St. Paul Lutheran to celebrate sesquicentennial

Wanda English Burnett, Editor

“A celebration worthy of 150 years of the Lord’s presence in our midst,” is how a former pastor of the St. Paul Lutheran Church of Olean describes the upcoming sesquicentennial festivities planned for Sunday, September 2 at the church in Olean on SR 129.

Every “t” has been crossed and every “i” dotted, as the congregation is coming together to commemorate in a spectacular fashion the number of years their church has thrived, six miles south of Versailles. Last week, any night of the week, you could find people working, doing landscaping, painting playground equipment, practicing the organ, finalizing preparations for the main event, a special service on Sunday morning. “So many people have helped get ready,” said Barbara Eades.

A festival service of Holy Communion at 10:00 a.m. will be led by three former pastors and the bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA, Rev. James Stuck. The former pastors are Rev. Dr. Marcus Felde, who served at St. Paul Lutheran from 1997-2007; Rev. Wilmer Hallman, 1983-1997, and Rev. Doug MaGinn, 1977-1982. Also attending the ceremonies will be Rev. David Frey, who served Olean from 1951-1956. In addition, family members of two deceased pastors of Olean, Rev. Carl Roepcke (1925-1938) and Rev. Wilbur Budke (1956-1976) will be present.

Organist for the service will be Ruth Hunger, who first played the organ at Olean in 1949 when she was a junior in high school and is currently the regular organist. She will be playing the pipe organ, which was just recently rebuilt and improved.

Preparations for the service have included the making of a dramatic banner designed by Eileen La Greca and Barbara Eades, made in mosaic fashion from tiny pieces of fabric, depicting the cross surrounded by circles representing the Trinity. The result is breathtaking.

After the service, the Sunday School, led by Peg Ehlers, will be burying a time capsule on the church grounds. Everyone has been invited to participate by writing a note addressed to members in the distant future. After this, all present will enjoy a catered dinner together.

But, the 150th anniversary celebration is not just limited to one Sunday. There has already been an organ recital on July 15. The church will have a celebratory float in the Pumpkin Show parade September 29. There will be a concert by a famous Christian children’s music artist on October 26. A fine cookbook was compiled. A very full history of the congregation is being published. And impressive recent renovations of the church at Olean were timed to be completed for this anniversary.

Children of the church have been raising funds to bring Mary Rice Hopkins to Olean on October 26, as their gift to the congregation and community to honor this anniversary. She is a nationally known artist, and will be coming from California for this event. Says Phyllis Armbrecht, who has directed the Cherub Choir for many years, “I know kids who are now grown who were raised singing her music and are thrilled for the chance to meet her.” (Watch for more details in the newspaper as the date draws closer).

Copies of the cookbook, which has been very popular, are still available. (Inquire through the church office, 689-6989).

The history book has as its title the theme of the anniversary celebration, “Faithful to Our Lord through Changing Times.” The book compiled and edited by Rev. Marcus Felde, is dedicated to the memory of Alice Louise (Pegee) McCoy,” who was so interested in the history of our county. The book chronicles and changes which have taken place in the history of the Olean church. In addition the parish records of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials are included in the book. Martha Jean Jarvis did much of the work of transcribing these records. Among other features is a collection of confirmation photos from 1900 on.

The history is told in three chapters. “The First Fifty Years: German Immigrants Build a German Church” tells about when the first church was constructed. It was located across what was then “the Vevay Road” from the present structure. It only took a dozen or so people to make the decision to build the church. For over fifty years, the church conducted its worship, classes, and meetings in German, and kept its records in the same language. Many of those records were consulted in writing this history, and in compiling a comprehensive list of all those baptized, confirmed, married, and buried at Olean.
“The Second Fifty Years: Becoming an American Lutheran Church” tells how a congregation composed entirely of German immigrants and their children made the transition to being fully American in character. It started with the departure in 1910 of a pastor who did not even speak English. He was the last of Olean’s pastors to be born in Germany. But, by 1957 Olean was a pretty typical American Lutheran congregation.

“The Third Fifty Years: Growing in Many Ways” tells about the growth of the congregation-property-and-building-wise, numerically, programmatically, organizationally, and spiritually -to its present state. In recent years, the “Church with the Glad Heart and Hand” (its motto) has pulled together to accomplish a great number of renovations of the sanctuary, including new electrical wiring, new sound system, new ceiling and plaster repairs, painting, refinishing woodwork, new doors and wood trim, new pews and chairs, a new handicap access restroom, etc. A new grand piano was also donated.
Not many years ago a new parsonage was constructed on the church’s property, and in the decades before that an education building and picnic shelter were constructed.

From the first pastor, Rev. Rudolph (1857-1858) to the most recent, 23 pastors have served Olean, with Rev. Wilbur Budke staying the longest - 20 years.

St. Paul Lutheran Church is a church rich with tradition, especially a tradition of generations of people who have faithfully served the Lord in this place. Their ties to the past are perhaps symbolized in the sign which was recently discovered and now hangs in the education building. Hand carved and painted and mounted high on the wall of the first church, it had lain in hiding for several decades until Aaron Westmeier mentioned that it was standing in a shed behind his house. Retrieved from there, it was beautifully restored by Esther Hunger, with the help of her husband, Larry Hunger and Mike Swango. It reads (in German, of course) “German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Paul, built in 1857. Lord, strengthen us in the faith. Fear not, little flock.”

This tradition is carried forward today under the leadership of a Church Council of which Ralph Miller is president, Frank La Greca is vice president, Mary Ann Geisler is secretary, Edward Armbrecht is treasurer, Rodney Hyatt is elder, Paul Obendorf is deacon, and Jennifer Huntington is financial secretary. (Remarkably for a congregation with a number of families deeply rooted in the last 150 years of Olean’s life, many of the Church Council have not been lifelong members of the church). As of January 1, 2007, Olean had 417 baptized members and 352 confirmed (adult) members.

Even as the congregation celebrates its long life together and the hard work accomplished over the years, they remember that, as the history book says, “What is most important is not what pastors or members have done, but what God has done in us.”

Pictured from left are: Eileen La Greca, Ruth Hunger, and Barbara Eades, who spent endless hours working on a dramatic banner made in mosaic fashion from tiny pieces of fabric, depicting the cross surrounded by circles that represent the Trinity. La Greca and Eades designed the banner for the church's 150th anniversary celebration set for Sunday, September 2.