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THE HISTORY of our work in Chicago begins about three years prior to the actual organizing of the church. About the 30th of March 1901, a local mission society was formed comprising both the Swedish as well as the Finnish speaking groups of our countrymen. One of the most prominent in the work of organizing this mission project was a young man studying at the Swedish Baptist Seminary at Morgan Park, Illinois. This man was Edw. Flemming, a very eneretic and gifted young man with a burning ambition to win his countrymen for Christ.
In the fall of 1902 a hall was rented at Orleans Street and Chicago Ave. where gospel meetings and kindred activities were carried on in both the Swedish and the Finnish languages. Rev. Edw. Flemming had charge of the Swedish work and a lay preacher, Mr. Alexander Laurikainen, was the leader of the Finnish work to begin with, but later this work was taken over by Rev. J.H. Jappinen. About the same time a Sunday School was also organized with Dr. A. M. Wickstrom as superintendent.
It was from this missionary project that the First Finnish Baptist Church, as it was then called, originated. The church was organized the 19th of March 1904 with fourteen charter members all of whom had been members in good standing of various baptist churches in America.
The charter members were as follows:
Rev. Edw. Flemming
Dr. A. M. Wickstrom
Hugo R. Schultz
Of these only two are still members of the church, namely Dr. A. M. Wickstrom and Maria Olson, now Mrs. John W. Carlson.
Rev. Edw. Flemming, although elected chairman of the church did not have much time to devote to this work because of his many travels about the country organizing mission societies and ministering to our people in other places. Therefore a great deal of the work and responsibility of the Swedish department of the church fell on Dr. Wickstrom. During the first seven or eight years Dr. Wickstrom held many positions of importance in the church, such as Sunday School superintendent, chairman, vice chairman, treasurer and trustee. Mrs. J.W. Carlson also was very active in the church, especially in the women's organization.
At about the time the church was organized a hall was rented at 135 Sedgwick Street, where the work was carried on for about four years after which the church was moved to the LaSalle Street Baptist Church, 1225 No. LaSalle Street, where an upper hall was rented for the services.
In the summer of 1906, Rev. A. J. Stormans was called to serve as student pastor during his summer vacation and the following year he accepted the call of the church to become its first regular pastor. He served in this position until August 1910.
The work among the Finnish group prospered for a while until the leaders who started the work left the city to organize mission societies in other places. After that time the Finnish meetings were held only intermittently when some traveling missionary visited here and in 1908 the work was abandoned entirely. Since the work no longer was carried on in the Finnish language the old name of the church was considered improper and it was changed to The Swedish-Finnish Baptist Church.
In the spring of 1911 a call was sent to Rev. Matts Esselstrom, to become pastor of the church. He accepted the call and began his ministry here November 25, 1911. Pastor Esselstrom was loved and respected by all. During his ministry the church grew and more than doubled in membership.
The work of the church was carried on satisfactorily in the LaSalle Street Baptist Church, for a number of years, but as the membership grew the need for a larger and more suitable place became apparent. In September 1919 it was decided to buy the Norwegian Free Mission Church, at 5000 W. Ohio Street, in Austin. The deal was closed and possession taken May 4, 1920.
The move from the wellknown North Side to the new neighborhood in Austin, while looked upon by some with doubt, proved to be a step in the right direction. As the membership grew and the Sunday School became larger the building at 5000 West Ohio Street could no longer adequately accommodate the various activities of the church. Therefore a decision was made to build a new and larger church. In February 1927 a lot was bought at the Corner of Walton Street and Lavergne Ave. including two story brick building in rear of lot for the sum of $16,000.00. The following year the construction of the new edifice was started and completed in the spring of 1929.
Rev. M. Esselstrom closed his fruitful ministry of fifteen years here December 31, 1926. The following year Brother Herman Mattson served the church, but resigned at the end of the year. A call was then sent to Rev. Isak Berg, which was accepted. Rev. Berg's term of ministry here began in January 1928 and closed in May 1935. This period was perhaps the most eventful in the history of the church during the forty years of its existence. It required a great deal of faith and courage to buy property and build this modern and beautiful church edifice, but God blessed the work and provided willing hearts and hands. We can truly say: "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." (I Sam. 7:12). There was a marked increase in the various activities of the church "during this period. The church choir and stringband flourished and there was an upswing in both the Sunday School and Young People's work as well as increased attendance in all our meetings. This too was the transition period with regard to the language question. Until now the Swedish language has had a prominent place in our meetings, but in order to adequately meet the need of our children and young people it was necessary to change to the English language. As a direct result of the change in language a change of name of the church was also decided upon. This took place on May the 7th, 1933 when the name was changed to The Bethel Baptist Church.
After Rev. Isak Berg's resignation Rev. C. A. Aldeen, served as interim pastor for about four months. In the meantime a call had been extended to Rev. A.J. Stormans. He accepted the call and began his second term of ministry here in October 1935. Pastor Stormans has now served the church for eight years and the Lord has blessed the work in many ways. During his present term the church has been blessed with a number of musical talents which have been used to the glory of God both in the church i and other places as well as over the air. The church has been very active and Eternity alone will reveal the real result of the efforts put forth.
The membership of the church has never been large, but the church has exerted a powerful influence for good among our people especially during the early days of immigration. Our hope and prayer is that the Bethel Baptist Church may grow and continue to exert a mighty influence for good to our people as well as to the people of the Community in which it is located.
Published in Fiftieth Anniversary 1904-1944. Bethel Baptist Church. 919 N. Lavergne, Chicago, Illinois.
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