If you have ever driven on I-55 in Illinois headed to St. Louis, you’ve seen it. And if you were driving at night, well, you can’t miss it. Sitting right on historic Route 66, a stone’s throw from the noisy expressway, St. Paul Lutheran Church U.A.C., Hamel, Illinois, is a local landmark. The neon cross atop the building, given in memory of a member who died in WWII, shines as a beacon in the night.
More than 150 years ago, settlers from Germany, many of them from Gehlenbeck in Wesphalia, formed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, nicknamed “New Gehlenbeck” in honor of their homeland. The fledgling congregation met first in a member’s home, then in a newly constructed parsonage with a large room that also served as their school. The first church proper was built during the Civil War, and the present sanctuary was built during the Great Depression.
Albert Brandt, late member of St. Paul, wrote down his remembrances of the school and parish life in the early 20th century in “It Happened at St. Paul: A Story of God’s People,” as told by Albert Brandt.
I started going to German American parochial school at St. Paul’s New Gehlenbeck in 1921. The teacher then was John Schildt (1919-1934). The pastor then was Rev. H.H. Hanson, 1909-1934.
It seems the New Gehlenbeck settlers chose Hamel for its resemblance to the land they left. Pastor William Weedon talks about the area and the changes the church has seen.
The area around Hamel was originally all farmland–flat, rather like the territory the settlers came from in Germany, and suitable for dairy. In the last 25 years the metro east of St. Louis has grown quite a bit, and our parish has gone from being mostly farmers to being really a suburban parish located in the country on the far northern rim of the St. Louis metro area. New members no longer come necessarily from the countryside and villages around the parish; our newest members came from a town about half an hour away. They’re not exceptional. The parish boundaries are as far as people are comfortable driving in an automobile.
According to Albert Brandt, very few people had automobiles when he was a boy, and comfort didn’t really seem to be a consideration in getting oneself to church or school.
I remember when all church goers arrived in buggies and surries to attend church services and there was not one automobile nary a one on the grounds. All transportation of people was by horse power or walking. . . . We had no snow days then. School was never called off because of snow no matter how deep it got. . . .Everybody walked to school. Northern students would catch a ride on a milk truck and ride part of the way to the school when milk trucks made their debut or first appearance. A ride with traveling vehicles on Hillsboro road was always accepted on our way trekking homeward.
This steadfast parish made confessional Lutheran catechesis a priority and they expected their children to behave and to respect their teachers and esteem their pastor. This is not to say that they were not typical children! Albert remembers:
During school sessions for discipline control the teacher used a long leather whipping strap to chastise unruly students which he occasionally used. I saw teacher use it on boys but never girls. They apparently were better behaved than the boys. During noon recess while teacher was home for his noon meal some boys would open the drawer on teacher’s desk where he kept his whipping strap and cut off a couple of inches of strap. This happened more than once. Apparently teacher never caught onto the prank and by the time I was confirmed and left St. Paul’s school there wasn’t much strap left. . . . Teachers then were very strict and believed in the old saying “spare the rod and spoil the child.” This was acceptable those days. We did receive a good Christian education and I am thankful for that.
School opened daily with a greeting “Good morning dear teacher” in German “Guten morgen, Herr Laerer.” We done a lot of singing, much of it out of a book called “Lieder Perlen.” Luther’s Small Catechism and the Bible were basically taught in the German language. If I remember right Catechism was taught in English one day a week only on Wednesday. All Bible study was in the German language only and none in English. Reading and writing was taught in both languages.
When you would ask some of the old timers if they spoke English they would answer Yes, I speak American. They didn’t call it English but always called it American. My own father called English “American” vs. German.
Later on as more English was being spoken in St. Paul’s parish a switch was made from having all services in German to having some services in the English language. I don’t think that Rev. Hansen had any English language instructions at the seminary. When preaching on the pulpit he gave it his best under the circumstances. . . .Anyway leave it to “papa Hansen” he got the message across. He was held in high esteem and highly respected by parishioners of St. Paul. At the onset of the Great Depression of 1929 and 1930 he asked the congregation to lower his salary.
Many years have passed since Albert Brandt attended school at St. Paul’s; the hitching posts have been replaced with a paved lot. Much has not changed, however. This parish is committed to the Divine Service, the study of God’s Word, the proper distinction of Law and Gospel, and the historic liturgy of the Church. Now, as then, St. Paul’s is a confessional congregation. “Very much so,” says Pastor Weedon.
St. Paul‘s is proud of its Lutheran heritage and desires to be nothing but Lutheran. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect; we’re not. But we consciously try to allow the Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Symbols to shape not just the preaching and teaching we do here, but also our administration of the Sacraments and our life together in Christ.
Jeff Schwarz and his family are members of St. Paul. He remembers his first visit to the church, talks about the preaching and teaching at St. Paul, and commends his fellow parishioners.
I’ll never forget our first visit to St. Paul’s. After attending the Divine Service, several members encouraged us to attend Bible class. Pastor Weedon is an exemplary teacher and preacher. . . . Pastor Weedon preaches Law & Gospel. The Law to show me my sin; the Gospel for my constant need and dependence on Jesus.
The liturgy is conducted with reverence, sacredness and holiness. The parishioners at St. Paul’s have been thoroughly instructed into the Biblical and historical basis for the liturgy.
My fellow parishioners at St. Paul’s have been extremely supportive during my wife’s illness and my unemployment.
Who is St. Paul’s pastor? William Weedon has served as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hamel, Illinois, since 1992. He holds an M.Div (1986) and an S.T.M. (1998) from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He has been guest preacher on The Lutheran Hour, and has had numerous items published in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Lutheran Witness, The Bride of Christ, and other journals. He is a frequent guest on the radio show Issues, Etc.. He has also served as a plenary speaker for the Higher Things Youth Conference, the St. Michael’s Liturgical Institute, and several pastoral conferences. His areas of interest include liturgy, patristics, preaching, catechumenal ministry, Atkins, and church music. He and his wife, Cindi, have been blessed with three children by nature and one by grace (a son-in-law). You can visit him at his blog: weedon.blogspot.com
Pastor Weedon talks about the challenges, frustrations and joys of being the pastor of a confessional congregation.
I think the biggest challenge that any pastor faces is opening up the congregation’s eyes to a wider vision of what “Lutheran” means than just what they and their grandparents knew. Our history is vast, the heritage is rich, and our story is complex. the best way to help a congregation begin or continue to appropriate that heritage, however, is to open up the Lutheran Symbols and begin studying them together, showing them from the Scriptures how the Symbols of our Church say nothing but the truth of God’s Word, and how that entire truth centers in on the good news of the God who justifies sinners in Jesus Christ.
The greatest joy I have in this parish is that I am free to do and be what I have been ordained and called here to do and be. I get to preach, celebrate Eucharist, teach (in all kinds of settings), lead chapels, visit the sick and suffering, and comfort the dying. Probably my all time greatest joy is catechizing folks who are new to the faith and showing them the absolute joy of living from the sure and certain giving of our gracious God.
The greatest frustration I have is my own sinful flesh, which continues to fight against all the good gifts God wants me to receive and live from.
St. Paul’s members receive what they need to remain steadfast and firm in the face of the world and its threat to faith. Jeff identifies the threats he faces as “the devil, the world and my sinful flesh. He is equipped for facing these threats by “placing myself where God gives His gifts. We regularly have ‘Jesus time’ in the Schwarz household. We use The Priesthood Prays for these family devotions.” Is the Lord’s Supper meaningful to Jeff? Oh, yes, “It’s heaven on earth!” Finally, there is the comfort of his most beloved books of the Bibleâ€”Romans and John. (Pastor Weedon’s favorite book of the Bible is John, as well.)
This visit to St. Paul Lutheran Church U.A.C. in Hamel, Illinois, will conclude with Hebrews 12:22-29. It is Pastor Weedon’s favorite Bible passage because, he says, “It’s all about the Divine Service!”
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shakenâ€”that is, things that have been madeâ€”in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.