Faith community celebrates 200th anniversary
St. John’s Church near Dongola celebrated its 200th anniversary Sept. 17-18 with an open house and a celebration service.
Sunday’s celebration included a service, lunch, games and surrey rides.
The church welcomed visitors to an open house on Saturday. Visitors could tour the church and learn about the history of St. John’s.
Several former pastors who served as far back as 1973 returned to remember with the congregation.
The church’s history dates back to 1816, when it was formed by early settlers, just 40 years after the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.
Though none of the towns in existence today in Union County had yet been established, some farmers had settled in the area.
The Miller and Rendleman families are thought to have donated the land for the church’s first building, believed to be located in the current cemetery.
The familiar white church building that is used today was built in 1855 and heavily remodeled in 1887. The building has been maintained in that state to the present.
While the earliest membership of the church is difficult to determine, it is believed that by the 1830s, roughly 130 worshippers called St. John’s their church home. The congregation was heavily Lutheran and Germanreformed believers. Current membership is at about 60.
The congregation meets at First Lutheran Church in Dongola for Sunday School each Sunday and services each first, second and fourth Sunday. Services are held at St. John’s every third Sunday of the month.
Reflecting on Church's History
The current pastor at St. John's, the Rev. Timothy Heinecke, shared the following information in conjunction with the 200th anniversary celebration:
St. John’s Lutheran Church, 5 miles northwest of Dongola on St. John’s Road, is the oldest Lutheran Church in Illinois.
Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17-18, members and friends celebrated her 200th anniversary.
The last five called pastors participated in Sunday’s worship, renewal of wedding vows and celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
They were the Rev. Gregory Mayer, 1973-
1978; the Rev. Christine Hallemeier 1980-1988; the Rev. William Horn, 1989-1994; the Rev. Donald Poole, 1995-2005; and the Rev. Timothy Heinecke, 2008-present.
St. John’s was started two centuries ago by German Lutherans from North Carolina, who were migrating to Southern Illinois. This was two years before Illinois became a state (in 1818).
The early leaders understood that the “Church” is the Bride of Christ, Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:25.
However they did not give up their "mother tongue" until 1869. On Jan. 10, their first English constitution was adopted and women gained the right to vote.
This “Bride of Christ” is also the mother church for 10 congregations or preaching points in Union County plus Zion Lutheran of Jackson County.
The daughter congregations in Union County include Casper, Mt. Pisgah, First Lutheran in Dongola, Messenheimer School, Mt. Moriah, Mt. Zion, Mill Creek, Cache Chapel, Luther’s Chapel and Salem.
Messenheimer School ended up being Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Cache Chapel is now Methodist and Mt. Zion is Cumberland Presbyterian.
Luther Chapel seemed to just disappear but there is still a “Luther’s Chapel” road a mile north of the Cache River Wetlands Center on Highway 37.
St. John’s was the only Lutheran congregation in Illinois until Casper Church was born. From that time on, except for 1913-1927 St. John’s has always been in a parish situation with at least one of its daughter congregations.
Today St. John’s and First Lutheran of Dongola form the “Dongola Lutheran Parish.”
Over the last two centuries St. John’s has had a number of prominent pastors.
The Rev. John Lewis Markert, the founding missionary went on to organize the Indiana Lutheran Synod and become its first president.
The Rev. Daniel Scherer, like Abraham Lincoln, was a circuit rider. However Rev. Scherer was riding the Lutheran circuit before Lincoln was riding the judicial circuit. In fact Scherer was riding the Lutheran circuit before Lincoln even had a law license. Rev. Scherer served St. John’s from 1831 to 1835 as part of his 300 mile route.
When Rev. Friedrich Heyer did a missionary tour through Illinois in 1836, he made several stops at St. John’s. He also made three trips to India. The churches that he and Rev. Valett started have grown to over 5,000 parishes in India with over 2.5 million members.
Perhaps the most recognizable name here in Southern Illinois would be the Rev. Edward B. Olmstead (1838-1846). The village of Olmsted is named after him.
Pastor Olmstead was a graduate of Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary long before it became ground zero for the famous Civil War battle of 1863. Olmstead was also one of the original trustees for Carbondale College in 1856. During the Civil War he served as a chaplain.
The Rev. William Jenkins, who came a couple of times as a guest preacher/missionary, went on to become the president of the “Synod of the West.”
His younger brother Daniel served St. John’s from 1854 to 1861. Pastor Daniel Jenkins was the host pastor for the organizational meeting for the “Southern Illinois Synod,” which was held at St. John’s. He then became their first president.
In 1917 Rev. E.H. Gilmore hosted the Southern Illinois Synod at St. John’s. This was in conjunction with St. John’s 101st anniversary and more importantly with the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther started the protestant Reformation by posting 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door on Oct. 31, 1517.
Over the years St. John’s (and First Lutheran) have had three sons and a daughter enter the Ministry of our Lord.
The Rev. Elijah Miller (1842-1924) served in Sedgewickville, Mo. The Rev. Daniel C. Hurst (1847- 1891) served in Southern Illinois and in Missouri.
The Rev. Nancy Schmidt, a current member served at Monument of Hope Church in Carbondale, Grace Christian and Fellowship in Mounds and Agape Love Church in Cairo.
Finally, Donald Schluter grew up in the parish and is now the senior pastor at New Horizons Community Church in Marion.
On Sunday, Sept. 18, St. John’s members renewed their vows pledging to continue to love and cherish the Bride of Christ.
They promised to honor and respect Christ’s Bride and vowed to read God’s Word and to live following the Ten Commandments in a way that honors Christ the Groom.
So in several ways, St. John’s has been a faithful and fruitful Bride of Christ.
She has had numerous pastors who were extremely influential in the greater church. She has given birth to a handful of other congregations and she has had several sons and daughters enter the Ministry.
We pray that St. John’s continues this trend for the next 200 years. Pastor Tim.