe Kraatz of Capital University. Rev. Irby Gonzales is the present pastor of the 166 baptized members of St. Mark's Church, which has an operating budget of around $50,000.
In summarization, the 4,540 baptized members of the Golden Triangle Lutheran Churches in 1988 may not compare favorably with the Catholic Church's 77,000 members or the figures of the Methodist and Baptist populations of Jefferson, Hardin, and Orange Counties. However, the thirteen Lutheran congregations, although certainly not growing by "leaps and bounds," at least appear to be holding their own in an area that has long been losing population. Their enumeration of membership suffers mostly because of an economy hard hit by the oil and energy slump, particularly in the offshore sector, in that field's perhaps most noteworthy petroleum refining and chemical corner in deep Southeast Texas. Now in its 91st year in that locality, Lutheranism along the shores of Lake Sabine is proud of the progress already made and expects to make many more advances between now and the approaching 21st century.
Port Arthur HERALD, September 14, 1902: Port Arthur THE EVENING NEWS, May 13, 1905; W. T. Block, "Port Arthur's Trinity Lutheran Church Nearly A Century Old," a chapter in Block, FRONTIER TALES OF THE TEXAS-LOUISIANA BORDERLANDS (Nederland: 1988), pp. 351-355; Typescript, "The History of St. John's Lutheran Church of Beaumont," Unpub. MSS, pp. 1-7; 1986 STATISTICAL YEARBOOK OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD (St.Louis: 1987), 1-287; R. J. Koenig, PAUSE TO PONDER: A HISTORY OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD IN TEXAS (n. p.: 1980), 1-276; published booklet, HISTORY OF BETHLEHEM LUTHERAN CHURCH OF BEAUMONT, 1927-1977, with typescript updating to 1988, pp. 1-37 and 1-13; A. B. Wentz, A BASIC HISTORY OF LUTHERANISM IN AMERICA (Phila.: 1955), 1-439; E. C. Nelson and K. S. Knutson, LUTHERANISM IN NORTH AMERICA, 1914-1970 (Minns.: 1972), 1-315; W. A. Flachmeier, ORIGIN AND WORK; LUTHERAN CHURCH SCHOOL ASSOCIATION (Austin: 1951), 1-86; pamphlet, 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF ST. JOHN'S AMERIAN LUTHERAN CHURCH OF PORT ARTHUR, 1924-1984; pamphlet, A GLIMPSE INTO THE PAST; ST. JOHN'S CHURCH, October 16, 1955; pamphlet, 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF ST. JOHN'S AMERICAN LUTHERAN CHURCH OF PORT ARTHUR, June 21, 1964; ELCA 1988 YEARBOOK (Publishing House of ELCA,; Minns.: 1988), pp. 206-210.
The writer is indebted to Pastors Dinger, Jones, Rathgeber, McBride, Woytek, and Treptow for information furnished and books and pamphlets loaned to me in order that this history could be completed.