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Trinity Lutheran, 1893-1993

Grace Shackman

When Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1893, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and William, its mission was to give Ann Arbor's Lutheran population the choice of English-language church services. Ann Arbor's original Lutheran church, Zion Lutheran, held its services in German. That left the city's growing number of Lutherans of other nationalities unserved. And by then, even some German Lutheran families were more comfortable speaking English. Longtime Trinity member Gladys Brown remembers that her parents joined the new church because "they wanted their children brought up in an English-speaking church."

The impulse that led to Trinity's founding came from Carl W. Belser, a Lutheran minister who taught Semitic languages at the U-M. Concerned that Lutheran college students did not have a church home in Ann Arbor, he began in 1892 to hold informal Sunday afternoon sessions. As the group grew and townsfolk also began coming, he appealed to the Home Mission Board of the General Synod for help in starting a permanent congregation.

The first minister of Trinity was William. L. Tedrow, who came from Indiana to preach one Sunday and was so well liked that the congregation asked the board to let him stay. He took over in February 1893. The congregation was formally organized on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1893, with forty charter members, and by June they had found a building site on the corner of William and Fifth. They moved the wooden Italianate house standing there to the back of the lot on the William Street side, where it became the parsonage. The congregation met at the U-M's ecumenical student center, Newberry Hall (now the Kelsey Museum), while the 400-seat church was under construction. The completed church was dedicated April 5, 1896.

The Ann Arbor Register for April 9, 1896, described the new church as "a neat and cozy structure and a ·great credit both to the pastor and people." Entering from either William or Fifth, people would go down an aisle to the sanctuary, its two identical wings decorated with arch-shaped stained-glass windows. The basement, divided into two rooms and a Small kitchen, was used for Sunday school classes and group functions.

Music was supplied by a hand-powered pump organ. Old-timers remember the Christmas when the man who pumped the bellows for the organ agreed to play San~a. In the middle of the service the organ suddenly stopped. It turned out that the glue holding Santa's beard contained chloroform, which had put him to sleep.

The ambitious building plan left the young congregation financially strapp~d: though the church was designed with a tall central bell tower, it stood empty until 1919, when Saranda Miller, an employee at Muehlig's, gave money for a bell in memory of her husband, Joseph. From then on, the bell rang before each service. At midnight on Christmas Eve, member Gertrude Wagner remembers, the choir would climb a ladder to the top of the tower and sing Christmas carols, the music wafting out over the surrounding homes.

From the beginning, Trinity had a close relationship to the university. Lutheran college students were encouraged to sing in the choir or teach Sunday School, and women from Zion and Trinity took turns serving them Sunday dinners. With the .increase in university enrollment after World War I, Trinity pastors took on the additional job of student ministry. After World War II, with another enrollment jump, the United Lutheran Church bought property at Forest and Hill to build the Lord of Light campus ministry, and hired the Reverend Henry Yoder (pastor from 1932 to 1945) away from Trinity to lead it.

Yoder's successor at Trinity, Walter Brandt, was the last pastor to live in the William Street parsonage. Already an old house when the church was built, it was very run-down by the late 1940's. The congregation renovated the parsonage to make it the parish hall, housing the office, five much-needed Sunday school classrooms, and a caretaker's apartment. They bought a house on Granger for Brandt and his wife, Mary.

At the same time, the congregation decided also to attack the backlog of church repairs that had piled up during the Depression, when there was no money, and World War II, when there were no supplies. Some suggested it would make more sense just to move, but the love of the original building and the importance of the downtown location--especially since Zion Lutheran had just moved out to West Liberty- made them hesitate.

In the end, the decision was made for them. Brandt's successor, Richard Pries, had been on the job only two days in 1956 when he was visited by representatives of the YM-YWCA. The YWCA had for years been based in the former Christian Mack house at the comer of William and Fourth A venue, and the YMCA had its own building on North Fourth. But the organizations had merged in 1953 and wanted to build a joint facility on the whole block of William between Fourth and Fifth. They needed the church and parish hall to complete the parcel.

Parishioners were shocked. In her history of the church, 100 Years in God's Grace, Mary Sedlander writes, "They were a congregation of 335 people, few of whom were well-to-do: They had only, within the last few years, managed to get their budget balanced and their property in good repair. They had just welcomed a young, inexperienced pastor after having had none at all for six months. Now they were being asked, within a period of two years, to locate suitable property and erect a new church building."

But rather than face being enclosed on two sides by the "Y," they agreed. They bought a piece of land on Stadium from Gottlob Schumacher. U-M architecture professor Ralph Hammett, a Trinity member, designed a modem church very different from the original. He did keep one feature: a central tower, from which Saranda Miller's bell still rings.

Both the "Y" and the church thrived in their new locations. Since the move, Trinity's membership has grown to 1 ,250, making it one of the city's largest churches. Unlike many Lutheran congregations, Trinity's is ethnically diverse. Current pastor Walter Arnold says that about half the members are not even from Lutheran backgrounds.

Trinity is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year with a series of events structured to look ahead as well as back. In January they celebrated the past by inviting former pastors and interns and conducting a service with an old liturgy. A March service was devoted to the present, and in April they used a new liturgy and music. by contemporary composers. For his sermon, Arnold used Jeremiah 29: 11, "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

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Grace Shackman