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A Century of Lutheranism in Conneaut, Ohio

E. Richard Bowen

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was formed on the 27th day of January in the year A.D. 1963. Its roots and history weave their way through two predecessor congregations to the establishment of the Lutheran faith in Conneaut a century ago. Those congregations were The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (later named Faith Lutheran) and Grace Lutheran Church. Since 1895, the city of Conneaut and its surrounding areas have experienced the witness of Lutherans to the Holy Gospel through these congregations.

Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (Faith Lutheran)

The Finnish immigrants, who arrived about 1890, and worked at the ore docks and Bessemer Railroad, had no organized fellowship of faith for five years. They found this fellowship in their informal gatherings, but felt keenly the need for pastoral leadership and guidance. After many meetings a group of believers made the decision to organize a congregation, seeking to share a pastor with a neighboring congregation.

On July 14, 1895, this group held the organizational meeting of the "Conneaut Finnish Lutheran Evangelical Congregation". The names of fifty-eight men appeared on the membership roster. Officers were Anton Markala, Isak Lemponen, Jaakob Lemponen and Jaakob Palo. The congregation called the Rev. Aapeli Kivioja, pastor of Bethany Lutheran, Ashtabula Harbor, to serve it part-time, in addition to his duties there. He had been conducting services in Conneaut regularly since March 1894.

The congregation functioned with independent Lutheran status until it was issued a formal charter, recorded in Columbus, February 1, 1897. It affiliated with the Suomi Synod (The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) on September 18, 1900. On December 8, 1957, the congregation adopted a new name, Faith Lutheran Church. It remained a congregation of the Suomi Synod until both that national body and the congregation merged into the Lutheran Church in America on January 1, 1963.

For several years, services and activities were held at the former Kilpi Temperance Hall, now the Conneaut Community Center. Realizing appreciable growth, the congregation purchased a frame building and moved it to the southeastern corner of Broad and Erie Streets, where the congregation had purchased a lot. Services were held there, as well as a Sunday School, established in 1899. The congregation soon outgrew the building and made plans to construct a new sanctuary. The meetingroom type church was sold and moved to another location. The cornerstone for the new sanctuary was laid on December 12, 1900, during the pastorate of the Rev. K.F. Salovaara. Construction of the building was accomplished largely by volunteer labor. One written record of the congregation's history indicates that enthusiasm for the new church was so great that at times there were more volunteer workers than necessary at the construction site. The new church, in the design of the well known church of Ylistaro, Finland, was dedicated on July 21, 1901.

Throughout its first decades the congregation was not large enough to call a fulltime pastor. It was yoked with a congregation either in Ashtabula Harbor or Fairport Harbor. The pastors lived in those communities and commuted to Conneaut for services. The first pastor called to full time ministry in the congregation was the Rev. Mauno Kuusi, who was installed in July 1917. Not until the Rev. Matti Pesonen accepted its call did the congregation consider building a parsonage. The Ladies' Aid purchased a lot at 1003 Broad Street,almost across the street from the church. Construction was begun in August 1921, and on December 16, the pastors family moved in. A housewarming was held on Dec. 18, 1921. As with the church, construction was completed largely by volunteer labor. Additionally, the project was helped considerably by the gift of building materials from the Bessemer Railroad and the Pittsburgh et Conneaut Dock Company.

As the original name of the congregation indicates,n the only language of the congregation for over half a century was Finnish. The Finnish families conducted most of their daily business in their mother tongue. It followd That it shold be the language of their worship services and congregational activities. However, about 1956, The English language took its place beside the Finnish in all activities, records keeping, etc. As time moved forward, a steadily decreasing number of first generation Finns Weakened all Finns programs. Some Finnish activity was carried into the newly merged congregation; however, by the time of merger English was the "language of realm" in all aspects of congregational life.

The last called pastor of Faith Lutheran Church was the Rev. Olaf Rankinen. Under his lesdership the congregation merged with the Grace congregation

Grace Lutheran Church

The beginnings of the Grace congregation are in some ways similar to those of Faith. Servises were held in places other than the church building until a sanctuary was built. Grace Lutheran was organized May 31, 1901, with twenty-six members on the roll. Prior to that time worship services were held in homes; the City Hall; the uppstairs offices of the Conneaut Evening News; and the Harper Block,in the 300 block of Harbour Street. An interesting item in the records of the congregation notes that the move from the City Hall was made because "the jailors made too much noise." Theather chairs, purchased from the Congregational Church, provided seating.

Thruoghout the years that the congregation was in process oforganizing and immediately following it was served by the Revs. G. A. Benze, I. O. Baker and F. C. Oberly. The first officers of the congregation were George Clauss, Herman Wrasse, Georg Walters, Fred Eckert, Frank Hoffman and Charles Van Horn. The congregation was incorporated on October 20, 1902, in the State of Ohio. On that day Grace Lutheran was admitted into membership of the Pittsburgh Synod, which was part of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. In 1918 it was enrolled among the congregations of the United Lutheran Church in America.

On October 30, 1902, with the Rev. I. H. Stetler as its pastor, the congregation purchased a lot on the southeast corner of Sandusky and State Streets. The dream of the people was to worship in their own building, constructed and dedicated solely for the purpos of worship and service to God.

With a fourhundred dollar mission appropiation from the synod, the congregation began to build. A one-floor brick building was built during the pastorate of the rev. C. E. Blethen. The firs service in the sanctuary was held February 12, 1905. The theather chairs were still in use, but were replaced later by pews. The Service of Dedication was held April 30, 1905.

In January 1915, discussion began that led to the construction of a basement beneath the building. With its completeion came also eqipment for the Sunday School, to be held in the new addition. Now there was also a place for the Ladies' Aid to meet andfellowship events to be held. The kitchen was then equipped and the first congregational dinner was served in the basement on November 13, 1915. The church building was now complete! It was dedicated to the Glory of Good on May 23, 1916.

Over the years many additions and improvements were completed. Some were building upgrades; other enchansed worship life. Among them were stained glass windows, a tower bell, a marble altar and baptismal font. In 1927, a six-room brick parsonage was built on State Street, behind the church. Pastor Glander's was the first parsonage family in this home. In 1954, it was sold and moved to a site on Old Mill Road.A larger hous was purchased at 422 Liberty Street, during the pastorate of the Rev. Robert Hamilton.

Served and Serving

From their beginnings, both congregations experienced help from brothers and sisters in Christ. Both congregations recieved aid from the wider Church. For a quarter century the Finnish congregation was served by pastors with calls to neighboring Lutheran congregations. Grace congregation began with help fron the synod and remained for nearly a half century on mission aid status. However, such need for help from others did not prevent either congregation from extending the Gospel message beyond its immidiate building or bounds. The Finnish congregation had two areas of strength that reached beyond itself.

a. The East Side Young People's Christian Fellowship. The area east of Conneaut Creek, commonly known as the East Side, was an extensive ruran one, with about thirty Finnish families living there and farming the land. The rigors of farming and difficulty of travel made it almost impossible for familys to attend all the activities at the church. At the end of World War I, the Fellowship was organised to provide Christian fellowship, instruction, and worship. Through three decades, lay leaders condukted weekly Sundaymorning worship services, Sunday School, and the Christian Youth Fellowship meetings. All activities were held in homes, with host families alternating weekly. Lay leaders throughout this era were Jaakko Kantola, Solomon Kesatie, Oscar Lampi, Alex Kantola and Lempi Kesatie. A choir, "Idan Kaiku" ("Eastern Echo"), was active for years. The group travelled occasionally to the chursh in the Harbor area to sing at worship services and other church events. The pastor of the Finnish church travelled to the East Side monthly, to conduct services. One pastor, the rev. Urho Valtari, was reputed to be so faithful in this that "he came no matter how bad the weather!"

This Christian activity continued faithfully for about three decades, until in 1947 it came to an end. Time, attrition, accomodating transportation, and other factors caused diminishment of numbers so that such a lay ministry was no more viable. People were so situated that they could now attend worship and other activities in the church in the Harbour area. An era ended. It was one symbolized by pious people determined to worship despite distance from the church building, faithful parents whos first concern was to inculcatethe saving faith in their children, and strong lay spiritual leadership in a community of belivers.

b. Monroe Township Finnish Hall. This organization of familys living in the rural area immediately south of Conneat had no official name. It consisted of ten or eleven Finnish families that lived and farmed in Monroe Township. It was established in the fall of 1935, when the group purchased the old Hatches Corners School building (a former one room school) from the Township.The building was used by the organization for many kinds of activity, among them worship and Christian fellowship gatherings.

The life situation of the Monroe Township families resembled that of those in the East Side: distance, lack of means to travel, and rigid demans of the farm life. Their spiritual needs and aspirations also were similar: that they should have structured worship regularly and provide their children a firm foundation in the faith.

For two decades pastors travelled monthly to the hall in Monroe Township to conduct worship. That time span included the Revs. Anton Korhonen and Sakari Halkola. A pastor from the Finnish Congregational Church in Ashtabula also conducted monthly services for the group. Other pastors and missionaries are said to have conducted occasional services.

The organization came to its end on November 19, 1956. Families became more actively involved in the Faith congregation at its location.

c. St. John's, Erie, Pennsylvania. For approximately a half century the Finnish church was related to St. John's Lutheran, a Finnish congregation situated at 935 West Second Street, in Erie. It seems that the congregation, while chartered and a member of the same national body as Faith, was too small to support a pastor. Yet the need for Finnish services was there.

The congregation was established sometime prior to 1910. Records are not available to this chronicler of events to indicate what pastoral leadership that congregation had in its first seventeen years. Chronicles of the Conneaut church record that the first pastor from here to serve St. John's was the Rev. Maunu I. Kuusi. The Conneat congregation decided in 1917 to separate from a yoked ministry with the Ashtabula church and call a pastor on its own. Conneaut would then be come yoked with the Erie congregation, and the pastor would serve both, while living in Conneaut.

From the inception of the arrangement with the Erie congregation, a succession of eight pastors travelled from their home base in Conneaut to serve that group with a regular schedule of services on the first and third Sunday evening of each month and on every Second Tuesdy at 7:30 PM. Pastor Armas Maki was the last pastor to serve the congregation. That group of about twenty-four people dissolved the congregation and joined St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Erie.

d. St. John's, Girard, Pennsylvania. In 1919, the Grace congregation agreed to shear its pastor with that small family of Lutherans in Girard. Every week the pastor would travel from Conneaut to girard to conduct worship. St. John's had a building in town, at the edge of the business district. Services were conducted every Sunday afternoon.

The arrangement lasted about three decades, ministry to St. John's having been initiated during the pastorate of the Rev. F. P. Welkner. It was carried on by six successive pastors until, during the pastorate of the Rev. N. A. Miller (1946-49), it was concluded. From that time forward the pastor of Grace mwould minister to one congregation only.

e. The Grace Missionary Society. From the beginning of its existense, Grace church was sustained by help of various kinds from the church. There was the missionary appropriation that helped build the church. Of immeasurable help were the seminarians that were sent at various times to care for the congregation in the summer during interim periods. Perhaps most important was the continuous financial aid from the domination: the congregation remained on mission on mission status until 1949, when, during the ministry of the Rev. William E. Fruth, it became self-supporting.

Missionary support from the church made a deep and lasting impression upon the members of the congregation. Early in the life of the congregation and during the pastorate of the Rev. John M. Nycum in the Missionary Society was established by the pastor's wife. The Society's constitution was adopted March 3,1910. The purpose of this group was to inform the congregation of the missionary activities of the denomination and synod, and to encourage support for the mission and missionaries of the Church. This enthusiasm for the wider work of the church was one of the gifts brought by Grace into the merger with Faith.

Faith and Grace Become Good Shepherd

The constituting convention of the Lutheran Church in America, held in Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan, June 28-July 1, 1962, brought together four church bodies with long histories and rich Lutheran traditions: American Evangelical Lutheran Church, Augustana Synod, Suomi Synod and United Lutheran Church in America. On January 1, 1963, when the L.C.A. was in full operation, Faith and Grase were in the same church bod, members of the Ohio Synod. However, while anticipatingthe new church body the congregation were engaged in plans for lokal merger. In mid-1960 merger committees were already working.

On January 27, 1963, the merger was consummated. A competition was held yo name the new congregation, with members submitting names they favored. The name was selected at a congregational meeting by way of an "ecclesiastical ballot", with elimination of names that did not recive a required number of votes on each respective ballot. After a number of ballots the name, "Good Shepherd Lutheran Church", was chosen by the people. Later, when the new church was planned, the design called for a niche in the outside front facade, which would house a life size statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The merger plans for the two congregations had called for the resignation of pastos of both congregations, so that a pastor might be called who had no affiliation with either congregation. The Rev. E. Olaf Rankinen of Faith and the Rev. Harlon M. Miller of Grace were faithful to the agreements, despite the dislocation they and their familys would experience. Both resigned and accepted calls to pastorates elswere in the church. Later in 1963, The Rev. Armas Maki was called as the first "solo" pastor of the congregation. He would serve in both the English and the Finnish languages.

Fourteen months after the merger the congregationapproved plans to build a new church. The Faith church was razed and the Grace church was sold to the New Apostolic Church, which still meets in that building. With combined resources from the congregations a new location was secured and plans to build moved ahead. A number of adjoining pieces of land were acqired at the present location, Lake Road and Grove street, and combined to make one large parcel, suitable for the new building. Land on the opposite side of Grove Street was acquired also, to provide for additional parking.

The construction bid was accepted at $218,759.00. The mortage would be $140,000.00. Construction was begun, with the grounbraking ceremony held on the afternoon of July 26, 1964. The cornerstone of the building was laid on November 11, 1964.Construction activity was followd with exitement and recorded on color slides. After waiting patiently but eagerly, the people saw the dream realized. A service of dedication was held November 21, 1965. The one floor structure's three wings enclose the sanctuary, fellowship hall and educational wing. Access to the building is without steps from a portico that protects from the weather.

In 1972, the Rev. Ted Pelikan, retired and living in Olmstead Falls, served as interim pastor. The congregation conducted its search for a pastor, and called the Rev. Dr. Clyde A. McGee, pastor of St.Stephen Lutheran, Stow, Ohio. He was installed on June 7, 1992, and continues to shepherd the congregation through the present.

Growth and change symbolize the first generation of the congregation's life. The worship life experienced new energy. Attendance of the predesessor congregations. The importance of music in the service increased. The choir and children's choir, bell choir and junior bell chore have added variety and richness to our worship. Concerts and ecumenical services at various times have brought members of the Conneaut community of faith to partcipate in events that were conducted to the glory of God and for spiritual enrichment of people. The congregation's ecumenical involvment in the community increased significantly. The Sunday School and Vacation Bible Schools found many new possibilities opening up for their ministries to children.

The Finnish worship continued to be held twice monthly until the late nineteen eighties, when its occurrense was reduced to six main Festival days in the liturgical calender. At pastor Bowen's retirement those services were discontinued. The Finnish remains only as one heritage among others that have been woven into the rich fabric of the congregation.

If there was the loss of the Finnish Worship there was also the gain of a new and innovative worship. At the beginning of June 1995, Pastor McGee introduced an early service, to be held every Sunday in the summer on the north lawn of the church. This well- recieved contemporary worship continues throughout the rest of the yer in the nave. It was added as a second service to give flexibility to the worship scheduleand offer alternatives to the membership.

The congregations has been the recipient of countless blessings and has in return had the privilage of being a blessing to others. An early retirementof the building indebtedness came as a resault of a gift from the former Kilpi Temperance Society. That group, upon disbanding, had sold its building to the emerging Conneaut Community Center. The proceeds, $11,920.77, were decignatedas a gift to Good Shepard Lutheran. The mortage was liquidated and a celebration service of mortague burning was held November 21,1976, exactly eleven years from the date of the dedication of the building. In gratitude, the congregation carried an offering of one thousand dollar to St Paul Lutheran Church in Jefferson, to support its projected expansion of ministry, with a full time pastor for the first time in some years.

Additions and improvements have enhanced both the physical property and spiritual life. A paved parkinglot was added in 1966, and a second one in 1977. An endowment fund was established within the first few years of the congregation's existens. Proceeds from it have contibuted significantly to some improvements. The Abaiding Memorial Fund has been the recipient of countless memorial gifts and the source for many importante enchancements of our worship life.

Among the fond hopes of the membes was a pipe organ. That hope originated with seed money from the former Finnish Brotherhood of Faith Church and was nurtured by the Pairs and Spares fellowship group of the new congregation, which continued to addto the original endowment. An organ committee, chaired by Ray Keskinen, having travelled as far as Maryland in the selection process, recommended that a pipe organbe constructed for us by the Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio. The recommendation was accepted and the instrument orderd. The front wallof the nave was re structured for proper sound projection. Structural and technical preparations of the building were completed by a connittee of men from the congregation. The completed organ was installed during the week of march 19, 1979, with the dedicatory service on June 10. Many memorials, contributions and gifts of love were given to bring this dream to reality. One of the special gifts was an ongoing labor of love. For some years, Jacob Kesatie carved and sold one hundred thirty-six pairs of wooden shoes for the benefit of the organ fund.

The stained glass windows that grace the altar, choir loft, nave and sacristy, began with a bequest from the late Tyne Ahlberg. In her lifetime she had been a devoted Sunday School teacher and Luther League advisor for over fiftyyears. A task forse, chaired by Linda Laine, recommended that the bequest be used to begin a stained glass window project, the bequest to pay for the window above the altar. A task force, comprised of members of the Abiding Memorial and the Tyne Ahlberg task force, went to work. As result of their recommendation the congregation entered into a contract with the Winterich Company of Solon, Ohio, to design and construct windows for the entire worship area. The theme would be "God's Work of Salvation in Christ."

The Biblical and Lutheran heritage of the church is depicted in the side entry doors and the sacristy. The Holy Trinity is the theme of the window above the altar. Of special interest and importance are the three windows in the choir loft. In them are pictured the former Finnish Curch (in its originally constructed state), the Grace Church, and the emblem of the former Lutheran Church of America.

It was expected that the project would take three years to complete. Howevwer, as windows appeared in the sanctuary appreciation of their beauty and meaning grew rapidly. Whithin one and a half years all the windows were in place. The dedication service was held on February 13, 1983.

The congregation continues to move forward in ministry. The Holy Spirit, guiding the Lutheran sector of God's family inConneaut, has worked His work of Grace through the Faith of countless dedicated people. That work continues under pastor McGee's leadership. Enhancements to the life of the fellowships continue to be in the plans. Dreams are still dreamed of new ways to witness to our Lord through our ministry of the congregation. One of those dreams should come to reality soon, namely a carillon, which will ring out our witness to the Good News with the sound of a bell similar to that of the original bell. It will also play hymns and Christian music at any set times. The Carillon fund kicks off on Reformation Sundy, October 29, 1995, the day that the Good Shepherd congregation celebrates a century of Lutheranism in Conneaut. The hope and expectation are that the necessary funds will have been gathered by the end of 1995, and the carillon then soon in place.

Every congregation must confess that its life is from the Lord Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to give itself in ministry for the sake of people, whose deepest need is salvation. In that ministry it is to give back to God from the manifold gifts that He has bestowed upon it. One of the greatest gifts that a congregation can give to God is its sons and daughters. God Shepherd has been blessed with the opportunity to give back that way. Two sons of the congregation have been ordained into the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Rev. Bradley A. Gee and the Rev. David A. Laakso serve in the active ministry, in Ohio and Pennsylvania respectively.

Into a New Century

In four years human history will move ioto a new century, indeed the next millenium, not knowing what will be the course of it. As Good Shepherd Church moves into a second century its members know not the exact course of events. They do know that their calling is to be found witnessing faithfully at all times to the sawing Gospel and their Lord Jesus Christ. The congregation's objective is to minister to eachother and to the community with the love of the Lord. It has the promise that the Lord who was crusified and resurrected for their salvation will not leave them, but will remain the faithful Good Shepherd of His flock.

"Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord." (Ps. 33:12, paraphr'd)

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This breaf history of the One Hundred Year witness of Lutherans and the Lutheran Church to the Gospel, was compiled in honor of that witness and to the glory of God by the Rev. E. Richard Bowen, retired, member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

I am grateful to those who in past generations and decades have recorded events, and thus provided written accounts from wich I have drawn information. I wish to thank the following for their oral accounts and written documents, wich have been of immeasurable help: Phyllis Fundermark, Andrew E. Kesatie, and Ruth Perkins.

The Rev. E. Richard Bowen, ret.
Conneaut, Ohio
September 26, 1995

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In 100 Years of Worship. 1995, 9 p.

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