Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church 1897
The year 1897 was an exciting time not only for the group of German immigrants who were to establish what would become known as Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sayville but for Americans as well. William McKinley was elected President of the United States. The first practical and successful subway line was opened in Boston. The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was turned into a replica of the Palace of Versailles for one of the most extravagant parties of that year. America was infatuated and immersed in the lavishness of the gilded age.
However, in Sayville, a small group of German settlers were looking beyond the pleasures of the day to the future as a congregation. For the first two years, Lutherans living in Sayville received the Word from Pastors who would travel by stagecoach to conduct worship services. Life for our German ancestors was to change dramatically and forever when on July 25, 1897 three stagecoach loads of people came together at the Sayville railroad station to welcome the Reverend Theodore Bundenthal from Augusta, Missouri as the first full time Pastor to what was to become Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
However, as was true in 1897, and remains true today, Saint John's became a congregation of transition. After making the long journey from Augusta, Missouri to the bustling Town of Sayville, Reverend Bundenthal remained only four months before returning to Missouri. One can only imagine how discouraged the first congregants of Saint John's must have felt after waiting several years for the first Pastor and now seeing him return to Missouri. However, despite the short tenure of Reverend Bundenthal, on August 6, 1897, Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized and its first constitution was adopted.
While surely disheartened over the departure of Reverend Bundenthal, the charter members of Saint John's refused to doubt their mission or the influence of the Holy Spirit. In 1898, the Assistant Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church on 88th Street in Manhattan became our second full time Pastor at Saint John's. Pastor Herman Zoller was truly the architect of what was to become Saint John's Evangelical Lutheran Church. With the spiritual guidance of Reverend Zoller, an acre of property was purchased for the sum of $875.00. Each charter member of the congregation was requested to contribute the sum of $25.00 towards the purchase of this property for the site of what was to become our first Church. On May 27, 1898, a contract was signed for the construction of Saint John's for the sum of $1,650.00 and for a parsonage in June of the same year for the sum of $975.00. On July 3,1898, the cornerstone of the original Church was laid and a ceremony was presided over by Pastor Zoller and assisted by Reverend Edward Staudermann of Lindenhurst and Reverend Eisler of Richmond Hill, Queens County. On August 14, 1898 the new Church building was dedicated and Saint John's was blessed with a membership of 175 congregants.
God truly graced the people of Sayville with the talents and leadership of Pastor Zoller. As the congregation was composed primarily of first generation Germans, the worship services were conducted in their native language. Pastor Zoller personally instructed school children twice a week in a German class to enable them to improve their ability to speak the German language not only at home with their parents but also to increase their understanding of the Gospel which was given in German every Sunday.
The Holy Spirit moved Pastor Zoller to not
only serve as the Pastor Herman Zoller spiritual leader of
Saint John's but to the community. With Pastor Zoller's leadership, permanent Lutheran parishes were established in Suffolk County. Pastor Zoller
found time to establish parishes in Holbrook, Patchogue and
Terrace. With a growing congregation, and the efforts of Reverend Zoller,
Saint John's became self sustaining in 1909. In 1913, Saint John's became a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church
of Missouri, Ohio and other states, what was later to
be known as the Missouri Synod.
After serving his congregation for 17 years, in 1915, Pastor Zoller resigned to accept a call to Emanuel Lutheran Church in Patchogue which he had established as a preaching station.
In April of 1915, Pastor Jacob Essig of North Dakota accepted the call to serve Saint John's as its next Pastor. Pastor Essig's time with Saint John's was brief as he accepted a call for a parish in Buffalo, New York in 1917.
Pastor Adolf Meili of Maspeth, Queens was next called to serve as Saint John's in 1917. Interestingly, Pastor Meili besides being an effective minister was also a talented semi-professional baseball player for the local team which played in the Suffolk County Baseball League. Pastor Meili used his skills as a baseball player not only to assist his team but also to perform God's mission work. Legend has it that Pastor Meili served as God's first "free agent" in that he offered his services as a baseball player in return for assurances from his fellow team mates that they would attend Sunday service. In June of 1921, Pastor Meili resigned from the Pastorate at Saint John's to accept a call to Saratoga Springs, New York.
In August of 1921, Pastor Otto Graesser accepted the call to become Saint John's next Pastor. Pastor Graesser remained with Saint John's until 1927 when he left for a call in Michigan.
In October of that year, Pastor Albert J. Beyer
transferred from Saint John's of Brooklyn to Saint John's of Sayville. Interestingly, Pastor
Beyer had been an assistant Pastor to his father at Saint John's of Brooklyn and at a later time his
son would also provide Pastoral service there. While Pastor Beyer served at
Saint John's, the interior of
the Church was completely redone with the work being performed by the Church's
In September of 1932, Pastor Beyer resigned from his Pastoral role at Sayville.
In 1932, having had four Pastors in the past 15 years, Saint John's was praying for a pastor who could provide stability and leadership. The congregation's prayers were heard and in November of that year a call was sent to Pastor Louis H. Martin of the Zion Lutheran Church in Wallingford, Connecticut.
In addition to assuming responsibility for directing God's work in Sayville, Pastor Martin also inherited the effects of the Great Depression upon Sayville. In 1932, Saint John's had a communicant membership of only 65 members. Despite their small numbers, the work continued at Saint John's. In 1933, the basement of the Church was excavated and a new recreation room was constructed. As in the past, the congregation furnished much of the labor to perform the work. On October 1, 1933 the new basement was dedicated and the 35th anniversary of Saint John's was observed at a special service.
Under Pastor Martin's leadership, the Word of God was presented to the changing congregation of Saint John's. Up until January of 1934, the minutes of congregational meetings were recorded in German. As Martin Luther had argued that the people of Germany had the right to hear and read the Word in their native language, efforts were made to have the worship services conducted at Saint John's in English. On January 20, 1942 at a congregational meeting, a motion was made and seconded to terminate the worship service conducted in German on account of lack of attendance and to have German services on the holidays only. This could also have been due to WWII and anti-German sentiment at the time.
As one reviews the past 100 years of Saint John's we must reflect not only on the triumph but the tragedies as well. One of the greatest tragedies to affect the congregation occurred in July of 1955. In the late evening of July 19, 1955 a fire destroyed the original Church building in which not only memories but gifts and memorials were lost. Compounding the tragedy of a situation, was the reality that only one fourth of the loss was covered by insurance. Confident in God's love and guidance, the day after the fire, the governing body of Saint John's called an emergency meeting in order to launch a community wide appeal for funds to rebuild Saint John's. As Pastor Martin had promised, Saint John's would rebuild right on the very site of the original Church. With the assistance of the whole community, and the extraordinary efforts of members of the congregation, Saint John's was rebuilt. Saint Lawrence Roman Catholic Church provided its auditorium for the members of Saint John's to conduct its services. The congregation was also afforded the use of the second floor of the firehouse, the Sayville Republican Club and the Sayville High School auditorium. Other Churches and organizations in the community offered their facilities so that worship services might continue.
The congregation clearly responded to the call to rebuild the Church. Parishioners volunteered to send appeal letters to residences throughout the community. The Ladies Aid sponsored two cake sales and a spaghetti dinner. A clam bake was held to raise money. The Sayville Fire Department assisted by holding a bazaar. Children in Sayville organized carnivals and gave the proceeds to the Saint John's building fund. Two years after the fire, the faith and love of God's people at Saint John's resulted in the construction of a new Church dedicated to the glory of God on August 25, 1957.
After serving Saint John's for 27 years. Pastor Martin was succeeded by Pastor Eric Rieker. Pastor Rieker's influence was clearly felt as he assumed the Pastorate at Saint John's. A dramatic upsurge of membership took place that would continue to blossom through the 1960's. It was Pastor Rieker who originated the idea of home Bible study groups which are still being conducted today. As a hobby. Pastor Rieker would set the linotype for the Sunday Church bulletin at the printers shop. In 1964, Pastor Rieker resigned as Pastor of Saint John's to accept a call from Saint John's Lutheran Church in Stuyvesant, New York.
In 1964, Saint John's was to be blessed with another great Pastor when Pastor Egbert J. Dunker accepted a call to come to Saint John's. Upon his arrival. Pastor Dunker was responsible for initiating new approaches in Lutheran education. In 1965 the Vacation Bible School was started and continues to this date and is believed to be the oldest continuing Vacation Bible School in Sayville. As Sayville grew in population, Saint John's experienced a population growth as well. For Saint John's, Pastor Dunker was the man in the right place at the right time. His personality was such that he knew the names of all of the Church members, their children and relatives.
Along with the success of the Vacation Bible School, the Sunday School began its tremendous growth in the early 1960s. Three divisions of Sunday School were in place at Saint John's. Over 500 children were on the Sunday School rolls and average attendance exceeded 300 children. Because of the tremendous growth of the congregation, it was clear that a new facility was necessary for the Sunday School. On October 1, 1967 the Youth Building-Parish House was dedicated. The facility was to be used for Sunday School instruction and to serve as a gymnasium for Saint John's youth. In the Fall of 1965, the Lutheran Nursery School was established instructing 4 and 5 year olds in Sayville. In the Fall of 1971 the Play School opened for 3 year olds. With God's blessing the Saint John's Nursery School continues to blossom today.
Pastor Dunker's energy also extended to the field of missionary work. It was said that you had to tell Pastor Dunker to stay away because his enthusiasm and energy exceeded all bounds.
During the 1960s, Saint John's was also blessed with two active youth groups, namely the Walther League and Chi Rho. Through car washes, dances and Christmas card sales, the youth of Saint John's helped to support the work of the Church.
In addition to spiritual wealth, Saint John's began to expand its property. In 1968, a Vicarage was purchased and was to become the future home of the young men who served in the capacity as Vicars for Saint John's. In 1971, Luther Hall, the present home of Saint John's Preschool, was purchased and put to use for Sunday School, Confirmation and Preschool classes.
In 1978, in failing health.
Pastor Dunker resigned as Pastor of Saint John's.
Pastor Dunker was called home to our Lord a month later.
Pastor George Finsterle accepted the call to serve as Saint John's Pastor. Succeeding a man as well loved and well respected as Pastor Dunker was difficult for Reverend Finsterle. Saint John's was undergoing a difficult transition and looking to the Lord for guidance.
In 1981 Pastor Finsterle accepted a call to
Maryland and a vacancy existed at Saint John's. From 1981 to 1982 Saint John's was blessed with the service of Pastor
Albert Neibacher who served as our interim Pastor. Pastor Niebacher
served as a healing influence to the congregation through his peace, warmth and harmony. It was a special
practice of Pastor Niebacher at the end of every service to ask the congregation to sit down
Although his service at Saint John's ended as an interim Pastor in 1982, Pastor Neibacher continued to serve our congregation as a substitute Pastor until his death in 1991.
In 1982, Pastor John Collier accepted a call as Pastor of Saint John's. Pastor Collier was known as a warm human being. He also had a reputation for exhibiting his love of God and passion at the pulpit. He saw his mission as getting the focus back on God and his ministry. Pastor Collier was a very visible presence in the Church Nursery, Play School and the Vacation Bible School. He made every effort to visit the members of his congregation as well as the children of the Nursery School and Sunday School. His wife. Pat, was also active in the church choir. Pastor Collier left Saint John's in 1989.
Following Pastor Collier was Pastor Dan Schmalz, who faithfully served the congregation of Saint John's until his departure in 1994.
For a year Saint John's was without the spiritual guidance of a pastor. During this time, Saint John's was truly blessed by one of its own. In 1995 Ralph Scofield stepped forward and served Saint John's as its lay minister. Although not an ordained pastor. Deacon Scofield was able to provide his presence and faith to stabilize Saint John's until the arrival of its newest pastor. He continues to serve in this capacity until his retirement in 1998.
In January 1997, Pastor Harry Schenkel accepted the call as the newest Pastor of Saint John's having served as an Assistant Pastor at Our Redeemer in Aquebogue. New York. Already Pastor Schenkel's enthusiasm and youthfulness have well served Saint John's. The youth of the Church has become involved once again in the work of the congregation. Bible studies have resumed and have been well attended. Pastor Schenkel has also emphasized to the congregation the need to look beyond the immediate future to a time "Beyond 2000".
In 2004, Pastor Brian Noack was installed at Saint John's to serve as the Assistant Pastor to our-growing congregation. Pastor Noack is a native of Texas and a former Vicar at Saint John's.
Pastor Brian Noack became the sole Pastor at Saint John's in 2008 after the resignation of Pastor Harry Schenkel. Having served as both a Vicar as well as an Assistant Pastor at St. John’s, Pastor Noack had the unique perspective of seeing firsthand both the successes and challenges that St. John’s encountered as he embarked on his ministry. Looking back over time since our 100th celebration, we see God’s purpose in bringing Pastor Noack to St. John’s. During the early years of his ministry, Pastor Noack was both a constant and steadying influence to St. John’s which allowed our congregation to undergo a “rebirth” of its ministry and social outreach to the community.
Pastor Noack, currently serves as the chaplain for the Sayville Fire Department and Senior Pastoral Counselor for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML).
Over the past 20 years, St. John’s has even expanded beyond its physical borders. In 2010, St. John’s was offered a unique opportunity to purchase several acres on Broadway in Sayville. Numerous committees and meetings resulted in a decision to trust in our future and purchase the property. Today, St. John’s still owns the land and while it’s future use is still to be decided, it has provided the opportunity to serve as a community garden as well as a valued asset for those future generations of St. John’s.
Another major project St. John’s began in 2003, with the planning for the installation of a pipe organ to replace our aging electronic organ. The pipes were purchased from a Lutheran college chapel (Upsala College, NJ) when the campus closed. Instead of demolishing the organ, the pipes had been removed from the chapel and put into storage in hopes that it would find another place for service to God’s people.
In 2014, the project began in earnest with a fundraising effort to both build the organ and modify the sanctuary. The sanctuary modification provided much needed handicap access as well flexible worship space allowing our members to share the holy sacrament of Communion in a more personal and meaningful way. The new organ and renovated chapel space was dedicated in October 2018.
St. John’s has rich history of liturgical music in worship that stretches back over 100 years. Our new pipe organ, which was designed and built specifically for our worship space, is the cornerstone. This greatly enriches the worship experience at St. John’s and builds the legacy of our musical liturgy for future generations.
In 2017, the St. John’s Preschool closed after having served our community for over 50 years. The preschool was recognized on Sunday, June 11th, 2017, at the 9:30 service with a time of thanksgiving and remembrance for the blessing that the school had been to St. John’s and to the community.
St. John’s has also seen the fruits of their faith serve the church as a whole, as we have been blessed to have two men from our congregation, Robert Paul, ordained in 2013, and David Keating, ordained in 2021, serve as Pastors in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.
In the early months of 2020, like most of the world, St. John’s was not immune from the effects of Covid. During those first uncertain days, our lives as we knew them were completely paused and eventually changed in numerous ways. While at first the members of St. John’s were restricted from practicing their faith inside our sanctuary, Pastor Noack and the Board of Elders made it their mission to see that the divine service and the holy sacrament of Communion continued to be offered, uninterupted.
While Covid is still an issue in 2022, we have truly been blessed to return to the sanctuary of St. John’s. Though our educational and social programs may have suffered to a degree because of our inability to meet together at St. John’s, our spirit as a congregation remains focused and strong.
We are now seeing the first signs of a rebirth once again as our members return to their spiritual home. We have been through challenging times over the past 125 years, but St. John’s is still here offering the Word that not only the Sayville community but the world needs to hear.
A special fundraising effort in honor of St. John’s 125th Anniversary is the updating of the bell tower carillon. A functioning carillon will enable St. John’s to reach out to the community with a musical call to prayer, providing an aural “nudge” from the tower bells to encourage hearts and voices to sing & praise our Lord for years to come.
With faith that God will continue to bless St. John’s, we look forward to the next 125 years.