Zion Lutheran Church marks 120th anniversary

By Dick Mason, The Observer September 22, 2010 10:00 am
It was a bold stroke.

A step that likely was controversial — one taken in 1912 by Rev. T.A. Schoenberg, then the new pastor of the Zion Lutheran Church in La Grande.

It was a move that revealed Schoenberg’s foresight and is one of many steps taken by La Grande Zion Lutheran church leaders and congregation members that will be commemorated this weekend as the church celebrates its 120th anniversary beginning Friday.

The celebration likely would not be taking place were it not for Schoenberg’s timely move in 1912 to bring English into the Faith Lutheran Church. The church had a nucleus of German immigrants when it was founded in 1890. All services were conducted in German until 1912, when Schoenberg became its fifth pastor.

He took the church’s reins at a time when membership had declined to the point that it was in danger of closing. Schoenberg quickly reorganized the church with a multilingual flair.

He began offering services in English and German, according to church records. The English services attracted more members and the church began to grow again. English proved so popular that soon all services were conducted in the language.

Still, the church’s German roots will never be forgotten. This will be evident this weekend when the anniversary celebration kicks off at 6 p.m. with a German potluck dinner at the church.

The celebration continues Saturday with a salute to another major component of the church’s legacy — reaching out to the community and the less fortunate. Zion Lutheran Church will hold a Community Project from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Congregation members during this time will spend two hours on community projects. Some will be teaching people how to serve as volunteers at Cook Memorial Library or at the Literacy Center in the library. Others will be gathering food for Neighbor-to-Neighbor Ministries and the Friday Backpack food program for children from families in need.

Such work is symbolic of the many things Zion Lutheran Church members have done for the community over many decades. They have worked extensively with Neighbor-to-Neighbor and Friday Backpack plus Shelter From The Storm, Youth For Christ and many other programs that benefit the community.

The celebration Saturday will also include a church open house from 1 to 3 p.m., a social meeting time from 5 to 5:45 p.m. and a catered dinner that will feature entertainment at   6 p.m. Entertainment will be provided by a German band led by Marge Woodford of La Grande.

The celebration concludes Sunday with a special church service at 9:30 a.m. and the presentation of fellowship awards.

All the anniversary activities, except the community fair, will be held at Zion Lutheran Church, 902 Fourth St. The church’s present building was finished  in 1954 and is the third in its 120-year history. An education unit for the church was completed in 1967.

The church, organized on Dec. 28, 1890, did not have a building through its first four or five years. Its initial services were conducted in the homes of congregation members and by circuited riding pastors, according to the church’s records, which are maintained by Suzanne Nelson.

Its first church building was constructed in 1895 on M Avenue. The Rev. Paul Groschuff, a circuit riding missionary from Spokane and Baker City, is believed to have given the initial sermon in the church building, according to church records. The structure had just four walls and a basement where there was a German school run by the church.

The early school reflected Zion Lutheran Church’s commitment to education, one it continues to have today, said congregation member Bev White.

She noted that Martin Luther, who founded the Lutheran Church in the 1500s, believed strongly in education and that congregation members should be able to read the Bible in their native language. Luther translated the Bible into German as a result.

The Zion Lutheran congregation moved out of its first building in the mid-1920s after its second church was built in 1925. It was dedicated June 20, 1925. Both of the church’s original two buildings still stand today.

The church is standing tall with a growing congregation of 135 members. Its long history is a credit to perseverance of its members today and its German founders.

“They (the German founders) were determined to worship in the manner they were brought up,’’ White said.