he “Coulee Region” of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa extends approximately fifty miles on either side of the Mississippi River for a distance of about two hundred miles. In the heart of this Coulee Region lie Onalaska, Wisconsin, and its larger, more famous twin sister, La Crosse, Wisconsin. Onalaska is on the Black River. La Crosse is on the Mississippi River. This Coulee Region is filled with deep valleys or “coulees”—both narrow and wide—separated by steep ridges. The coulees appear to have been formed by water erosion. The ridges and peaks along the river are known as the Mississippi bluffs.
Both La Crosse and Onalaska, approximately five miles apart, were settled in the 1850’s. La Crosse (population 52,000) received its name from the game the Native American boys played with curved sticks—the French word for curved stick is la crosse. The city did not get its name from being a location where the pioneers could cross the river! Onalaska (population 17,000) received its name from the poem “The Pleasures of Hope,” written by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell in 1799, in which the small Alaskan island of Oonalaska (Unalaska) is mentioned. The city’s founder considered this enchanting name appropriate for this beautiful location in the wooded hills on the ridge above the river. He removed an “o,” and the name became “Onalaska.”
The coulee area was rich in forests. Logging and sawmill operations were the early industries. Fertile farmland became available as the coulees and plateaus atop the ridges were cleared by loggers. Wheat farms sprang up and were followed by dairy farms. The Norwegian and German immigrants who came to the area formed the beginnings of Lutheran churches. First Lutheran in La Crosse (WELS) was founded in 1856. St. Paul Lutheran in Onalaska (also WELS) was founded in 1888. (Much of the background information above is from Sawmills to Sunfish: A History of Onalaska, Wisconsin, by John and Joan Dolbier, 1985.) To this day there is a strong Lutheran, and particularly a strong WELS, presence in the Onalaska and La Crosse area.
Our CLC’s presence began in 1959 when Pastor John Lau and a group of members left St. Paul’s and the Wisconsin Synod, to form St. Mark’s. Unfortunately, St. Mark’s was also divided. In 1997 the congregation voted to leave the CLC; however, a small remnant remained. The remnant began worshiping at the home of Elsie Pabst in nearby Brice Prairie. The group became part of Messiah congregation in Eau Claire and was served by CLC pastors from various locations. The group organized in 2000 with a membership of twenty-five, taking the name Peace with God Evangelical Lutheran Church. Pastors Robert Mackensen, John Hein, Mark Gurath, Michael Sydow, Paul Gurgel, and Arthur Schulz, plus others, all served from a distance in these early years. From 2005-2011 retired pastor/professor David Lau, living in Eau Claire, served Peace with God. The congregation is now served by Pastor Richard Kanzenbach as part of a tri-parish arrangement with Morning Star of Fairchild, Wisconsin, and Trinity of Millston, Wisconsin. Membership stands at eighteen.
It would seem that the members of Peace with God have not had much “peace.” The congregation is but a remnant of a remnant. Growth in numbers has been a struggle in spite of outreach efforts. CLC members have moved away; few CLC members move in. None of the members live in Onalaska. The closest are from Brice Prairie, south La Crosse, and Holmen, WI. Others are thirty miles away living in Genoa, WI; Melvina, WI; and Caledonia, MN. The pastor is not local either. The congregation does not have a church building, but rents an office space. Services are not held Sunday mornings, but Sunday afternoons at 1:30. These conditions, by earthly standards, are less than ideal.
Yet the congregation and its members have PEACE. They rejoice to gather together in Jesus’ saving name. They gather faithfully! The message of Word and Sacrament, “JESUS, THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN REDEEMER, HAS RESCUED YOU FROM SIN, DEATH, AND HELL” gives them faith, confidence, and joy for each week. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 6:23). “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). They do have peace—peace which “passes all understanding.”
Richard Kanzenbach is pastor of Morning Star Lutheran Church in Fairchild, Wisconsin, Trinity Lutheran Church in Millston, Wisconsin, and Peace with God Evangelical Lutheran Church in Onalaska, Wisconsin.