Lutheran worship services in the Gifford community go back to 1882. According to Immanuel Lutheran Church (Flatville, IL) records of January 16, 1882, “Pastor Heiniger was permitted to hold services in Gifford on Sunday afternoons every other week provided Lehrer Mueller would teach Sunday School. The minutes of the meeting of April 9, 1883, grant this same permission to his successor.”
Our official records start in 1892 when Pastor H. Bergstaedt of St. John’s Lutheran Church (Royal, IL) served the East Friesian German Lutheran Families who had settled north of Gifford. The Reverend L. Seehase of Immanuel Lutheran Church (Flatville, IL) succeeded him in 1894. In 1895 the Reverend E. Moehl accepted the call to be the pastor of the Flatville congregation and continued the pastoral ministry in the Gifford area until 1906.
Services were held on Sunday afternoons in various homes, in the public school, and later, in the Christian Church which was located on the north side of Plumb Street (between Main Street and Park Avenue). According to oral tradition, the janitor would place an extra piece of wood in the stove in the wintertime so that the building would be warm for the Lutheran service in the afternoon.
In 1906, the group bought the old Baptist Church located just east of the present church structure for $800. After remodeling, it was dedicated in October 1906.
The Reverend H. Hafermann of St. John’s Lutheran Church (Royal, IL) took over the preaching in 1906. The small group of 16 families met on May 21, 1906, to organize the Evangelical Lutheran St. Paul’s congregation. The constitution, formulated by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Iowa and Other States (to which the pastors who served this group belonged) was adopted. The constitution was signed by the following 12 members: J.F. Oehmke, Henry Ackerman, Hajo Onken, Christian Schoon, Wilhelm Schluter, Meenke Saathoff, Lubbo Pannbacker, Andreas Eilers, B.M. Behrends, Habbe Sage, Gerhard P. Park, and Michael Rassler.
On July 2, 1907, the congregation called the Reverend Friedrich Mutschmann of St. John’s Lutheran Church (Boscobel, WI) as its first pastor. He was offered a salary of $500 per year, free housing and free fuel for the heating stoves, $50 a year for feed for his horse and $1 per month for each child for teaching summer school. It was a difficult decision since the congregation only numbered 16 families, but they had written that there was a large mission field. After much prayer, he accepted the call in God’s name.
When he and his family arrived, the entire mission field was only a mile long, the length of the main street of the little village. Three miles to the north lived a farmer, and two miles to the south, a single grandfather. A mile east lived a young family that soon joined. Four miles to the east were two families in Penfield and nothing between! This was not the large mission field he had envisioned. Additionally, the people had thought they would have a pastor with no children, and yet he had 5 children.
Upon his acceptance of the call on July 31, 1907, the house west of the church was purchased from John Emkes (father of Francis Emkes) for $1,000 to be used as a parsonage, and an excavation made for a cellar. The “old dilapidated farmhouse” had limited space, particularly for a family with 5 children. This first parsonage was moved, and is currently located 513 S. Park Avenue.
The nearest neighbor, who had no children and was a constant complainer, grumbled in the evenings as he passed going home from his visiting, “Tow veil, tow veil.” (“Too many, too many.”) The people distrustfully kept their distance and at each attempt to bring them closer they moved farther away, obviously not seeking fellowship. The pastor was there to preach on Sundays, but outside of that one kept aloof. They were, after all, East Friesians! (The East Friesians have a more reserved and taciturn nature – cautious, aloof in spite of all the virtues they possess and all the loyalty they show when one has won their confidence.)
In October 1907, the congregation decided to have Christian instruction following the Sunday worship from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Catechetical instruction (confirmation) was set for every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. There were 15 children who attended either one or both of these classes.
A piece of ground on the east side of the church property was purchased in 1908 from Christian Schoon for $160 for the purpose of building a parochial school house. It was a building 18 x 18 x 10 ft with a concrete foundation and was completed by April 15, 1909. Six years later, in 1915, it was enlarged to almost double its size, to accommodate children numbering almost 40. This schoolhouse was located in the middle of the present parking lot.
It took a while until the East Friesians and the pastor from South Germany learned to understand each other. Still the work of the Kingdom went on. Services were held, a school was built, children were baptized and instructed, and the little congregation grew. It weathered the dark days of World War I. During the years 1917 and 1918, the United States entered the war against Germany. The Germans in Gifford were oppressed and even forbidden to use the German language, although not expressly by the government. Pastor Mutschmann experienced first-hand this hatred, as he was told of plans that there were those who wanted to do him harm. Officers of the congregation came with their guns to protect him, but the pastor thanked them and sent them home saying he had “a stronger defender, my God.” No harm ever came to him; however, he suspended school for that summer. When the war was over and peace had been declared, the congregation collected $1,000 and a large quantity of clothing to aid the crippled German homeland. These Germans were all good loyal American citizens and fulfilled their duty, but they could not and would not deny their German heritage.
By 1928, the congregation had grown to 80 families and the church became too small. They were ready to engage in the very ambitious program of building a new church expected to cost $38,000. It was decided build debt-free. The pastor, who was past eighty years old, together with two members (Brune Schlueter and Gerd Jansen) was directed to obtain pledges for the building from the members of the congregation only. A list was made out. It was the middle of July when the pastor called in the two assistants and said, “Brothers, we have a difficult assignment; we are to collect money for building our church. Hence, let us kneel here at the altar and entrust the matter to God who has power over the hearts and purses of men, to open both.” In one week’s time, $37,000 was subscribed. The subscriptions ranged from $1,200 per family downward. When the pastor reported this to the congregation, everyone was filled with joy.
Liese and Ludwig, an architectural firm from Danville (who also designed the Flatville church), submitted a plan for a brick church 42 ft x 92 ft. The contractor was Schwartz of Urbana. The excavating was to be done by the members themselves to save expense. At the end of August 1928, the Building Committee (Oltman Busboom, Gerd Flesner, Meenke Saathoff and Harm Schluter) came to the pastor and asked him to conduct a ground-breaking ceremony the next morning.
They planned to be on the building site with horses and all necessary equipment early the next morning. The congregation, too, was invited to be present. Pastor Mutschmann writes, “And truly everything was at hand. The horses carried their heads high, and the people had their hymnals open. We sang ‘Jesu, geh voran’ (‘Jesus, Lead Thou On’). Then I read a Psalm, gave a short prayer and the congregation joined in the ‘Our Father’. Then with a ‘Forward’ I gave the signal for them to begin.”
On September 3, 1928, the first spade full of sod was turned on the site for the basement. It was
completed by generous work of the members in four weeks.
On September 30, after prayerful consideration it was decided to continue with the building in spite of the approaching winter weather.
On November 11, Pastor Mutschmann, assisted by Pastor Moehl of Flatville and Pastor Hafermann of Royal, laid the cornerstone. Nearly 1,000 people attended this event. The box in the cornerstone contains the following items: a history of the church; a Lutheran catechism; a constitution of the congregation; a copy of “Abendpost”, a Chicago German newspaper; and a German Lutheran Church paper of the Iowa Synod.
The construction of the church progressed without obstacles through the fall, winter and spring. The church was completed in May 1929. The bell for the church was donated by Pastor Mutschmann and his sons, and bears the following inscription (German and English translations):
Ein Dankopfer bin ich I am a thankoffering
Paulina heiss ich My name is Paulina
Von St. Louis bin ich I came from St. Louis
Stuckstede goss mich I was cast by Stuckstede
Christo dien ich I serve Christ
Die Lebenden lad’ ich I invite the living
Die Todten klag ich I mourn the dead
Allen sag’ ich I proclaim to everyone
Jesus lebt; Er is Sieger Jesus lives; He is the Victor
Ehre sei Gott in der Hohe! Glory be to God on high!
Less than a month before the church was dedicated, Mrs. Mutschmann, Johanna Constance nee Hoerig, died. Her funeral on May 27, 1929, was the first service to be held in the new church.
The complete building and furnishings were valued at $45,000. The value of the material and building of the basement raised the valuation to $50,000. All of this was pledged for by dedication day, June 16, 1929, with the exception of $3,000.
What Pastor Mutschmann said on dedication day (in part) still holds true today: “The Evangelical Lutheran St. Paul’s Church has its doors wide open and room for everyone. All are cordially invited for the communion of the Saints, for prayer, The Word and Sacraments, who in the true Christian faith yearn for holiness and a blessed end. May peace abide in this House of God and with all who prayerfully go in and out.”
The first week in September 1929, Pastor Mutschmann resigned and retired as pastor after having served St. Paul’s for 22 years as the first resident pastor. His ministry spanned 57 years. He was 80 years old and retired to Clinton, Iowa.
The Reverend Weet A. Harms, Waterville, Minnesota, was called to be the second pastor. He arrived in January 1930. He began the gradual transition from German to English when he introduced the first English worship service in July 1930. He also began Sunday school in English and organized a Luther League.
Under his leadership in 1934, 25 women of St. Paul’s formed the Aid & Missionary Society (aka Laidies Aid or Women's Missionary Society).
He served as pastor for almost 10 years, but at the age of 52 contracted bronchial pneumonia and died, leaving a large growing family behind. He died on January 27, 1939, just 10 days after Pastor Mutschmann passed away on January 17 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin at the age of 90.
The Reverend Edward Keller of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Jonesboro, IL, was called and installed as the third resident pastor on June 7, 1939.
He was the first to live in the new brick parsonage that the congregation (now a group of 216 confirmed members) had erected on its church property. The present 11-room brick veneer parsonage was built for $9,000 in 1940. Mr. Heiko Kuhlman was the contractor and Johnson Hardware was the plumbing and heating contractor. Parsonage building committee members were Harm Schluter, John Emkes, Reiner Heien, Louis W. Schluter, and Heiko Kuhlmann.
Under Pastor Keller, a Lutheran Brotherhood was organized in 1942, as well as the Junior Mission Band in 1946. The congregation was involved in supporting the Lutheran Homes in Muscatine, Iowa, by sending canned fruits and vegetables, and clothing. Pastor Keller also initiated a teacher training program for the Sunday School. In April, 1947, he resigned to accept the call to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oshkosh, WI.
When Pastor Keller resigned, the Reverend W. J. Ferne of First Lutheran Church, Blue Island, IL, accepted the call and was installed in June 1947. The congregation numbered 431 baptized and 317 confirmed souls at this time. He brought maturity and much previous experience to his task. In the twenty years he was to serve St. Paul’s, many significant events took place.
The Women’s Missionary Society was host to the Illinois District Missionary Federation in 1949. Over 600 women were in attendance. In 1951, the congregation hosted the American Lutheran Church, Illinois District Convention. On June 27, 1954, the congregation celebrated the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the church building. The morning speaker was the Reverend Gerald Ferne of Williston, OH, and son of Pastor Ferne. On May 27, 1956, the 50th anniversary of the organization of the congregation was celebrated. The guest speaker was the Reverend E. E. Mutschmann of Cleveland, OH, son of former pastor Friederich Mutschmann.
Meanwhile, continual physical improvements were made on the church property. The church was redecorated in 1949 and again in 1967. The Schulmerich Bell System (carillon bells) was installed in 1951 at a cost of $5,780. For many years, delightful hymns could be heard all over Gifford in the evenings. It was also during this year that folding doors were installed on the east side of the church basement in 1951 and on the west side in 1952 at a cost of $4,700.
The Sunday School Building project was started in 1959 and dedicated on May 29, 1960. The cost was $91,000. It had 13 individual classrooms, an office, a choir room, and rest rooms. The building committee consisted of Elmer Bergman, Art Busboom, Carl Saathoff, Ehme Ackerman, and Albert Freese.
After 55 years of faithful preaching and teaching the word of God, the congregation was privileged to witness the ordination of a native son. Having heard and answered the call of the Holy Spirit to become a Pastor, Paul Hesterberg, son of the late Arthur and Mareka Hesterberg, was ordained on June 25, 1961.
The Reverend W. J. Ferne closed his ministry of 20 years on December 1, 1967. During the years of Pastor Ferne’s service, the congregation grew from approximately 300 confirmed members in
1947 to more than 400 in 1967.
On December 3, 1967, the Reverend Melvin Blobaum of Ohio, IL, was installed as the fifth pastor of St. Paul’s. No stranger was he to his parishioners and their ways, for his mother and his mother’s parents had belonged to the Flatville congregation.
On June 15, 1969, the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the dedication of its church with Pastor Edward Keller as guest speaker. To commemorate the occasion it published an illustrated history and directory of the church. On January 1, 1969, the congregation numbered 661 baptized and 466 confirmed souls.
In 1970, the parsonage was remodeled and enlarged at a cost of $7,000. The addition extends east to within a few feet of the two-car garage which was built in 1967. Members of the congregation donated all labor.
On February 8, 1970, St. Paul’s ordained a second son into the ministry – Ervin Hesterberg. Ervin and Paul (ordained earlier in 1961) are brothers, sons of Mareka and Arthur Hesterberg.
A couples club was started in 1968 and continued for several years. A Parish Education Committe was created to administer the educational program. Luther League continued to grow, participating in lock-ins, and other activities.
On May 16 & 17, 1981, the congregation observed the 75th anniversary of the congregation by having a pageant on Saturday evening, church services on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and a dinner on Sunday. Several people were honored at this time including Marie Duden who taught Sunday School for 43 years and Carl Saathoff, who was the only living charter member.
During the same year, the congregation Blobaum with an automatic washer and chime clock on the occasion of their 25thwedding anniversary and his 25th ordination anniversary.
It was also during this time that discussions were taking place regarding some major repairs to our church building. The congregation was challenged to raise $75,000 for their 75 years of existence. They rose to the occasion and over a 3-year period gave over $90,000. This money was used for the following repairs: the bricks were tuckpointed, the sanctuary and Sunday School roofs were replaced, the parking lot was repaved, the church and parsonage windows were replaced, and some landscaping was done.
Pastor Blobaum accepts a call to Anchor, IL in April of 1982, after serving St. Paul’s for over 14 years. As of January 1, 1982, the congregation numbered 688 baptized and 543 confirmed souls.
The congregation decides to call the Reverend Ervin Langholz from Living Christ Lutheran in Loves Park, IL. He is installed on September 19, 1982, as the sixth pastor of St. Paul’s.
The ALCW Fall Bazaar and Bake Sale is in at least its 3rd year of existence when Pastor Langholz arrives. This event ultimately becomes known as the Harvest Lunch. A luncheon is prepared and served during the Gifford State Bank Craft Show. Proceeds from this event go toward various mission projects. This craft show was originally held in the Gifford State Bank, moved to the Gifford Community Building, and is currently held at Gordyville U.S.A.
On March 8, 1987, there was a special congregational meeting held to vote on the proposed merger of The American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church of American and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
To give you a little background, the congregation at this time is part of The American Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1960 out of the mergers of the following church bodies:
The congregation voted not to approve the merger (85-no, 79-yes). However, the majority of The American Lutheran Church congregations did approve the merger, so we became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on January 1, 1988.
On April 25, 1988, the congregation approves the organ repair and redecorating projects. The work begins on July 1, 1988, with the organ being removed and taken to Champaign for major repairs. The front two rows of pews are removed and the steps in front of the altar are moved out farther. The ceiling tile is removed from the ceiling and new electrical wiring is put in for more lights. Drywall is installed in the ceiling for better acoustics and the sanctuary is repainted. The cost of this project is $50,000. A re-dedication service is held on September 18, 1988, with only minor work left to be done.
On November 3, 1991, after years of discussion and deliberations on making our church handicapped accessible, the congregation gave its approval (61-yes, 44-no) for a 2,500-3,000 square foot addition with handicapped-accessible restrooms, an elevator, and increased room in the narthex area for fellowship. The estimated cost of this project was $250,000, of which $88,000 from the Ralph Busboom estate was already available. The congregation also added two stipulations: two-thirds of the money should be collected or pledged by the end of 1993 (prior to construction) and that $175,000 cash is to be in the bank before construction begins.
On March 20, 1994, the congregation accepted the bids on the handicapped-accessible addition in the amount of $375,000. The architect was Gillespie and Hicks. At this time, $223,164.54 had already been raised and/or pledged. The congregation voted that when an additional $40,000 in pledges and cash was obtained, that building could begin. The church would be authorized to borrow the balance of the money. The building committee members were Ray Busboom,
Ron Duden, John Emkes, Earl Hesterberg, Karl Hesterberg, Paul Quade, Duane Schluter, and Norman Rademacher.
On June 12, 1994, the groundbreaking service for the new elevator addition was held. The service was held outside and attended by a large crowd. Pastor Langholz broke ground using the same spade that was used in the 1928 groundbreaking.
The new addition was dedicated on May 21, 1995. This addition included an elevator, a fellowship area, a new music room, handicapped accessible restrooms, additional storage areas and a fire resistant vault for administrative files and record storage. The total cost of the project was $401,000. At the end of construction, $70,000 was still owed on the project. This debt was quickly retired, however, in 1998.
Under Pastor Langholz’s direction, members of the congregation were able to take part in various bible studies, including the Bethel series, Crossways, and Mission 90.
After serving St. Paul’s for over 13 years, Pastor Langholz accepts a call to Sun City, Arizona in 1996. At the end of 1996, the congregation numbered 571 baptized and 458 confirmed souls.
The Reverend Dennis Cooley is installed as the new pastor on October 31, 1996. He becomes the seventh pastor at St. Paul’s. He was previously serving the congregation of Salem Lutheran Church, Jonesboro, IL.
During his time at St. Paul’s, it became apparent that Pastor Cooley had a gift for teaching. Attendance during his adult Sunday School classes greatly increased. He also brought the “Walk Through the Bible” series and the “40 Days of Purpose” study. His wife, Karen, also introduced the congregation to an annual mission project sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse called “Operation Christmas Child”. Members of the congregation fill shoeboxes for boys and girls in need with toys, school supplies, candy and other items. This project still continues as of this writing.
On July 22, 2000, our congregation ordains its first daughter, Barbara Busboom, into the Holy Ministry during a service at St. Paul’s. Prior to her ordination, she served as the church secretary at St. Paul’s for 22 years and as a Deaconess for 4 years. She retired from the ministry in March 2005.
During Pastor Cooley’s tenure, more church improvements took place. During the summer of 2000, central air conditioning was installed in the sanctuary and basement fellowship hall at a cost of $35,000. The organ was also re-leathered at a cost of $45,000. A couple of years later, the east parking lot was blacktopped.
The framework for what would eventually become the Youth and Family Ministry Board came into existence in 1994 with the purpose of evaluating the needs of the youth and determining whether or not to establish a youth ministry program at St. Paul’s. In 1995 the congregation voted to hire a person from the Tentmaker organization, which provided Christ-centered leadership training for young people wanting to be youth leaders. Scott Norris was our first tentmaker, starting in August 1995, but only served for 5 months. Sheila Richards replaced him in April 1996. She organized bible studies for junior high and senior high students, as well as a mission trip to Mexico. She left in early 1999 to further her education.
After Sheila left, we looked within our own congregation for someone to fill the position of Youth & Family Ministries Leader. Jan Duitsman served in this capacity for three years. During her time, she coordinated bible studies, as well as organized “Regeneration” which was a Wednesday evening fellowship and Christian education event for all ages. Jan resigned in 2004.
Staying true to His Word caused St. Paul’s to go through a time of transition as the congregation-wide choice was made to take a stand for the inerrancy of Scripture and for what that implies for daily living. A special congregational meeting was held on November 21, 2004, where it was voted (141-yes, 53-no) that we sever our relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and become affiliated with the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. This decision was made after many years of study, dialogue, and prayer.
Shortly after the decision was made, Pastor Cooley resigned from the ministry on December 31, 2004, having served St. Paul’s for almost 9 years. It was definitely a time of change and uncertainty for the congregation. At the end of 2004, the congregation registered 623 baptized and 479 confirmed souls.
God provided answer to prayer when Pastor David Skordahl agreed to serve as interim pastor of St. Paul’s. He and his wife, Cheryl, moved to Gifford in February 2005 from their home in St. Michael, MN. Pastor Dave (AFLC pastors are known by their first names, something different than previous pastors) brought the congregation together by his powerful sermons and constant reminder that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. A men’s Bible study group led by Pastor Skordahl continues to grow. Cheryl Skordahl is the President of the National Women’s Missionary Federation and was instrumental in helping the women of St. Paul’s transition from the old organization, WELCA, to the new WMF.
On March 13, 2005, the congregation voted to extend the position to Gary Maxwell, a recent transfer into our congregation. He had previously served as youth leader at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Royal, IL. During his first year, in addition to teaching confirmation and high school Sunday School, he organized activities for youth in 3rd-5th grades, 6th-8th grades, and high school. He also took several youth on a mission trip to Benton Harbor, MI.
September 2005 saw the creation of the St. Paul’s Community Preschool. Initial enrollment included 19 three- and four-year olds. The students meet 3 days a week under the direction of Jill Duden, with Cindy Lustfeldt assisting with the teaching duties. In addition to learning letters and numbers, they are also learning Bible stories.
At the end of 2005, our congregation numbered 654 baptized and 501 confirmed souls. The average Sunday attendance grew from 211 in 2003 to 252 in 2005.
Pastor Steven Lombardo was called to be the next pastor. Pastor Lombardo brought much wisdom and experience with him, and was loved very much by the congregation. He called the church to unity around the Word of God. He retired from St. Paul's in 2016.
In the words of the familiar hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”, the foundation is Jesus Christ. We at St. Paul’s continue striving to build the kingdom on Jesus Christ the Savior, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. May this beautiful church continue to serve the Lord’s work here amidst the corn and soybean fields of Champaign County in eastern Illinois
Therefore thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’
1 Peter 2:6
For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”