The History of Our Church

by Ted Kunz (For the 100 year church anniversary in 1982)

During the late 1800's, several attempts were made to form a Lutheran church in the Wauwatosa area. These efforts did not meet with any real success until William Rader, a student at the Lutheran Seminary in Milwaukee, began doing mission work at the County Institutions and visiting Lutheran families in the area near Christmas time of 1881. Student Rader's first service was held in the "Good Templars" hall above the old city hall on January 22, 1882. After the second service on January 29th, 24 men were willing to form a congregation, and the "Evangelical Lutheran St. John's Congregation" was formed. The name of the organization was incorporated in English, not German, on January 30, 1882, and recorded at the Milwaukee County Courthouse the next day. Thus, St. John's, Wauwatosa was born.

Though incorporated in English, the German language was to be the language of worship at St. John's. It was the first non-English speaking church in the city. German would continue to be spoken at St. John's until November 7, 1965.

On March 19, 1882, a constitution was established and the first officers of the congregation were elected. On Sunday, April 23rd, student Rader was ordained at St. Peter's Church in Greenfield, and on the following Sunday, he was called to be the first pastor of St. John's. On June 4th, the congregation decided to join the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

During this first year of existence plans were also made to build a church. A portion of the present church grounds was purchased from one of the members, Mr. C. Fingado, for $500. The cornerstone was laid on July16th and the dedication followed on November 19, 1882. The total contracted cost for the church and the annex (old school) was $3,500. Thus, less than one year after its founding, the congregation had built and was operating a church and a school.

The congregation's construction efforts did not end with the building of the church. In 1883 horse sheds were built, and in 1884 a parsonage was built for Pastor Rader. This building is now used as the principal's residence.

The Lord blessed the work of Pastor Rader during the congregation's first few years and by 1885, three years after its founding, the number of voting members had grown from 24 to 133. During these early years Pastor Rader also acted as grade school teacher, but by 1886 students numbered in the sixties and St. John's first teacher, Mr. Julius Ross, was called. In that same year the congregation's first assistant pastor, Reverend William Streisguth, was called. The number of students soon outgrew the church annex facilities and the congregation was literally forced to build a school building, which they did in 1888. This building served as our grade school for 70 years until our current grade school was built in 1958.

In the fall of 1887 the Frauenverein, or Ladies' Aid Society, is believed to have been organized. The exact date is not certain because the organization's early records were lost in a fire. Through the efforts of this group, a tower and bell were added to the church in 1890 and an organ was purchased in 1892.

By 1889 the voting membership had grown to 188, which probably made it the largest church in the town of Wauwatosa. One year later, however, 39 members, including several St. John's founders, received a release to start a new Lutheran church in Wauwatosa. In spite of this, by 1892 the number of voting members was 180 and this number had grown to 220 by 1899.  In 1903 Assistant Pastor Streisguth resigned because of failing health. In 1904 a number of members left St. John's to join the Evangelical church and the voting membership was greatly reduced to 150. This led to Pastor Rader's resignation in May of 1904, after having served faithfully at St. John’s for 22 years. His work with the patients of the County Institutions was the origin of the Institutional Ministries program.

In October of 1904 Pastor R. Thiele was installed. He served at St. John's only four years, until his resignation in August of 1908. During this time an addition to the parsonage was built, a heating plan was installed, and both the Ladies' Aid Society and the choir financed improvements and repairs to the church and school.

In 1908 Pastor Hermann Gieschen was called and served St. John's for19 years. Under his shepherding, St. John's enjoyed a steady growth. Thoughts of an even larger church were in everyone's mind as changes were made to the interior of the church in order to accommodate more people. ln1925 the congregation purchased a house and lot east of the then parsonage. This is where our current parsonage was built. About this same time, the congregation was canvassed to obtain signatures and pledges for a new church building. However, there was uncertainty over whether or not the congregation might have to move, because a county parkway had been planned to pass over the church grounds.

The congregation was surprised in 1927 when Pastor Gieschen resigned due to poor health. In October of 1927 Pastor Carl Otto was installed. In early 1928 a resolution was passed to build a new church, and the house on the corner of Harwood and Dewey Avenues was purchased. On August 26,1928, the cornerstone of our present church building was laid, and on June 23,1929, the building was dedicated. The substitute organist, who had been filling in for several months during the regular organist's illness, was Pastor Otto's son, Ted Otto.

In July of 1932, a committee was formed to begin planning for the congregation's Golden jubilee. On September 25th three services, one in German, were held, as well as a dinner at noon and a supper in the evening.

So passed the first 50 years of St. John's congregation.

The year 1932 found the U.S.A. at or near the lowest point of the Great Depression, probably the worst economic paralysis the nation has ever experienced. Oldtimers will remember when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt closed all the banks in the nation for a few days in 1933, in order to prevent a ruinous run on those financial institutions and then instituted deposit insurance (F.D.I.C.) in order to regenerate public confidence in the banking system. Those and a number of succeeding years are remembered for the general economic struggle for survival suffered by many. Our own pastors, teachers and janitress offered to relinquish 15% of their salaries. Progress? Expansion? Savings? A new suit? All were hopeless dreams in those days. Nevertheless, the Lord blessed St. John's congregation, and in 1939, the tenth anniversary of the church building was commemorated in a service of thanksgiving and praise.

1947 began a new chapter in the life of St. John's when, after much prayerful consideration, the congregation called the Reverend Karl J. Otto, Pastor C.A. Otto's son, to be the assistant pastor. The Lord led him to accept the call on July 14,1947.

The 1950's were to be a decade of challenge and blessing.  In 1950 the Lord opened a new door of opportunity when the Charles Fingado estate offered the land at the southeast corner of Harwood and Dewey Avenues to St. John's for the price of $20,000.  Accepting the challenge this offer brought, the congregation on July 18,1950, authorized the purchase of this land upon which their new school would sit. This step and other needs prompted the creation in 1952 of a special committee to prepare recommendations for providing appropriate facilities. One of the first actions taken that year was the purchase of a home at 2005 Forest Street to provide a parsonage for Assistant Pastor Karl J. Otto, to replace the living quarters that had been rented for him by the church.

The next major step in Christian Education was not, however, to be on our own land. St. John's congregation became a member of the newly formed Wisconsin Lutheran High School conference in 1952. Through this association the Lord was to place St. John's in a major and leading role in secondary Christian Education in Milwaukee County.

Due to failing health, Pastor C.A. Otto resigned on July 11,1954.  Pastor Karl J. Otto was called as the new pastor. Thus ended an era in the history of St. John's that had been summarized in the October 5,1950, issue of the Wauwatosa News-Times: "St. John's Ev. Evangelical Lutheran Church enjoys two distinctions. lt is the only Wauwatosa church with German services every Sunday, and it is the only local congregation served by a father and a son."

The years 1954 to 1957 were to be years when the Lord would challenge St. John's to do what they thought impossible. The pressure to build a new school or cease operating a school were placed on the congregation, due to the increasing fire hazard of the old school building. Money was a commodity in all too short a supply.  Tension ran high. On June 25,1957, the congregation set out on what they called their "Venture of Faith" by the site purchased from the Charles Fingado estate in 1950. Total cost, including architect's fees, was estimated at $230,000. Pastor Otto recalled that there were so few dollars available at the time they could not even afford to print brochures to explain the effort. Construction, with St. John's supplying its own general contractor, moved to completion in 1958 and dedication ceremonies were held on September 14th. Thus, the Lord provided a much needed and long overdue facility. It replaced an old, T-shaped, all wood building, which was demolished in 1959.That day many thanked God for keeping fire from raging through that old building of dry wood and many coats of paint until a new building was ready for the children.

What had been thought to be an impossible financial endeavor had become a living reminder to all St. John's members that when God's people march forward to carry out His will in faith, trusting His promises, they need never worry whether "they" will be able. With this thought, the mortgage on the new building was burned in a special service on September 26, 1976. Thus, the Christian Day School has been and continues to be a vital tool in the hands of God to assist our parents in their special God given responsibilities "to train up a child in the way he should go." (Proverbs 22:6)

Organizations blossomed in the 1950’s. At a meeting on January 16, 1955, the congregation authorized the formation of the Altar Guild. This organization is charged with the care and placing of the communion ware and other altar articles and with the decorating of the church for festive occasions. Also in the early 1950’s, the Christian Education Society (CES) was organized to help encourage the spiritual and physical growth of St. John's Lutheran School.

St. John's also became represented in the Lutheran Women's Missionary Society. This mission oriented group met regularly to increase their knowledge of our world-wide efforts and to work in support of these efforts.  Although this group is no longer actively functioning at St. John's, some women of the congregation still participate at the national level.

"Women in God's Service" is a new women's group organized at St. John's in 1980. Its purpose is to offer service opportunities and fellowship for the women of St. John's.

1958 saw the beginning of what has become one of the oldest and largest Pioneer organizations in the Synod. Serving the purpose of Christian fellowship and spiritual growth for our youth, Lutheran Pioneer Train 49 and Lutheran Girl Pioneer Caravan 33 have thrived under God's gifts of faithful and dedicated lay leaders.  Among the lively activities they have begun is their annual and well attended family Christmas workshops, began in 1958. One year later, Camp Upham Woods, a one week summer camp, was begun near the Wisconsin Dells. In 1981, after 22 years, Camp Upham was moved to Camp Anokijig on Little Elkart Lake.  Camping, both week-long and weekend, and the skills it requires have been vital parts of the Pioneer experience.

Throughout this period, the Ladies' Aid continued its uninterrupted and active support of St. John's congregational efforts. This group remains St John's oldest has richly benefited from their years of service, both social and functional.

Another major step in the area of physical facilities was taken in 1961, when the new parsonage on Dewey Avenue was built for $25,760. Dedication ceremonies were held on August 6, 1961. This replaced the Forest Street parsonage, which was sold that same year.

The next major step was the addition of a new 23 register, 28 rank pipe organ built by the Casavant Organ Company under the direction of Dr. Paul Bunges.  This 1,476 pipe instrument has added an extraordinary dimension to St. John's worship. lt cost $65,000 and was dedicated on April 20,1969.

The congregation fondly remembers Dr. TheophiI M. Otto, brother of Pastor Karl Otto, as the master musician of this instrument. He was honored on May 14, 1961, for his 25 years as organist and choir director, and again on April 13,1977.  0n September 28, 1980, a Dr. T. M. Otto Music Appreciation Sunday was held when he retired after 45 years as organist at St. John's. Following Dr. Otto, the congregation has enjoyed the talents of James Albrecht, Lynn Kozlowski and Carol Griffin as choir directors and organists.

Following that 20 year period of major additions to physical properties, the congregation turned its attention to long neglected lesser needs. The church interior was redecorated and improvements were made in the fellowship hall. More recently, kneelers were installed in our worship nave, the stone exterior was sandblasted and tuck pointed, and the last gravel parking area was paved. Additions and improvements were also made to the school facilities, chief of which was the addition of a central library.

Parking forth a growing congregation was eased when the Milwaukee Sanitarium in 1964 very graciously extended the use of their lower parking lots to St. John's congregation for overflow parking during worship services.

St. John's revealed God's gift of love for others when they willingly shared Pastor Karl Otto. On July 18,1971, he was commissioned to serve for one year as civilian chaplain for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Southeast Asia. Serving our men in Vietnam was his main responsibility. During this year the congregation was blessed with the capable service of one of its own members, Pastor E. F. Lehninger, who served as interim pastor while he continued as executive director of Wisconsin Lutheran Child and Family Service. A 46 year era of father and son pastorates came to a close with Pastor Otto's resignation in January of 1973.

On August 22, 1973, St. John's received word that Pastor Ronald K. Heins accepted their call to succeed the Reverend Karl J. Otto. This marked the beginning of another distinct period in St. John's history as the Lord, through Pastor Heins, sparked new programs directed especially toward young people. The JAYS (Jesus Among Youth), a high school age youth group, was organized in the fall of 1974. This and other efforts gained additional impetus when on July 10, 1979, Pastor Gene E. Jahnke accepted the call to become St. John's Youth Pastor.

Other needs were to receive attention too. The need for more of the members to be an active part of St. John's ministry brought out ideas for restructuring the congregation. 1n 1974, a new constitution was adopted. The resulting reorganization has involved many more people in the day to day functions of the church. A need to share has caused lay evangelists to be trained to reach out into our community with the Gospel. A need to grow has led to a varied adult Christian Education effort, which has led many to a deeper appreciation and understanding of God's truths. As we celebrate our Centennial, we have to say that the Lord has continued to pour out His blessings upon our congregation.

Because of the addition of a second pastor, another parsonage was purchased in 1978 at 2439 North 73rd Street for the price of $74,000.

Not to be forgotten are the part-time Christian Education tools. On April 16, 1967, St. John's Vacation Bible School had its birth by vote of the congregation and has served as an effective mission tool each year.  A vital role in this, but especially in our Sunday School, was played by Mr. Herman Zitzke and his wife, Veila. The Lord blessed St. John's with 42 years of their faithful guidance in this agency for the Gospel. St. John's acknowledged with praise this gift in a special service on May 20, 1979, when Mr. and Mrs. Zitzke retired from this labor of love due to declining health.

St. John's second fifty years encompasses an amazing period in the history of the nation, from the depths of the worst economic depression the country has ever experienced to the heights of probably the greatest economic boom it has seen.  In the early thirties, a typical five room bungalow in Wauwatosa was priced at $5,000 and mortgage money was readily available at 4% However, few could buy. Unemployment was at a record high and those who did work were paid 50¢ an hour. Then came World War II. The 50's brought peace and prosperity and the 70's inflation. Through all of this change and upheaval, our gracious Lord has kept this congregation unshaken on the Rock of Scriptures, Jesus Christ. He has kept us faithful to His Word andunbending to the world. God's Word and His Son are still proclaimed in all their truth and purity from our pulpit and in our classrooms. For this we are deeply grateful.