St. John’s Lutheran Church: Gary, Indiana’s Oldest Congregation

St. John's Ev. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at 10th Avenue and Taft Street, Gary, Indiana

St. John’s Ev. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at the corner of 10th Avenue and Taft Street, Gary, Indiana

Thoughts of Gary, Indiana often include ones of the steel mill, the Jackson 5 and hope that the city can bring back the glory days current and former citizens remember. But there is one bit of history that stands out among the usual images of Gary’s urban decay. St. John’s Lutheran Church is the city’s oldest congregation, with baptismal records dating back to 1863.

When the town of Tolleston was platted by George Tolle in 1853, he set aside land for a

Construction of school building in 1914. The school still stands behind the current church building.

Construction of school building in 1914 behind the second church built in 1888. The school still stands.

church and cemetery (Waldheim). The town, predominated by German settlers, soon organized what would be St. John’s Lutheran Church. According to the Tolleston Old Settlers Centennial 1851-1951 (from the Calumet Regional Archives), its first congregants met in the parlor of a home at 1925 W. 10th Place, Gary, before erecting the first church building in 1868. Another was erected in 1888 to serve the growing congregation. The current structure (above) was erected in 1922.

Itinerant pastors, beginning with Rev. Henry Wunder in 1863, traveled by horse and buggy from Chicago to serve the congregation until the Rev. Herman Wunderlich was called as its first full-time pastor in 1871.  According to church records, he is buried at Waldheim Cemetery, though his grave marker is no longer visible. A school house was also erected (pictured above) and still stands today behind the current church building.

Stained glass depiction of the Resurrection on east wall of sanctuary

Stained glass depiction of the Resurrection on east wall of sanctuary.

One of the most striking parts of the building are the enormous stained glass windows. The two largest ones depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Smaller ones are of various Bible stories. In the choir loft sits the Wangerin-Weickhardt pipe organ that former organist Jayne Carter attempted to teach myself, my sister, and her youngest daughter to play. Neither my legs nor my fingers were long enough to reproduce the magic Mrs. Carter made on that instrument! Anyone who used to attend the church (at least back in the 1980s when I was a kid) will remember the three worship services held every week, Sunday school in the basement and parts of the old school building, and Vacation Bible School in the summer full of neighborhood kids whose families didn’t even worship there.

Rev. Norman Brandt, 1962-1996
Rev. Norman Brandt, 1962-1996

Remarkably, only eleven pastors have served the congregation in its 145-year history. Most notable are Rev. August Rump who served from 1887-1940, and my godfather, the late Rev. Norman Brandt (pictured right) who is probably best remembered wearing his famous bowtie while inviting in every soul walking down the street to worship. Pastor Brandt and his wife, Helen (pictured below), inspired two characters in my manuscript Striving After Wind. Instead of Rev. Wunderlich, “Pastor Teddy” (Theodore was Pastor Brandt’s middle name) and his wife Helen served as the first family of a Lutheran congregation. In the story, they freed my main character from slavery and brought her to Tolleston just before the Civil War in 1860. That storyline drove my research into the town and the history of the church where my family had worshipped since the late 1950s.

Choir picture including my godmother, Helen Brandt (2nd row, 1st left) and my grandmother, Ilene Williams (3rd row, 1st right)

Choir picture including my godmother, Helen Brandt (2nd row, 1st left) and my grandmother, Ilene Williams (3rd row, 1st right)

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there. The old church bell still rings announcing the start of service at 9am Sunday mornings (I remember it also ringing at the start and conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer during the 11am service). Tons of old photographs in the second and current church building and  other historic records are housed in the office (the old white parsonage in the lot adjacent to the church), some of which can be found on my St. John’s Lutheran Church History Pinterest page. The old register with baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals are also still there. Anyone wishing to view those historic records, see the beautiful stained glass windows and ornate altar, or even worship there can contact Michael Nicks at 219-944-0654.

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About Michelle McGill-Vargas

Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in "Lutheran Witness", "Splickety Magazine", "The Copperfield Review", and "Typehouse Literary Magazine." She also currently serves as interim vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. Read her short stories at www.shortfictionbreak.com and visit her blog at www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com
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19 Responses to St. John’s Lutheran Church: Gary, Indiana’s Oldest Congregation

  1. Roger Pocock says:

    Reblogged this on Windows into History (Reblogging and Links) and commented:
    Suggested reading – a fascinating little slice of the history of Indiana. Reblogged on Windows into History.

  2. Marty Sauer says:

    I grew up there and attended St. John’s School. I was confirmed May 20, l956, and graduated June 8, l966. Under Rev. Robert Clausen was directed into church work and graduated from St. John’s College, Winfield, Kansas, in 1962. From there I taught in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Ponca City, Oklahoma before being sent to Canada. I treasure my days of growing and learning there and the wonderful people who guided me. I still carry a pic of this church in my wallet to this day!!! Marty (Martha) Sauer nee Thompson

    • It’s always nice to run into people who’ve gone to my old church! Hope my little article did justice to your memories of the place. Thanks for reading.

    • Karen (Koester) Lanning says:

      I went to St. Johns Lutheran school for 8 yrs. Graduating in 1956. Mr. Wolter played the huge organ that was in the church. I sang in our choir for special services. Thanks for posting this site. It brought me to tears, but that’s ok. Lot’s of memories. Ida Rump was our 1st & 2nd gr. teacher. Me Wolter taught 7th & 8th gr.

  3. Carmelita Sherard says:

    I really enjoyed the article, brought back alot of memories! Michelle you did a beautiful job, GOD BLESS YOU!!

  4. Jill Norwine says:

    I attended vacation bible school with 2 of my friends who attended Saint John’s. I liked it so much, I started attending Sunday school there. Not sure of the year but it was in the 1950’s.

  5. Karen (Koester) Lanning says:

    I went to St. Johns Lutheran school for 8 yrs. Graduating in 1956. Mr. Wolter played the huge organ that was in the church. I sang in our choir for special services. Thanks for posting this site. It brought me to tears, but that’s ok. Lot’s of memories. Ida Rump was our 1st & 2nd gr. teacher. Me Wolter taught 7th & 8th gr.

    • I always love hearing stories about other St John’s “Lutheranites” like me. Thanks for sharing your memories. You’re still able to view lots of photos that I haven’t included here or on my Pinterest page. Call the church and make an appointment to view.

  6. James Carter says:

    Wow, this has been a trip down memory lane!!! Thank you for posting this article my brother and sister’s have so many fond memories of you and your family and all the good people and memories we’ve had. Thanks to St.John’s we will be linked in such a rich heritage forever. Gods Speed to you my god sister!!!

  7. Noreen McClendon says:

    Michelle,
    Thank you so much for a wonderful article, brought back so many great memories.
    Pastor Brandt was such a blessing In my life, St. Johns will always hold a special
    place in my heart. Noreen McClendon, now a member of Christus Victor LC,
    Knoxville, Tennessee

  8. My father, Rev. G. H. Naumann was pastor from about 1946 to 1955. I see the old parsonage is still there. I graduated from the grade school in 1953 and went to Tolleston High. Mr. Wolter was one of my teachers along with Mr. Hillbig and Baeje. sp? I recall the building of the tunnel from the school to the church and the front steps to the church.
    Walter Naumann

    • LOL. Yes the “tunnel” as you call it is still there. It connects the church to the school. The exterior part of it (a huge cement wall between the church and school building) was the hang out spot for the youth in my day 🙂 If you have any stories to share about your history with the church, I’d love to read them!

  9. Karen Johnson Winston says:

    It is so nice to have run across this page! I attended S. John’s and was baptized there, as well as confirmed around 1965. Pastor Brandt was the officiant for both my baptism and the confirmation. I remember my Bible verse was John 15:5. I also remember his wife a little and that they had boys and had adopted a daughter, (Rebekah?). I attended with my Aunt Novella who lived a block down the street. I ran into him years later in the grocery store. He mused that I looked the same;it was probably in the early 80’s (I had moved to Atlanta).

  10. Joyce Mills was Frank before marriage says:

    I was confirmed at st. John in 1959. I often wonder when I was baptized. Both parents passed early and never thought to ask. Can you help?

  11. JIM CORBEILLE says:

    YES GREAT MEMORIES FROM GROWING UP IN TOLLESTON,BORN AND RAISED IN GARY AND STILL LIVE THERE IN MILLER.
    MY MOTHER WENT TO SCHOOL THERE AND GRADUATED AS DID I. HI TO KAREN, I TOO REMEMBER MR. WOLTERS AND THE ORGAN. HE COULD REALLY MAKE THAT ORGAN TALK. AFTER MY GRANDFATHER RETIRED FROM US STEEL THE CHURCH HIRED HIM TO BE THE JANITOR FOR BOTH THE SCHOOL AND THE CHURCH. WHILE IN H.S. I WOULD HELP HIM CLEAN THE CHURCH ON SATURDAYS. COULDN’T WAIT TO GET THERE TO CLEAN WHILE MR. WOLTERS PRACTICED FOR SUNDAY. HIS REPITORE WAS AMAZING.
    HI ALSO TO WALTER NAUMANN, REMEMBER WHEN YOU AND I WOULD TAKE TURNS IN YOUR FATHERS OFFICE IN THE BACK RECORDING THE SUNDAY SERVICE.
    ANYONE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TALK MY E-MAIL IS JAMESCR9@AOL.COM
    LOTS OF STORIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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