Church and school have been backbones of East Dundee for 150 years
By Dave Gathman email@example.com July 29, 2012 9:10PM
Led by Pastor William Yonker, worshipers crowd near the altar at Immanuel Lutheran Church of East Dundee during a recent service. PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY IMMANUEL LUTHERAN CHURCH OF EAST DUNDEE
Updated: August 31, 2012 6:06AM
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series about Fox Valley churches that are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year.
EAST DUNDEE — They started during the Civil War as a way for German-speaking immigrants to worship and teach their children in the language of the Old Country. But now speaking only English, and the only church and parochial school that call East Dundee home, Immanuel Lutheran Church and School of East Dundee have been working hand in hand for 150 years in their shared mission to bring Christ to the world.
Located most of that time at the corner of Main and Van Buren streets, Immanuel has been celebrating the big birthday with 15 months of celebrations that began last fall and will continue into January of next year. Former pastors and other guest speakers, including “The Lutheran Hour” radio pastor Ken Klaus, have come to preach. The Rev. William Yonker, who has been senior pastor since 1994, is writing a history of the congregation that will go to press this fall.
Rev. Phillip Baerwolf, associate pastor since 2007, said the celebration has been divided into five periods, each looking back at a specific three decades of the church’s history. As each period begins, the sanctuary has been adorned with a new set of little red paper doves, bearing the names of every person baptized at Immanuel during that 30-year period.
The celebration has now reached 1952-82, and the current set of doves include an astounding 1,400 names, many of whom still attend services here.
The earliest settlers in the Dundees, in the 1830s, were New England Yankees or Scottish immigrants, and they settled largely in West Dundee. But by the 1850s East Dundee had begun filling up with people from Germany, and many of those were Lutherans who felt most comfortable speaking “Deutsch,” as the Germans call their own language. The east bank of the river had become known as “Dutch Flats.”
“The first Lutheran pastors came out from Schaumburg and began holding services,” said Baerwolf. “In 1862 the church was officially formed and began meeting regularly. Imagine the difficulty of starting a church in the midst of a civil war going on. That’s a tribute to God’s faithfulness and grace.”
After meeting in a public school on Van Buren Street, they erected their first wooden church in 1863 and seven years later became part of the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod.
Today, the 126-year-old church building and the 100-year-old school building stand on opposite sides of Van Buren Street. But they always have worked hand in hand, Baerwolf notes, and when that first church opened, it had a one-room school its basement.
“The school has been an important part of the congregation’s ministry for a century and a half — in fact, the most important part,” Baerwolf says.
At first, the key to that school’s appeal was language. When the current church building, made of Haeger “Dundee brick” was built in 1886, Immanuel was holding three services per weekend, and two were still in German, Baerwolf said. By 1928 most members were thoroughly Americanized and even studying German as a course in the school became optional. But members recognized that the school was still needed to teach Christian values to their children.
Baerwolf believes the school also is one reason that, unlike so many Protestant churches, Immanuel has remained steady or even growing in adult membership in recent decades. People from outside the congregation send their children to school at Immanuel, meet other people who go to the church, get caught up in the church’s mission and message, and end up attending services here.
Baerwolf said the school now enrolls 230 students, with one class for each grade between kindergarten and eighth, plus another 75 preschoolers. He estimates that 50 to 60 percent of Immanuel members send their children here, but the school also draws kids from outside the congregation.
The K-8 enrollment has dropped by about half since the 100th anniversary in 1962, when the school enrolled 396. But it’s about the same as when Immanuel celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1987.
Bill Gade, the full-time director of music and worship, said that while one service a week used to venture into speaking English, now one of the three weekend services (Sunday at 10:45 am.) ventures into a more contemporary style of worship, featuring a praise and worship ensemble. There also is a midweek service at 7 p.m . Wednesday called “Piano, Prayer and Preaching” that uses an informal nonliturgical worship style with a blend of favorite hymns and songs of praise.
But the other two weekend services, at 6 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday, worship in a more traditional fashion, with hymns and liturgy and organ music from the big Cassavante pipe organ in the back of the sanctuary.
Immanuel has become the birth cradle not only for individual’s Christian faith but for whole other Christian congregations. In a dispute that Yonker reportedly will explain candidly in his book, one band of members left in 1909 and started a new Missouri Synod church, Bethlehem Lutheran, on the other side of the river. Under more peaceful conditions, Immanuel also spun off Faith Lutheran Church in Carpentersville and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Algonquin, as Immanuel members living in those villages wanted a place to worship closer to home.
But some members do still drive in from far away, Baerwolf said. “The majority of our members live in Dundee or Carpentersville, but when I look at the address list, I’m always surprised. We have people from Elgin, South Elgin, Pingree Grove, Gilberts, Lake in the Hills.”
The church now has about 2,300 members, and draws 700 people to services each week, ranking it among the largest non-Catholic, non-Willow Creek-style churches in the Elgin area. Membership actually has increased by 200 since the 125th celebration in 1987.
Through the years, those members have included many of East Dundee’s political leaders, including village presidents Bill Bartels, Jerald Bartels and Dave Bartelt, and most of the Rakow family, which has supplied village trustees, fire chiefs, and park board members.
Even before he became a church employee, Gade says, Immanuel had been a big part of his personal life. “I grew up in the church and attended Immanuel Lutheran School. My grandpa, Rev. E.H.H. Gade, was pastor here from 1930 to 1958. There are a couple of stories about young Bill Gade that are still fresh in some of the teacher’s minds.”
Anniversary events still ahead include an ambitious event called “Serve More” on Oct. 6-7, when as many church members as possible, plus volunteers from outside the congregation, will do a variety of service projects.
“We had a similar event called Big Serve in 2010, and over 300 people participated,” Baerwolf said. Participants in that first one painted the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville and the Life Center in Elgin, worked on a Habitat for Humanity home, served breakfast to the homeless, made scarves and hats for cancer patients, visited nursing homes and picked up trash along the riverbank.
Looking at the bigger picture, the congregation also has a major physical change on its agenda, Baerwolf and Gade said. Once the final debt left over from the 2003 addition of a “Christian Life Center” to the church building is paid off, the century-old school building will have to be replaced or remodeled.
After all, it’s Immanuel’s most important ministry.