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A Brief History of the Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church. Georgetown, Connecticut

The Bethlehem Lutheran congregation in Georgetown came into existence as a result of the deep longing in the hearts of the Lutherans in Georgetown at the turn of the century. In fact pastors from the Seamen's Mission in Brooklyn, N. Y. had made visits to Georgetown as early as 1900. In the year 1907, local leaders had made contact with Pastor Torsten M. Hohenthal of the Seamen's Mission i Brooklyn o visit Georg n to a minister communion to Mr. John Peterson.

Pastor Hohenthal continued to make regular visits to hold services which were held in various homes. It,was in January, 1908 that under the urging and direction of Pastor Hohenthal, a Seamen's Mission Society was formed for the purpose of gathering the Lutherans in Georgetown for religious services and to work for the cause of missions. After this Mission Society had been organized, the group sought out a place to hold its meetings. Arrangements were made with Mrs. Edla Peterson to rent her large living room for this purpose. Pastor Hohenthal was to come once a month or a preaching service. However, a service was held each Sunday led by Mr. Charles H. Gustafson.

Within a few months, at the advice and under the able direction of Pastor Hohenthal, the members of the Seamen's Mission Society made the historical decision to organize a Lutheran congregation and to affiliate itself with the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. To accomplish this, Pastor Hohenthal contacted the Rev, Dr. Gustaf Nelsenius, president of the New York Conference, which at that time included the New England states. July 7, 1908 was the eventful day when the Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church came into existence. Leaders of the Church present for this memorable occasion included the Rev. Dr. Gustaf Nelsenius, Pastor Torsten M. Hohenthal, the Rev. Dr. Peter Froeberg, pastor of the Salem Lutheran Church in Bridgeport, and the Rev. Dr. John L. Benson, then a student at Upsala College, who had come to Georgetown in the month of June to conduct services and to do the preparatory work for the day of organization.

The number of people who became members on July 7th, 1908 was 53 communicants and 17 children. By March 20, 1909, 20 more new members had been received. Dr. Peter Froeberg was called to serve as Vice Pastor. Mr. Benson was called to continue in his work during the Summer and each week-end during the Fall and Winter months.

The urgent need that was now foremost in the minds of the members of the new congregation was a church building where the full morning worship service could be held. Steps in that direction were taken immediately. The present church site was purchased. A contract was then entered into with Michael Connery to proceed immediately with the building of a church. Dr. Peter Froeberg, pastor in Bridgeport, assumed the task of gathering the needed funds to make the building of the church possible. It is interesting to note in the records, that the people in Georgetown at large who were not members of the congregation contributed a greater sum of money than did the members of the congregation. This was indeed an expression of a generous community spirit. During the Summer of 1908, we see every evidence of the energetic and consecrated leadership of the young man from Upsala College, John L. Benson. He rallied the members to constructive action. New members were added to the congregation.

When the new church building was completed, the festive and joyous day of dedication was announced. That day was Sunday, November 29, 1908, when a grateful congregation filled the church for its first full worship service together with the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The service of dedication was held in the afternoon with Dr. Gustaf Nelsenius officiating, assisted by the Rev. Dr. L. H. Beck, president of Upsala College, Dr. Peter Froeberg and Pastor A. J. Ostlin.

It should be noted here that the congregation at its organization meeting, engaged Gustaf R. Johnson to serve as its organist. He served in that capacity and as choir director for a period of more than forty years.

A period of growth and stabilization followed these festive occasions. The congregation's first pastor was the Rev. Carl A. Benander who arrived in the year 1911 and remained until the following year. Pastor Benander was shared with the Trinity Lutheran Church in Danbury.

The second pastor to shepherd the congregation was the Rev. Samuel R. Swenson, who inspired and led the congregation through a period of marked expansion. It was at this time that the pews were installed. A chancel platform was built. A new altar, a kneeling rail and a pulpit were placed in the chancel. The church was further enhanced in its beauty and spirit of worship by the installation of art glass windows which carried effective symbols. Pastor Swenson remained for a period of three fruitful years.

The congregation was without a pastor during the 1920's. Vice pastors cared for the congregation while students from Upsala College conducted the Sunday services and instructed the confirmation classes. Pastor O. O. Eckhardt was called and arrived in 1930. The outstanding project accomplished during Pastor Eckhardt's term of service was the excavation of the church basement. The work of excavation was done by the men of the congregation. The Young People's Society furnished the needed funds. Finally after much hard work, a new parish room was realized. Pastor Eckhardt remained until 1937.

Other expansion projects of the congregation include the acquiring of the parsonage before the arrival of Pastor Eckhardt. Several years later through the contribution of the Naomi Society and the skilled work of one or two men; the present kitchen facilities were realized.

Again the congregation is without a pastor. Again the congregation turns to Upsala College for the service of students. In addition to students, the congregation was served part of the time during this period of the late 1930's and the 1940's by three ordained pastors who served part time while pursuing studies at nearby Universities. They were Pastors Martin Leesberg, and John Nosco of the United Lutheran Church, and Harold Faust who after a year entered our missionary field in Africa.

A new period of expansion began in the year 1955 when the congregation authorized an extensive renovation of the parsonage. At this time the Board of American Missions of our Augustana Church had become alerted and interested through the efforts of Pastor Bernhard J. Johnson of Stamford who had been serving faithfully and with true devotion for a period of ten years as the congregation's Vice Pastor. Many people had begun moving into the surrounding area which could only mean that the future growth of our congregation was assured.

A call was extended to the Rev. Elmer L. Olsen to be the pastor of the congregation. Pastor and Mrs. Olsen arrived October 3, 1955. The communicant membership count was 100. Now the congregation began writing a new chapter in its history when on January 6, 1957, the Board of Trustees was instructed to draw up plans for a new addition and necessary alterations to the present church building. These preliminary plans together with suggestions for financing a building program were submitted to the congregation by the following May. A special meeting of the congregation was duly called for June 5, 1957. Plans for a building program and financing were presented by the Trustees. The congregation voted unanimously to proceed immediately with the proposed program. The canvass for pledges to the building fund was made during the month of July. The ground breaking ceremony took place on Sunday, August 4th, 1957.

Another mountain top experience now awaited the members, when on Sunday, March 23, 1958 the new Parish House and the renovated and enlarged church was officially dedicated. There was much gratitude to God in the hearts of the people that thronged the church and parish house and participated in the service of dedication, which rite was conducted by the president of the New England Conference, the Rev. Dr. Eskil G. Englund, assisted by the pastors of the newly formed New Haven District.

We have reviewed briefly some of the many interesting events and mile posts in the fifty years of history made by the members of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We wish words were at our disposal to portray the joy of the many souls who have worshipped at Bethlehem's altar. At this altar they sought the forgiveness of sins and the renewing of God's refreshing and healing Spirit within their hearts. A sacred ministry has gone out from this altar. Guidance in life from the Word has been given from this pulpit. The ministry of Bethlehem tells us of prayers and songs of praise that have ascended to God. This sacred ministry tells us of joys and sorrows, of troubled souls and of peace with God. We pause in silent tribute before God to the memory of all the faithful souls who have worshipped and labored here together with those still living in our midst. Truly we all have received much. We thank God for faithful pastors and church leaders. To God we give the glory.

The Sunday School

The records of the Bethlehem congregation reveal that the Sunday school had its beginning in the year 1909 - organized February 28, 1909 with 9 children and 3 teachers. A Bible class was started at the same time by. A. H. Letzler, a student. from Upsala College serving the congregation. The first superintendent was Mr. Charles H. Gustafson, with Mr. John Rosendahl as a teacher and as assistant superintendent.

The first confirmation class of two members was in the year 1910. By the year 1910 the enrollment had reached 23 children and 6 teachers. The Sunday school had a gradual growth and by 1930 reached an enrollment of about 30 children. Later the enrollment dropped to about 15 children. Since 1950 the enrollment has increased rapidly to the present number of 64 children and 10 officers and teachers. Mr. F. Ragnar Bergfors has served most faithfully and with true devotion to the Christian education of the children since 1950.

Published in Fiftieth Anniversary 1908-1958. September 7th to 14th, 1958. Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church. Georgetown, Connecticut. 1958.

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