St. Luke’s of Eitzen to re-dedicate its 100 year old church building

By : 
Jan Lee Buxengard

On Sunday, September 23rd, St. Luke’s Church in Eitzen will re-dedicate its 100 year old church building. The day will include a re-dedication worship service, followed by a catered meal.

“This building itself is amazing,” Rev. Michael McCann commented about the structure. “The dedication it took, in a year’s time, to have this building stand the way it is to this day, is amazing.”

Located near the south edge of Eitzen, the Iowa-Minnesota line state line runs in front of the southwest church entrance doors.

This German congregation dates back to the 1850’s when the earliest religious meetings of the pioneer settlers were held in homes and later in the McNelly school house. 

In 1864, a church was erected at a cost of $800, with the upper floor serving as a parsonage and the first floor for school room and place of worship.

A new church was built in 1874. This structure was enlarged by the addition of two wings on each side when Immanuel Church joined with the St. John’s congregation and became St. Luke’s Evangelical Church in 1892.

Unfortunately in 1917 the church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The structure was being painted and carpenters had removed the lightning rod from the tower so they could do the work more easily. During the night of June 23rd, lightning from a thunderstorm struck the steeple and ignited the pine and tinder-dry structure, quickly burning it to the ground. Soon there were quite a number of men gathered trying to salvage whatever possible before the heat inside became unbearable.

Some of the articles rescued and carried out during the fire were: the baptismal font, the clock, altar lamps, a few hymnals, some collection plates or purses, the captain’s chair used by the custodian, and quite a few of the old benches.

When the Fruechte family, who lived just south of the church, saw the fire, the daughter started crying. She was the organist and her music was in the church. Her brother rode a horse to the church and got the music. 

Many spectators came the next morning to look at the ruins. Some picked up fragments of the molten bell for a souvenir. Sadly the pipe organ was a loss. All that was left was the chimney near the north end, still standing like a lonely sentinel of the past. The next day it was taken down because of its danger of falling and injuring someone.

This was a traumatic experience for the congregation. Here had been their spiritual home for many years, and now it was gone.

“This church was town and Eitzen life – school, German classes at the church, picnics, etc., and to see all that burn to the ground,” McCann commented, thinking about the fire. “Every dream was gone.”

New brick church

In the days and weeks that followed, church members started planning to build a new church. They didn’t want a wood building; they wanted it built to last. It would be of Romanesque architecture, with artistic marble-finished columns. A sister church, a catholic church between Lansing and Waukon, has the same design.

More than a thousand loads of building materials were hauled with horses, wagons and sleds from a distance of ten to fifteen miles by members of the congregation and also by members of St. John’s Congregation of Wheatland.

The foundation is massive blocks of stone. There is a great deal of brick, in fact a double layer – an inner and outer layer. Where did the brick come from? A lot of details are unknown. Everybody involved is gone.

“The cool part of the story is the dedication and commitment, and the time it took to build this structure in a year’s time,” McCann noted. Imagine teams of horses pulling the heavy loads up the hills and traveling on crude roadways/paths/trails from the river to Eitzen to bring the materials to the site.… Think about the time it took and yet they had farm chores to do when they got home.... Think of using block and tackle and horse power for the massive beams….  

A hand-written bill of sale for the windows was found. They were shipped from a company in Minneapolis, people picked up the crates in New Albin and brought them to the building site. The company came to install the windows. Some of the glass came from Germany, but it is a mystery how this was done with World War I raging on their soil.

The art windows were donations by members of the congregation in memory of their loved ones. The one at the main entrance was donated by a family in honor of Rev. A. Niedergesaess. The women of the congregation donated the new bell, and the young people gave the pulpit, altar and organ.

Despite the great amount of volunteer work done, the cost of the new church was approximately $40,000. On the day of dedication, Rev. F. C. Klein reported that all debts were paid.

Dedication of new building

By August 1918, the new impressive structure was completed. The dedication took place on August 11th, with an estimated 2,000 people attending. The service was entirely in German. Since the pipe organ had not yet arrived, a band of the congregation accompanied the singing. Also an observation from the panoramic picture that was taken that day in front of the new building, the statue of Jesus had not yet been placed on the outside.  

There is a document by Rev. Klein, possibly the information from the dedication, but it is hand-written in High German. Since the use of this style was stopped in 1915, it has been difficult to try to find someone to translate the piece.           

Through the years, the building remained the same until the interior was remodeled in 1983 and everything was changed inside.

The Christian education/Sunday school wing addition was done in 1967, and the lobby and canopy were added in 2001.

 In 1980 the congregation changed to St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. In January 2018, the congregation voted to no longer be affiliated with the UCC.

Re-dedication – 100 years later

On Sunday, Sept. 23, a re-dedication of the building will take place at the church. Beginning at 9 a.m., an alumni choir practice will be held to warm up vocal chords to sing a familiar hymn. The re-dedication worship service begins at 10 a.m. and will be structured to implement elements of the service held in 1918 – to get a feel for what that service was like, McCann explained.

Following the service, a catered meal will be served, and there will be time for people to share memories of the building. 

“This church is very much blessed, very strong and stable. We are at a growth point and not going anywhere,” Rev. McCann stated about the continuing work and mission of the congregation.