Church’s family ties still strong — 125 years later

St. John's Lutheran Church in Boone Township was erected in 1893.


BOONE TOWNSHIP— More than a century ago, 20 families from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Haysville decided it was time to have a church closer to their Boone Township homes. The families got together in 1892 to search for a location in the northwest corner of Dubois County, finally settling on a hill near Birch Creek owned by Mrs. Barbara Hoffman. Now, 125 years later, three descendents of those 20 families recount the story of how that hill was chosen.

“The people that were coming down from the east said they’ll come to this hill on the other side of Birch Creek, but no farther,” said Joyce Jackle. “And the ones from the west decided yes, they would come here, too.”

Mrs. Hoffman, who was a member of St. Paul’s, was happy to sell the land for the new church, and by 1893 a white wood structure sat on the hill as the first incarnation of the church Jackle, Don Eck and Mary Ann Kieffner would grow up in and attend all their lives. This Sunday, the congregation of St. John’s will celebrate their church’s 125th anniversary with a special service featuring Indiana-Kentucky Synod Bishop Bill Gafkjen and two former pastors, Katie Gallagher and Ed Wahl. In a way, the church’s anniversary celebration will be a bit like a family reunion. Many of the members today are descendents of the 20 charter members, and almost everyone is at least distantly related.

“If you go back far enough, most families in the church end up related,” Pastor Catherine Burnette said. ”And related to families in the other local Lutheran churches.

The longevity of families at St. John’s has lead to a plethora of memories that record the church’s history. In the church’s early days, church services were held in German, as all the families who attended were of German Lutheran descent. The congregation added English services in 1918, but Eck remembers the German services continuing until 1941, five years before the white wooden church was replaced with the elegant brick building that rises off the hill at 6483 West 580 North. Eck also remembers hearing the church bell toll an hour before church every Sunday to tell the community to get ready for the service.

“I lived two-and-a-half miles from the church, and I could hear that bell,” Eck said.

The introduction of clocks into homes made the early tolling of the bell obsolete, but the church still tolls the bell right before the service, as well as three times during the Lord’s prayer and during funerals.

St. John’s also has a long history of reaching outside its doors to meet the needs of others. Jackle remembers when there was a Women’s Missionary Society group active at the church. The group would take on various outreach projects to help the community such as quilting. The church remains active in local causes today, contributing to the food bank and serving monthly at Dubois County Community Meals. St. John’s is also the lead church for the public school ministry at Ireland Elementary. Each week, about 200 children attend an hour-long Bible lesson.

“Many of these kids would not have another opportunity to learn about Jesus because their parents don’t have affiliation with another church,” Burnette said.

St. John’s mission work also has a global reach. The church is active with Lutheran World Relief projects and recently completed one that sent backpacks of school supplies to children around the world. At Christmas time, the church participates in Operation Christmas Child through the Samaritan’s Purse to bring a shoebox full of Christmas gifts to children in need. The church has also been connected with a church in Uganda since 2003. Kieffner connected the two churches after she heard about the church at a retreat in Evansville and brought the information back to St. John’s. At the time, four people in the church were interested in getting involved with missionary work in Africa. As it turned out, though, none of the four went to Uganda, but Kieffner did.

“I had no interest in Africa. But anyway, once you’re there, you’re hooked,” Kieffner said. “The people are very special, very loving. They will give you anything. They have nothing, but they will give you all that they have.”

After 14 years, St. John’s still donates the offering collections from fifth Sundays to the Ugandan church, and two members will be going on a medical mission trip to the church in a few months.

The many outreach projects St. John’s completes is, to Burnette, a sign of the congregation’s strength and a big part of what lead her to take the call to serve St. John’s. Membership, she said, is also strong. The church averages 90 people per service and often fills the sanctuary at Christmas and Easter. Despite a healthy congregation, membership is a concern. Churches aren’t growing like they used to, Burnette said, and St. John’s is no exception. The congregation is of an older demographic and has shrunk over the last few years. The congregation has also seen its share of tragedy. In the ’70s, their pastor, George Saffran, passed away during his tenure as pastor, leaving his wife and daughter behind. Saffran had acute leukemia and went to an Evansville hospital. Jackle was there visiting him and his family when he quickly passed. She still tears up talking about it.

“The congregation took it hard. We all did,” Jackle remembered.

The congregation has also had three members killed in military service. God saw the congregation through all those tragedies, said Eck, Jackle and Kieffner, and they have faith that the Lord will continue to see them through. Burnette agrees, adding that the presence of God is strong at St. John’s.

Asked what has kept St. John’s going for 125 years, Eck’s answer is simple: The Lord.

“I think he’s told us what to do and kept us going,” he said. “And we obeyed him.”

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