Change comes slowly to St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church at Wegan.

From the old cracked but polished wood pews to the hymnals worn with age to the original pipe organ, the congregation is steeped in the traditions it was founded on more than a century and a half ago.

On Sunday, St. Paul will celebrate 160 years of its Lutheran ways, honoring the past, being thankful for the present and looking toward the future.

At the 10 a.m. service, former pastor the Rev. Mark Loest will return to deliver a special sermon on the church as “An Embassy for Christ.” Loest, who served at St. Paul for about five years, now serves at a church in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Sunday school will begin at 9:15 a.m., and a catered meal will follow the morning service with the Rev. Jeffrey Stuckwisch of Zion Lutheran Church in Seymour serving as a guest speaker. Stuckwisch is a “son” of St. Paul, having attended there before moving to Zion.

Generations of families have grown up in the small country church that sits on a lightly traveled stretch of County Road 400S about four miles southeast of Brownstown. Farm fields and wooded areas are the main scenery with a few homes and barns scattered here and there.

As the second oldest Lutheran church in Jackson County, the congregation is proud of its history, which began when St. Paul was founded March 7, 1856.

Several families living in the area decided it was time to organize a church closer to their homes, instead of having to hitch up their horse and buggies to travel miles away to St. John’s Lutheran Church at Sauers, which had been established 16 years earlier.

“We were a daughter of Sauers,” the Rev. Martin Keller said. “It was kind of far for people from this area to go over to Sauers.”

The first church was built about three-quarters of a mile west of the current one at 1165 E. County Road 400S, which was erected in 1898. Although the first building no longer remains, a church cemetery is still there.

In 1871, St. Paul became part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, with which it remains affiliated to this day.

From the earliest days, services at St. Paul were in German since the community was mainly German Lutheran settlers. That didn’t change until World War I. Since the enemy side in the war spoke German, it was decided that services would be in English from then on.

At Wegan’s 150th anniversary, Loest delivered the sermon in German in honor of the church’s beginnings.

Up until the early 1970s, men and women sat on opposite sides of the church from one another. All school-aged children would sit together at the front of the church.

Men are still viewed as the leaders of the congregation, holding the voting power and being the only ones who can be officers and sit on church boards.

“What I’ve noticed is a strong attachment to the church and a strong involvement by all people but particularly men in the congregation,” Keller said. “That’s somewhat unusual nationally, as men withdraw from leadership in the church, which is certainly not the case here.”

Although viewed as old-fashioned and traditional, the style has worked well for St. Paul for 160 years, Keller said.

Another facet of the church that still works after all of these years is the organ, which is original to the building. The organ was installed in 1901 and was handcrafted. It was hand pumped before electricity was common and is still played by Keller’s wife, Sammy, who replaced organist Ray Bachmann, whose eyesight prevented him from playing anymore.

“It’s a very historic kind of organ,” Keller said. “It’s one keyboard. Oftentimes, there are two so you can do different registrations. It’s a challenge, but (Sammy) loves the old girl and understands it.”

The organ is not meant to be the focus of a service but is more to support the singing of the congregation and provide reflective music.

“It’s part of what makes Wegan, Wegan,” Keller said.

Another used and appreciated amenity inside the church is a modern working restroom, which wasn’t installed until the early 1990s. Before then, people would have to walk across the street to the former Wegan school building, which now houses the church offices, a chapel and an auditorium.

In 2011, St. Paul, which many in the congregation lovingly refer to as “the jewel of Jackson County,” made its debut on Facebook, finding a new way to reach people and keep them connected to the church through technology.

“In spite of all the changes, God’s Word remains pure and strong in the church,” Keller said.

Originally from Valparaiso, Keller has served at St. Paul since 2009. He replaced the Rev. Ken Keilly, who led the church for 11 years. There have been 14 pastors in the church’s history with the Rev. J.G. Sauer serving first to help the church get started. In 1857, the Rev. Lehmann became the first called pastor at St. Paul.

Wegan, which isn’t even a town, is the most rural community Keller has served, he said.

“The thing I like about St. Paul Wegan is it’s very traditional,” Keller said. “It’s not true that we don’t change. We change very slowly, and I think that’s the way it should be for the church, that we’re not faddish and so that we stand on the unchangeable word of God but for a changing world.”

“We think of the history of our congregation as God’s story of His love to our area and the communities around us,” said St. Paul member Roger Wischmeier.

Wischmeier, a former member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour, married into St. Paul at Wegan and has been a member since 1978.

He and his wife, Patty, are on the anniversary committee, which is putting the finishing touches on a commemorative illustrated book that should be published and available by the end of this month or early April.

The church also is planning a church picnic/festival, Weganfest, to take place Sept. 11, the date the sanctuary was built.

“We’re hoping to have an outdoor service in the morning and an afternoon of fun and games for the kids,” Wischmeier said.

The church also will have a display of its history in the antique building at the annual Jackson County Fair this summer.

Wischmeier said the smallness of the church is what people like about St. Paul. The congregation stands at about 380 people, including those who have been baptized or confirmed there.

“You know everybody, and it’s like a family,” Wischmeier said.

The success and growth of the church cannot be measured by the size of its congregation, Keller said.

The number of people in the church in the early 1900s was within just a few of where it is now.

That’s because the population of the Wegan area is less than what it used to be, with people migrating toward bigger communities.

“And yet this congregation continues to maintain what it is,” he said. “That shows a loyalty, and also the fact that we’re more mobile, so driving 10 minutes or 10 miles to work or church or school isn’t a big deal.”

Most of the children who attend St. Paul Wegan also go to Lutheran Central School in Brownstown or Trinity Lutheran High School in Seymour. The church helps make it financially possible for members to have their kids attend these schools without having to pay thousands of dollars in tuition.

Since Christ commissioned His church to “go and make disciples,” the church must be interested in the spiritual growth of every member, young and old, Keller said.

Passing that stewardship idea onto the next generation is going to be a challenge for the church in the future, he added.

In the early times, the churches assessed dues to each family, collecting a few dollars each year to be members, and collected a rick of wood to help heat the church and school.

Now, the church collects offerings and receives donations from members to operate and support the congregation.

The future of St. Paul at Wegan is dependent on the families who go there now and have been going there for generations, not necessarily new members or visitors.

Many people marry into the church, have children and raise their families in the church, continuing the cycle, Keller said.

“We give people hope for a future,” he said.

Whereas in previous communities, Keller said he saw people moving away, Jackson County has a way of attracting people to come back.

“It’s a good place to live. We have good quality of life, and you can make a decent living here, and you don’t have to have huge amounts of money. There are good public schools and great Lutheran schools around,” he said. “So in some ways, we are bucking that trend. Me and my wife have said this is a great place to be a Lutheran.”

Wischmeier said when it comes down to it, it’s the “word and sacrament” that define the church.

“God’s word will prevail, and He will bless all his people,” he said. “This is God’s story of his people.”

“As long as God grants it, we will be preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments, and we will be welcoming people who are looking for a refuge from the world and also strength for living in that world,” Keller said. “For as long as people are here, we’ll be here.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”If you go” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

What: 160th anniversary of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church at Wegan

Where: St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1165 E. 400S, Brownstown

When: 10 a.m. Sunday

Former Pastor Mark Loest will return to deliver a special sermon on the church as “An Embassy for Christ.” Loest, who served at St. Paul for about five years, now serves at a church in Frankenmuth, Michigan. 

Sunday school will begin at 9:15 a.m., and a catered meal will follow the morning service with the Rev. Jeffrey Stuckwisch of Zion Lutheran Church in Seymour serving as a guest speaker. Stuckwisch is a “son” of St. Paul, having attended there before moving to Zion.


No posts to display