BRISTOL - At one time Bristol, like many places in Connecticut, was an ethnic immigrant town. It wasn’t one ethnicity but many, and the local churches reflected that.
“St. Anthony served the Italian people, St. Ann the French people, St. Stanislaus the Polish people. The Irish pretty much were at St. Joseph, and St. Matthew kind of took whatever was left,” said Vernon Koch.
For the Germans, there was Immanuel Lutheran Church, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Koch is a member of the congregation and a former teacher at the church school. “As in most cities and towns around here, the people developed their ghettoes, which was a good word at one time, and in those ghettoes were people who spoke the same language and worshiped in the same kind of setting,” Koch explained.
Germans, who were both Roman Catholics and Lutherans, began immigrating to Bristol in the mid-1800s. There were no Lutheran churches in town then so the Lutherans among them had to join other denominations, according to “The Story of Immanuel Congregation,” by A.H. Erling Jr., which was published for the church’s 100th anniversary in 1992.
The newcomers were from two different areas. One group was from Western Germany, and the other was from West Prussia, in what is now central Poland, but what was then part of the German empire. Pastor Wilhelm Brend unified the two groups and on Aug. 28, 1892, at the first formal voters’ meeting, the Evangelisch Lutherische Immanuels Gemeinde (Evangelical Lutheran Immanuel Congregation) was organized.
The church will celebrate its landmark anniversary with a special service and program on Saturday, Aug. 27. It now has about 1,100 members from all around Central Connecticut, and the Immanuel Lutheran School has some 60-plus students in preschool through eighth grade, according to the Rev. Kevin Karner, the current pastor.
Back when it was new, Immanuel Lutheran’s congregation numbered nearly 100 members. Services were first held in a vacant storefront on North Main Street, then in various other places.
By 1894, The Bristol Press reported that the family of local industrialist J.H. Root loaned the church some land on the bank of the Pequabuck River near the intersection of Orchard and School streets. The building and dedication of a small church building there came about within a few months.
However, cultural and theological differences between the two German groups meant Rev. Brend was soon pushed out of the congregation, and the Rev. Otto Duessel came in as pastor. Under his leadership the congregation steadily increased. Meanwhile, the first church proved inadequate, in addition to being vulnerable to spring flooding from the river. A bigger church was built nearby at Orchard and School in 1896. This is the first church for which a photograph survives.
The church’s school also officially began that year, in the basement of the new church. In 1907 when the current church was built at Meadow and West streets, the old church was used as the school. Then a new school was built beside the church in 1924.
The school has grown to a point where the majority of the students are not part of the congregation, Koch said, “but it was a Lutheran tradition, started by Martin Luther himself, going back centuries, that Lutheran churches have schools in place to teach the faith to the congregation.”
The school was taught in German until World War II. After that, there was a stigma against all things German for a while, and a general trend for people to identify as Americans first and foremost, Koch explained.
“Unfortunately we have dropped a lot of our German heritage because the parents were bent on having their children be Americans. So they did not continue the bilingual home, except in a few cases. They learned English, and they taught their children English,” he said.
The current school building, known as the “new school,” was dedicated in 1963.
The 1924 school building, known as the “old school,” was used as the preschool for a while, but it now houses the church archives and the church’s “very active” Boy Scout program, as well as music and art classes, Karner said.
“We have enough room for everything that we’re doing right now, but we’d like to think that somewhere down the road the room will get tight,” he said. “Our principal, Anne Stuhlman, is doing a wonderful job, and everything is going in a very positive direction.”
The school, which is believed to be the oldest continuously running Lutheran school in New England, is approved by the National Lutheran School Accreditation and follows state curriculum guidelines.
While Immanuel Lutheran is still in touch with its ethnic roots, it has also grown beyond them, Karner said. “We have the annual German festival in the fall, and we do have two German services throughout the year, at Good Friday and Christmas. There is still a large German influence but I would not identify ourselves as an ethnic church,” he said.
Back in 2011, when Karner was relatively new to the congregation, The Bristol Press quoted his words that still hold true today: “We survived two world wars, conflicts, the Great Depression and, by God’s grace, we’re still here.”
For more information, visit www.ilcschool.org or call 860-583-5649.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BRISTOL - The public is invited to Immanuel Lutheran Church’s 125th anniversary celebration, which will feature a special service of music and praise, on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m., followed by a buffet lunch and a short program in the school gym. The church is located at 154 Meadow St., Bristol.
“We’ll begin the day with a special worship service at 11 a.m., that’s a later time than usual in the morning so then we can go right into the luncheon and program,” said the Rev. Kevin Karner. “Our district president, Timothy Yeadon, will present a program about a trip that he took recently to Germany.”
The anniversary committee needs a head count of people for the buffet lunch. Anyone planning to attend should RSVP by Sunday, Aug. 13, by calling the church office at 860-583-5649 or emailing Dee Krampitz at email@example.com.