Zoar UMC’s congregation celebrates longevity

1949 Zoar United Methodist Church, pictured in 1960, with the new education addition.


ZOAR — There will be a Jubilee Celebration of worship, praise and fellowship Sunday recognizing the 175th anniversary of the founding of Zoar United Methodist Church.

Many church congregations — especially those springing up in the smallest hamlets — eventually must come to grips with their own life expectancy. But, despite Zoar being so small state maps don’t even show it straddling the Dubois-Pike county line, its church on the hill at 8818 W. Old State Road 64 perpetually brims with the singing, outreach and socializing of a vibrant church family.

There are reasons behind that longevity and vibrancy, according to Lee Bilderback, a Holland resident, historian and congregation member.

1871 Zoar Kirche, built with brick made by a congregation member at a brick yard just across the county line in Pike County. The church served as the community's sanctuary until 1948.

Initially, Bilderback says, a connection owing to northern German ancestry prompted the community, and thus the church, to stick together.

Zoar sits between Holland and Stendal and was actually on the edge of Dubois County’s “German area,” according to Bilderback.

“If one goes a few miles west or southwest, the settlers were from the southern American states,” Bilderback says, and that resulted in challenges involving some of the non-Germans living in the surrounding areas.

Bilderback says Zoar’s 1848 log church (and campground) was reportedly burned by an arsonist who felt God’s word should only be preached in English (as opposed to German).

The togetherness based on ethnicity lasted well into the 20th century as the German language remained part of the Zoar congregation’s regular services until 1946.

Families — and then extended families — grew within the church community and today worshippers attending Zoar UMC are still getting their individual spiritual needs met, according to Bilderback.

“Whether in worship, Bible study, outreach, fellowship, programming, or music, they feel good about their church experience,” Bilderback says. “In turn, they enjoy sharing their faith by working at the (Zoar) Mosquito Fest, EPIC youth worship or an outreach such as Feed My Starving Children or the United Methodist Women’s Fall Auction.”

Immigrants from Ladbergen, Tecklenburg, Westphalia, Germany, under the leadership of circuit-riding ministers, established Zoar Kirche in 1844. Circuit riders H. Koeneke and Konrad Muth converted many early settlers in outdoor camp meetings held around the Dubois-Pike county line, according to Bilderback. By 1838, members met in the homes of the Katterjohn and Fenneman families. Established in 1844 and organized as part the German Methodist Conference of the Methodist Church, Zoar originally served with the Huntingburg and Holland Congregations in the Huntingburg Charge.

The aforementioned log church — it sat in what is now called The Grove — was replaced by the Zoar Kirche closer to the top of the hill in 1871. Following tornado damage to that building, the current worship house was built in 1949.

Frank Hemmer, Zoar member, pictured with his team of horses pulling the local hearse in the 1920s.

Delores Hemmer, a member of the church for almost 70 years, drew from church histories Elmo Langebrake prepared for the congregation’s centennial and Bill Bartelt penned for the 125th celebration to arrive at there being 62 ministers and lay pastors during the church’s 175 years.

Incidentally, Langebrake was Bartelt’s uncle and Bartelt is, in turn, Bilderback’s uncle.

Hemmer’s research also found that the first Zoar Church picnic was May 18, 1901. Those attending were entertained with baseball games and the Zoar Band.

Zoar’s baseball team was called the Clodhoppers. Their opponents were teams from Huntingburg, Duff and a team called the Peach Grove Tigers, according to Hemmer’s research.

Sunday’s festivities begin at 9 a.m. with a Jubilee Worship Celebration of special music, recognitions and celebration in the Zoar UMC sanctuary. A fellowship gathering with time for visiting follows at 10:30 a.m., followed at 11:30 a.m. by a celebration meal featuring fried chicken and all the trimmings.

Zoar Picnic Grove in the 1930s. This rare photo shows the original Zoar Picnic Stand. The grove was the site of not only church picnics, but camp meetings. Zoar's first church stood in the grove until 1817 when it, and the campground, were burned by an arson. The arsonist claimed the word of God should not be preached in German.
Zoar Untied Methodist Women members poise in the Church Sanctuary in 1972.
 An early tradition of the church, the Zoar Memorial Day Picnic was held for over 100 years. A main draw for the early event was the baseball games. This circa 1901 photo shows one of the participating teams. The 1817 Kirche may be seen in the background.

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