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St. Matthew’s celebrates 125 years

WORTHINGTON -- A stately church towering over the neighborhood at the intersection of Dover Street and Burlington Avenue, St. Matthew Lutheran has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the upstairs of a downtown shoe store.

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The Rev. Mark Schreiber (back left) stands with Jeanette Varuska, Bev Spittle and M.J. Wester, a few of the members who have helped to plan the church's 125th anniversary celebration this year. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- A stately church towering over the neighborhood at the intersection of Dover Street and Burlington Avenue, St. Matthew Lutheran has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the upstairs of a downtown shoe store.

Several German immigrants gathered for the first worship service there, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street, on Jan. 4, 1891. Today, the congregation is celebrating 125 years in the community, and while there was a gathering in January and another is planned in November, the anniversary celebration is this weekend. The church’s members will gather for a Sunday morning worship service and picnic at Chautauqua Park on Lake Okabena.

For many years, St. Matthew’s was considered Worthington’s German church. Its members met above the Albert Schmidt Shoes store for more than 20 years until it acquired a church building previously occupied by a Swedish Lutheran church. The building was moved to a site at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 12th Street, and St. Matthew’s conducted its first service in the white-framed church on May 14, 1911.

“Some of our current members remember going there yet,” said Jeanette Varuska, one of eight volunteers serving on the church’s 125th Planning Committee.

In the church’s early years, the service was conducted entirely in German. The change to English-led services is believed to have occurred between World War I and World War II, when the German language was frowned upon.

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“Our first hand-written records are in German,” said Bev Spittle, planning committee member and church secretary. Jerry Vogt, another committee member, said his father’s baptismal certificate from St. Matthew’s is written in German.

Vogt’s grandparents moved to Worthington in 1911 and began attending church services at St. Matthew at that time. His family is one of several in the congregation that has attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church for multiple generations. In fact, for many years, the Vogt farm hosted the church’s summer picnics along Lake Okabena.

As the church congregation grew in the early to mid-1900s, money was saved and plans developed to build the church’s foundation on a plot of land at the corner of Dover Street and Burlington Avenue. A groundbreaking ceremony was conducted there on Sept. 29, 1947, for what the church called its superstructure.

“(The congregation) met in the basement for several years until they got funds to build the sanctuary above,” said the Rev. Mark Schreiber, who has served the congregation for the past 13 months.

“Pastor (Martin) Lieske, he was the one who really pushed them to get the building built,” said Varuska, adding that Lieske was St. Matthew’s longest serving minister -- at 25 years.

“The congregation really grew under Lieske,” added Schreiber.

As noted in church records, 3,500 members of the congregation attended the laying of the church’s cornerstone on Sept. 9, 1951. The membership was so large, three church services were conducted that day.

Throughout the construction of the sanctuary, Lieske selected and designed the themes and symbols for the church’s many stained glass windows that grace the chancel, nave, balcony and east and west side. The windows were dedicated in April 1959.

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The years that followed marked a period of growth for St. Matthew Lutheran Church. In April 1960, the church added a 964-pipe Reuter Organ in the balcony, and the following month church members broke ground on an education wing, which included Sunday School classrooms, the Fireside Room, Chapel and church offices. In 1965, a new parsonage was built across from the church on Burlington Avenue.

By the mid-1980s, the congregation approved plans to construct an elevator and ramps between the education wing and the sanctuary, and a Great Hall was completed in 2007 to provide a larger gathering area alongside the sanctuary, complete with a new nursery and handicap-accessible entry and restrooms.

During this, the 125th anniversary of the church, its leaders developed an adopt-a-day campaign to pay off the mortgage for the Great Hall. Committee member M.J. Wester said great strides have been made, with the original loan at nearly $750,000 paid down to approximately $30,000.

“Since December, we’ve paid about $70,000 down on it,” Schreiber said. The goal was to have the loan paid off by the end of the year, but the church had to extend the loan due to the need for a new roof.

Still, the committee is hoping to have a symbolic burning of the mortgage for the Great Hall during a 125th anniversary dinner in November. At that event, the church will invite pastors who previously served the congregation.

Schreiber is the 27th pastor to serve St. Matthew Lutheran Church, and planning committee members said they hope he will someday surpass Lieske’s 25 years of service to the congregation.

“My previous congregation is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year,” Schreiber said. “To be able to come to this congregation … having generations going to the same church, it’s totally different from the previous congregation I was at.

“It’s neat to see the generations worshipping in the same church,” he added.

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St. Matthew’s has watched 24 of its congregation’s members join the ministry in its 125 years in Worthington, including 13 pastors who were sons or daughters of the congregation.

The church also had three pastors who went on to serve as chaplains, including Rev. Julius Deckman Jr., who left Worthington to serve as a chaplain in World War I. His father actually replaced him at St. Matthew’s, serving from 1918 to 1934.

Rev. Theodore Predoehl left the church in 1968 to become a chaplain in Vietnam during the war. He ultimately made a career in the Air Force Chaplaincy. Rev. Richard Lindeman was the third pastor to leave for work as a chaplain. He preached the Easter Sunrise service to U.S. troops in Korea in 1990, when Worthington’s 452nd General Supply Co. of the Army Reserves was stationed there. Lindeman was called to active duty again in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.

The church also saw one of its pastors, Rev. Jerry Raedeke, leave the ministry after 13 years at St. Matthew’s to pursue a career as a wildlife artist. Jerry and his cousin, Rev. Bob Raedeke, were co-pastors at St. Matthew’s together from 1971 to 1975.

Parishioners of St. Matthew Lutheran Church have many memories about growing up in the church, from the Sunday School classrooms in the basement that were separated by curtains, to Vacation Bible School in the 1950s, when more than 400 children attended the two-week program.

Today, the church has approximately 950 baptized members. In addition to offering a traditional and contemporary service on Sunday, a mid-week service is offered as well.

Also, the church hosts a Sudanese service every third Sunday in the chapel. Rev. James Ruey of Mankato leads that service in the Nuer language.

Sunday’s 125th anniversary celebration in Chautauqua Park begins with a 10 a.m. service at the park bandshell, followed by a picnic in the shelter house area. There will be lawn games for the children, and a menu of burgers, brats, hot dogs, beans, chips, bars and beverages.

“We had T-shirts made up for the 125th and we’re encouraging everyone who bought a T-shirt to wear it,” said Schreiber. The anniversary T-shirts include the verse Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

That verse will serve as the theme for Sunday’s sermon and celebration.

“We anticipate a large crowd,” said Vogt.

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A display inside the Great Hall at St. Matthew's shows some of the church's history. The shovel marks the date of the groundbreaking for the church's education wing on May 22, 1960, while the sign showing church services in German and English was removed from their previous church site. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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