St. John’s Lutheran Church to celebrate 175 years

John Christensen The Chronicle-Express
St. John’s Lutheran Church, on East Swamp Road in Potter, will celebrate its quartoseptcentennial Aug. 7.

One of the smallest, most out of the way, but most iconic of Yates County’s country churches is about to celebrate being among its oldest as well. St. John’s Lutheran Church on East Swamp Road in the town of Potter will mark its 175th anniversary Sunday, Aug. 7. The occasion will be celebrated after the 11:15 a.m. service with ice cream made with the original churns used for the famed St. John’s Ice Cream Socials of years ago, coffee hour, a buffet, a balloon-animal making clown and fun activities for the children, an extensive display of church history for all to explore and enjoy, and a ceremonial re-opening of the church’s cornerstone.

While 175 years may be the official age of St. John’s dating from its earliest records, its real origin is over 200 years ago, with the first German Lutheran settlers of the area coming from Eastern Pennsylvania in the 1790s. First known as Christ Church and then the Elsasser Congregation, it was first served by Pastor Lot Merkel in 1810, as part of his circuit riding in the area of Geneva.

The Greek Revival church we know today was built in the spring and summer of 1850, the neighboring parsonage with a schoolroom attached was built in 1861, services in German continued until 1912, and in 1919, the name was legally changed to “St. John’s Lutheran Church of Potter and Vicinity.

St. John’s oldest parishioner, Doris Hey, is a lifelong member who turns 97 Aug. 14. Her grandfather, Ernst Reissig, was Pastor from 1903-1914. She grew up on the farm across the road, and her father was sexton. Speaking of her memories of St. John’s, Doris says, “It was my life. There were eight of us children and we didn’t get away much. I remember seeing all the marriages and funerals. We had the Ice Cream Socials and Sunday School Picnics, and there was Luther League; it was our social center. We were always on our best behavior – mother would remind us who lived right across the road!” she recalls with a chuckle.

Doris remembers well the church’s Centennial celebration in 1941, when a steeple cross built by her husband, Hubert, was dedicated; the very same cross he rebuilt and saw rededicated at the 150th anniversary celebration in 1991. The 1941 celebration included a special collection to raise the church several feet and dig underneath it to build a church hall and Sunday School rooms. The old horse sheds behind the church were dismantled and the lumber was used for the huge project. With a one-bottom farm plow, shovels, and wheelbarrows, the men of the parish did all the excavation themselves. Hubert did most of the carpentry, and the cornerstone was laid with a copper box inside containing all that year’s bulletins, a Bible, and Luther’s Small Catechism.

In 1991, at the two-day-long sesquicentennial celebrations, that cornerstone was opened again in front of 250 members and friends of St. John’s and Rev. Rudolf Ludwig who was pastor at St. John’s when it was placed. Nancy Jensen Wright remembers, “There was not a dry eye in the house as he gleefully read his own letter from 1941 that was sealed in the cornerstone box.” The box was later resealed with the original contents plus a list of new items that told of St. John’s growth and service.

This year’s celebration with be more modest, held on a single day and with about 120 people. But among them will be 10 of the former Pastors of St. John’s. That may seem a remarkable number, but not when you consider St. John’s remarkable ability to survive as a tiny country church in an increasingly secular world.

As early as 1966, there were calls in the synod to close down St. John’s for being too small to support its own minister. With strong resistance from the congregation, a solution was found that became one of St. John’s greatest missions. Rather than being served by an ordained minister, St. John’s would take on instead a vicar-a junior-year seminarian seeking experience in a church before ordination-under the supervision of an experienced Lutheran pastor nearby. Most stayed a year, and then went on to become ordained. In all, 24 vicars from St John’s went on to become pastors. They proved so good at training these men and women for parish life that Bishop Edward Perry of the Upstate New York Synod noted in a letter to the little church in Potter, that “St. John’s has provided more pastors for this synod than any other parish in the synod!”

The success of St. John’s comes down to what every church depends on — what every church is supposed to be — its faithful people. Asked what has kept St. John’s going, Doris Hey says it’s “The older members who love it so dearly and would hate to see it close.” Just as her husband had, there are still the dedicated husbands of dedicated church women who work diligently to keep the church one of the best kept in the area. Helping Property Chairman Randy Oswald is local teacher Randy Eddinger, Doris’ son-in-law, and Lonny Gunsalus, a devoted neighbor who bought and lives in the former parsonage.

St. John’s still stands, just as the giant oak tree near the church still stands, but without the surrounding bench where Sunday school was once taught, where farmers once gathered, and where young couples first courted at ice cream socials. But life member Beth McMinn, 82, who taught Sunday School under that tree and remembers her Grandfather Kindleberger speaking German with Louis Yautzey on that bench in the 1940s, admits they are concerned for the church. “What the future is, we don’t know. We’re pondering and we’re dicussing,” says Beth. Now yoked with Zion Lutheran in Geneva, sharing Rev. Dwight Wascom as pastor, St. John’s often sees only about five or six people for Sunday Service; “Twenty on a good day,” says life member Patty Eddinger, Doris Hey’s daughter. But Doris is philosophical. “We went through this some time before, and we’re still here,” she says with the steady faith and hope the little white church in the country has always had.