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The Ev. Lutheran Church 1891 to 1951

David Halttunen

(Most of the following is a translation from, the history prepared by F. Y. Joki ten years earlier.)

The Finnish Ev. Lutheran Church was incorporated on June 10, 1891, under the name "The Finns Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Brooklyn". On April 5, 1891, Anders Översti and John W. Aho were elected to arrange the title of incorporation. At this same meeting the following men were elected to be trustees of the Church: Karl Gronqvist, John Arola, Victor K. Heini, Herman Broenda, J. O. Hietikko, and John G. Lehtinen. This board also was instructed to draw up a constitution for the church and to look after all matters pertaining to the founding of the church.

However, some time before this meeting, the work among the Finnish people in Brooklyn had begun. Pastor Emil Panelius (1887-1891) came to New York City from Finland as a Seamen's pastor and was requested to conduct services here in Brooklyn. This he did at Greenwood Hall on the corner of 3rd Ave. and 22nd Street. Pastor Panelius encouraged the people of Brooklyn to organize into a church. The increasing immigration from Finland seemed to make this a very desirable step. When pastor Juho Korhonen arrived to succeed E. Panelius in the Seamen's Mission, he discouraged the founding of a separate church here in Brooklyn, by advocating that the Brooklyn Finns help carry the Mission along. But in a meeting held on March 27, 1892 the suggestion to join the Mission was defeated, and the first Church Council was elected. These pioneer members were: A. Översti, B. Karlroth, O. Kilponen, F. Winter, J. Koski, J. Tanskanen, H. Piipari, F. Wuori, and Ida Hellman.

Pastor Korhonen held services in Greenwood Hall on the first and third Sundays of the month. Most of the income to the church was given to the Seamen's Mission, and in December of 1892, all membership dues were also sent to the Mission in New York. During the first year of activity 22 families joined the church, along with 6 single women and 25 men. By the beginning of the year 1893 the treasury reported a net balance of $185.04! The beginning was small but promising.

The high hopes of the Brooklyn congregation were soon crushed. When pastor Korhonen returned to Finland in the year 1893, the new pastor to the Seamen's Mission, pastori Wäinö Durchman (1893-1897), refused to continue the visits to Brooklyn. He insisted that this congregation should join the New York Seamen's Mission. Unfortunately Durchman could not see the need for a local congregation for the Finns in Brooklyn, and no amount of persuading was able to make him change his mind. The services that were held twice a month were discontinued, so in 1894, the renting of Greenwood Hall was terminated. Some hopes were revived when a layman, Adolf Riippa, who edited a Finnish paper called "The Immigrant", promised to conduct some services in Brooklyn. Mr. K. Helin also arrived to be the assistant of pastor Durchman in New York and he organized a Young People's group in the Brooklyn church. However, these signs of life were shortlived, for Riippa left the community, and Helin spent increasingly more time elsewhere. By 1896 all activity had ceased to the point that the church was declared closed "until further notice".

On May 23, 1897, two men from Finland, Akseli Järnefelt (later Rauanheimo) and Antero Riippa called a meeting of the people interested in the revival of the work. Mr. Järnefelt later became the head of the Finnish Consulate in Montreal, Canada, and Mr. Riippa edited the "New Yorkin Uutiset" for many years. At this time both men worked on the staff of "The Immigrant". Mr. Järnefelt suggested the reorganization of the church after delivering a stirring message on its importance here in Brooklyn. As a result, 10 former members and 22 new ones joined the effort. Pledges in the amount of $595 were taken for the purchase of a building for the congregation. A building was located on 23rd Street near 4th Avenue which could be purchased for $3,000. In a meeting held on June 13, 1897, the congregation voted to purchase the building. On Sept. 1 the purchase was completed. Loans from members, pledges, and a $1500 mortgage were finally arranged so that the building was obtained. The Constitution and by-laws, that had been originally adopted in 1892, had been closely modeled after a Swedish Lutheran congregation's constitution in Brooklyn. These were revised and the name changed to "The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brooklyn".

But a church without a pastor is like an army without a leader. The pressing need was to get a clergyman for the revived church in Brooklyn. Upon the suggestion of John G. Lehtinen, it was decided on March 21, 1897, to ask the Seamen's Mission, with headquarters in Helsinki, to send an assistant pastor to the Mission in New York, who might serve the Brooklyn congregation and receive part of his salary from it. But the answer from Finland stated in effect, that if an assistant were sent to New York, it would be better to send a layman, and therefore the suggestion was rejected. Thus the hopes were again dashed to pieces. The laymen of the church elected from their number 9 deacons, who conducted services and even established three Sunday Schools, one in the church, one near Atlantic Ave., and one in East New York. These pioneer deacons were Matti Saarinen, John G. Lehtinen, S. Pihl, H. Joutsen, Hanna Järnefelt, Ida Heini, Constance Liljander and Victor Grant. The last mentioned is the only founding member of the church still living.

Now the congregation decided to seek a pastor by placing the position open for applications. A salary of $60 per month was offered. It was asked that the pastor be from Finland, and for that reason, F. Öhde of this country was rejected. No other applicants appeared, so the salary was raised to $75. In the meanwhile the church building was renovated. Gas lights replaced the oil lamps, and since the church had been a Baptist Church, it had no pulpit or altar. Mr. John Lehtinen constructed a pulpit, and J. Ostman painted an altar painting of the Ascension of Christ. Other repairs and replacements were made in this church, affectionately called "The Little Church" in later years.

In the spring of the year 1899 there were received applications from two pastors from Finland. Pastor J. K. Lammi was elected on April 16, by a unanimous vote. However, pastor Lammi had been informed by the Church of Finland that his service in the Brooklyn church would not be recorded on his record in the State Church of Finland because the church here was not a member of the Suomi Synod, but was independent. Pastor Albin Hukkanen, who had served the Seamen's Mission in New York, was then asked to accept a call to serve the Brooklyn church. In December of 1899 he consented to do so at a salary of $90 a month. Under pastor Hukkanen the church began its first full time activity. Regular worship services, Sunday School, midweek services and youth work were all begun.

Thus in the beginning of the year 1900, the church felt it had a new lease on life. On January 28 the church building, which had never been dedicated, was dedicated as the place of worship, and pastor Hukkanen was installed as the first regular, full-time pastor of the Brooklyn congregation. The recently established congregation of Finns in Harlem also requested the services of pastor Hukkanen. The enthusiasm unfortunately began to wane, and by the end of the year the church was in financial need once more. Pastor Hukkanen went to Finland for a visit in the summer of 1901, but did not return.

The need for a local pastor caused the congregation to turn to Eveleth, Minnesota, where pastor Mikko Havukainen was serving. He accepted a call to serve the Brooklyn, New York and Jersey City parishes for $100 per month. The Brooklyn congregation wisely decided to join the Suomi Synod at its annual meeting on January 12, 1902. The work of pastor Havukainen was very brief. He arrived in Brooklyn on January 27 and God called him from this life on March 16, less than three months after his arrival. In Greenwood cemetery the remains of the young pastor still rest.

In December of the same year, pastor Evert Blomberg arrived from Finland to be the local pastor. Pastor Blomberg was an experienced pastor who also was able to speak the English language. The period of pastor Blomberg's ministry was a stormy one. The European political revolution swept many Finns along with it. The sentiment against the church was at times violent. One Matti Kurikka was the chief instigator in these movements locally and strangely enough, some leading members of the church were found among his followers. After the death of two children and an unhappy life in America, pastor Blomberg returned to Finland in 1905.

In the interim between pastors, Hugo Winter, a pastor from Finland, ministered in Brooklyn in 1905. He was succeeded by pastor Nimrod Johansson, who did part time work here along with serving the Seamen's Mission in New York. In 1906, at the suggestion of Mr. Victor Grant, the church turned to the Consistory of the Suomi Synod to seek help. Pastor Salomon Ilmonen was elected pastor; he served in two periods, from 1906-1907 and from 1916-1922. Pastor Ilmonen gained recognition as the first historian of the Finns in America. In 1906 the need for a new church was expressed. Mrs. Hilma Bergroth was a leader in the proposed project. At a meeting in July of 1906, V. Grant gave one dollar to the fund and 39 others followed his example, with the result that the project for a new church was $40 richer.

Because of some differences, pastor Ilmonen resigned, and the congregation had to seek a new pastor. Pastor Alvar Rautalahti sent a letter from Finland in January of 1908, in which he stated that he would be in New York by the following month. He served the congregation for two periods, from 1908-1911 and from 1922-1925. Soon after the arrival of the new pastor, the desire for a new church was very strong. The congregation decided to sell the "little church"; this was done at a price of $4,000. A building committee was elected with the following members: V. Heini, O. Tuomisto, V. Grant, Gust Peterson, H. Pihlman and Charles Stenvall. Under the energetic leadership of pastor Rautalahti, the committee sought gifts and loans from friends, and also sought a place to build. In March of 1908 it was announced that two lots could be purchased along 44th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues for a price of $2,000. The lots were purchased, and a larger committee was elected to guide the construction. This committee, that guided the building of the present church was composed of Victor Heini (chairman), Oscar Tuomisto, Victor Grant, Gustaf Peterson, H. Pihlman, Charles Stenvall, David Toivonen, Kalle Rimmi, Victor Salmi, Andrew Edwards, Väinö Peterson, Otto Hellman, Jalmar Paavola, Fred Johnson and Aleks Puumala. The plans for the new church were approved on June 26, 1908, and the construction began a month later. On Sept. 13, 1908, the corner stone containing documents of the church's history, hymnals, a Bible, etc., was laid by Dr. A. Rautalahti.

The new church was opened for worship in Feb. 15 and 16 of 1909, and the dedicatory services were held August 29 of the same year. The church was soon without a minister, for Dr. Rautalahti resigned. Pastors Eliel Sjöblom and Kalle Mäkinen, who were working with the Seamen's Mission at the time, were asked to conduct services here. Unfortunate disagreements arose concernig the methods and doctrines upheld by pastor Sjöblom. Soon the governing board of the Seamen's Mission in Finland refused to permit the work of its pastors to continue in Brooklyn. The congregation thereupon decided to call pastor Niilo Korhonen, who was the pastor in Monessen, Pa. Pastor Korhonen was on his way to

China as a missionary, but was detained in this country for some time. He accepted the call and served from 1914 to 1916, after which time he went to China. After this pastor S. Ilmonen who had served the congregation earlier, accepted a call again and served until 1922. After his second stay in Brooklyn ended, Dr. Alvar Rautalahti accepted a second call to Brooklyn. This time he served until 1925. During this time the first English services were held in the church by a student from Upsala College, Mr. Danielson. A parsonage apartment was also purchased at this time at 4404 6th Avenue. After the resignation of Dr. Rautalahti in 1925, pastor Matti Kortesmäki accepted a call. He served until 1934. In Feb. of 1928 it was suggested that the church ought to purchase a new organ. A committee was elected to investigate the matter. In April it was decided at a congregational meeting to purchase a Möller organ at a cost of $5,000. The organist, Mr. J. Honkonen was a prime figure in this effort.

When Pastor Kortesmäki resigned in 1934, the congregation decided to inquire whether pastor J. Virtanen of Finland or Y. Joki of Ashtabula, O., would accept the position. Because no definite answer was immediately forthcoming, pastor Eero Wartiainen and seminarian Lauri Anderson served the congregation, the latter in English. In the fall of 1935 Pastor Y. Joki accepted the call to Brooklyn. He served a total of 11 years, until 1947. During this time the congregation was organized into smaller groups or divisions with the purpose in mind of each group preparing programs and other activities to further the work of the church. A Girls' Group also was active under the leadership of Mrs. Y. Joki and Miss N. Linden. A youth organization, which also formed a dramatic society was active in these years. A Young Women's Club was organized in 1941, but this organization later became the Lutheran Women's Guild.

In the spring of 1946, after serving about -- years, pastor Y. Joki resigned as pastor of the Brooklyn congregation, having accepted a call to the Lake Shore parish (Chassell and neighboring communities) in Michigan. In the meeting held on May 26, 1946, pastor Bernhard Hillilä, who was then serving the Fairport, Ohio, congregation was elected to serve the Brooklyn church. In September of 1946, pastor Hillilä arrived in Brooklyn. In many respects the work of pastor Hillilä, even though it lasted less than three years, was of tremendous importance to the church. It was a period of transition. Previously the work had been carried on almost exclusively in Finnish. Pastor Hillilä immediately organized two worship services for each Sunday, one in each language. Because this became a regular feature of the work of the church, it soon began to bear fruit. The constitution of the church was re-written, following the model constitution proposed by the Suomi Synod. An English Choir was organized to enrich the worship services. A Brotherhood was organized, and the Young Women's Club was reorganized and revitalized as the Lutheran Women's Guild. Both the Brotherhood and the Guild have joined the Eastern Conference Brotherhoods and Guilds, thus giving them ties to the work of the Suomi Synod elsewhere. A Luther League replaced the Young People's group, and the Girl's Group, which had ceased to be active.

The period in the history of the church was critical. Many young people had been lost because of the lack of English worship and activities. The necessity of becoming a community church, that serves the youth born and educated here, was keenly felt. Under the capable guidance of pastor Hillilä the transition to a fully bilingual church was made swiftly and painlessly. The pattern then set is still being followed. Brooklyn experienced a new enthusiasm and life under its new pastor. Mrs. Bernhard Hillilä worked capably with her husband making very valuable contributions in the Sunday School and in the Lutheran Women's Guild, as well as in the life of the church in general. The Sunday School grew in numbers. The church records were once more brought up to date. The congregation began to fulfill quotas to Suomi College and Lutheran World Action. These efforts had been supported before, but rarely had the quota been fulfilled. A new grasp on Christian stewardship was taken by the members and friends of the church.

All the success that seemed to crown the work during this period suffered a tragic blow when the front of the church burned down on March 26, 1947. The damages were estimated at $21,000. But the members were undaunted in their resolution to go ahead. Shortly before the fire the congregation had been able to pay all its debts for the first time in its history. An increase in insurance for the church had been approved by the Church Council the evening before the fire but was not yet arranged with the insurance company. God works in mysterious ways to perform wonders. Perhaps never before in the history of the Brooklyn church had people so sincerely and freely offered time, talent, and money to help the church. Plans were drawn up, and the rebuilding began. All worship services continued in the church even in the cold of March. The fire had so ruined the front of the church that it was possible to see the altar from the street. But the work went on. It must be said that a fire in the church had set a fire in the hearts of its members! The church with its modern front was soon completed. The rebuilt church was more practical than ever before.

In the summer of 1948 pastor Hillilä left the Brooklyn church to become the president of Suomi College in Hancock, Michigan. Pastor David J. Halttunen was elected to serve the church as his successor. Outstanding among the events in the life of the church in its recent development was the construction of a new parsonage. This story is related elsewhere in this booklet. The congregation also has adopted the envelope system of finance and has found it to be much more satisfactory. No dues are required of members, but instead each member is encouraged to give freely, out of a willing heart, all that he desires. The new system has found an increase of about 40 % in the offerings. When the Eastern Conference bought a new Bible Camp, now named Lutherland, the Finnish Ev. Lutheran churches of New York helped the project by erecting a large cabin on the property for the use of the Eastern Conference. The cabin was built by two men in our congregation, Frank Bruun and Kalle Lindquist. The total cost of around $1,000, was shared by the Harlem church and our own.

Thus sixty years have passed. It has been the story of much hard work, of sacrifice, and of love. But above all it is the story of the patience and love of God. Human weakness and sin tends to destroy God's work, and to hinder its progress. Our thanksgiving must always be tempered with the humble plea concerning the work of our church: "Forgive us our sins." The real success of the church, or its failure, is not granted to us to measure. To the extent that the church has called and won souls for Christ and His Kingdom, she has been successful. To the extent that they have not been reached she has failed. In these critical days may the Lord make this church an instrument of His hand, so that in eternity the harvest of souls would find many who found, loved and served their Lord through this church. In this world of change, in which the grass withereth and the flower fadeth, only the word of the Lord endures forever!

September 20, 1951.

Published in The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. 752-44th Street Brooklyn 20, N. Y. 60th Anniversary 1891-1951, p. 11-19.

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