A cosmopolitan congregation cherishes its rural German roots
Once a small, all-German country church, Zion Lutheran at Rogers Corners in Freedom Township has become a large, modern, diverse congregation. The original 1867 historic church still sits on the northwest comer of Waters and Fletcher, across the street from the current church, built in 1974.
Zion was founded in 1865 by a group that broke off from St. Thomas, a German church that still stands at Ellsworth and Haab. Zion's bylaws mandated that services and religious teachings be conducted in German. The congregation, with thirty-four men as charter members, at first met in a nearby public school. In 1867 Zion finished building a neo-Gothic brick structure, similar to churches in Germany, and topped with a bell tower. The interior was used solely for worship space—religious instruction and meetings continued to be held at the schoolhouse until 1876, when members bought another unused school building and moved it to the church site.
Zion shared a minister with Bethel Church for two years and shared another with St. Thomas for six more. By 1873 it was large enough to support its own pastor and hired Johannes Baumann. The congregation occasionally had trouble paying the pastor's salary on time but always made sure he was at least well sheltered and fed. The church bought Frederick Emminger's house, north of the church on the east side of Fletcher, for a parsonage, and members maintained and improved it. They rented Emminger's fields to farmers, who gave the minister some of the crops. When parishioners slaughtered an animal or made sausage, they would give some of it to the pastor.
In 1889 the congregation built a new parsonage for pastor Heinrich Lemster in a vernacular Gothic Revival style that matched the church. It still stands at 2905 South Fletcher. One of the two front doors opened directly into the minister's study, allowing parishioners to visit him without bothering the family.
A group split from Zion in 1890 over the question of bread or wafers for communion. Zion had a new bread oven, but Lemster preferred wafers. The breakaway group founded St. John's Church nearby on Waters Road, now affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
In 1903 Zion built a new school. It was used mainly as a general meeting place for the congregation and for confirmation classes, held each fall and spring. "We'd raise Cain when the pastor went home for lunch," recalls Norman Wenk, a lifelong member of Zion, "tease the girls, chase them around the woodshed, that sort of thing."
In 1910 a new pastor from Germany, Ernst Thieme, and his wife, Sybial, moved into the parsonage. Wenk remembers Sybial as "a jokester" and "a happy-go-lucky lady"—with a stern husband. Wenk says he was "a strict disciplinarian, who didn't allow any whispering in church. I remember him pounding on the pulpit when kids were naughty."
In 1917 the church prepared to celebrate its golden anniversary, even buying a new organ for the occasion. But less than a month before the anniversary, on June 6, at 2 p.m., a tornado struck. "It was a sad sight to see our small church without a roof and tower, and the front wall only standing in part," Thieme wrote in the church history. "The back part of the church with the altar and the pulpit remained standing... The schoolhouse was torn off its foundation and scattered all over. On the parsonage, the roof was torn off and the building could not be occupied." Miraculously, the organ and the bell tower were spared.
Starting the very day of the tornado, parishioners began to rebuild the parsonage and school exactly as they had been but altered the church by moving the tower toward the front, giving it a more elegant look. They held their delayed anniversary celebration on September 16.
The response to the tornado was typical of the hands-on congregation. Members called special meetings to decide things like lighting for the church (in 1923 they bought a Delco generator) or putting a bathroom in the parsonage (in 1936). Wenk recalls they had work "bees" to collect firewood for the minister, and the minutes refer to cemetery bees to clean up the graveyard.
Although the congregation was fond of Thieme, his lack of English was a problem for younger members who wanted occasional English sermons. In 1926 he returned to Germany. His successor, Moritz Brueckner, was bilingual. Like many of his parishioners, Brueckner had been born in America to German parents. After his arrival the congregation changed the bylaws to allow children's religious classes to be taught in English. In 1930 Brueckner began preaching one English sermon a month. By the time he retired in 1954, the ratio had reversed, and he was down to just one German sermon a month.
Until 1931 men sat on the pulpit side of the church and women on the organ side. Martha and Harold Eiseman changed all that by sitting together the first Sunday after their honeymoon. "Three weeks later another couple sat together, then another. Soon they were all sitting together," Martha Eiseman recalls.
In 1940 Zion decided to build a parish hall, but World War II put the project on hold. As the congregation had done in World War I, members sent food and supplies to German civilians, including Jell-0 to the Thiemes. Ernst Thieme later wrote that he didn't know how he would have survived without this help.
After the war the church bought the Beuerle property on Waters Road directly across the street. The members finished the parish hall in 1949 and added a new parsonage in 1954. Brueckner stayed in the old parsonage until he retired in 1955; afterward the congregation gave him the old school, which he moved north of the parsonage and converted into a house, where he lived the rest of his life. The house still stands.
In 1974 the congregation built a new church next to the parish hall. Pastor Theodore Brueckner, son of Moritz Brueckner, was guest preacher at the last service in the old church. Zion still uses the old church for weddings and funerals and one service every summer. In 1979 it was entered on the State Register of Historic Places. A board that includes some people who are not Zion members, such as Angie and Jack Lewis, who live in the old parsonage, now oversees the old church.
Zion has grown to more than 400 members. Current pastor David Hendricks notes that the congregation now includes people of Scandinavian, Japanese, and Hispanic descent as well as a good number of Germans, and that members are coming from Chelsea, Manchester, Dexter, Ann Arbor, and Grass Lake. Instead of serving only local farming families, Zion now counts many professionals among its members. But the same closeness survives. Lifelong membership is common. It is not unusual at funerals for the pastor to cite the deceased's confirmation verse.
New members are attracted by this connectedness. Susan Wiley, the church secretary, recalls being impressed with the church's "feeling of history and ties to the community." Martha Eiseman, who joined in 1931 as a young bride, recently moved to the Chelsea Retirement Communities but still attends Zion. "My daughter comes and picks me up," she explains. "It's always nice. I see so many people I know."
Photo Caption: The original Zion was destroyed by a tornado in 1917, shortly after the photo at right was taken. The rebuilt church has its steeple at the front.