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St. John’s Lutheran Church Okabena, Minnesota

Snapshots of Congregations from Around the Church of the Lutheran Confession

St. John’s Lutheran Church was founded in May of 1895 by German immigrant farmers in West Heron Lake Township, Jackson County, Minnesota. It started as a satellite congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, seven miles to the southeast. In 1904 a Christian day school was formed. By 1911 the congregation had grown large enough to call their own pastor. When the congregation received a gift of land in Okabena, a parsonage was built there and the original church was moved into town. The present church was built in 1914. The original building was retained as a school house. The new building allowed for the organization of the church choir and ladies’ aid society. Services and parochial school sessions were held in the German language. The first English services were funerals, ensuring that the Gospel could be heard and understood by the English-speaking friends and neighbors of the departed.

World War I caused trials for St John’s. German-speaking schools were unpopular. Lutheran teachers who spoke English were scarce, so the Christian day school was closed. Services were frequently monitored by personnel from the sheriff’s office. After the war, the members decided on an outreach program to show they were glad to be Americans. They sponsored a Fourth of July parade and celebration. Okabena is still noted for this event.

Membership grew rapidly from the 1920’s to the ‘40’s, reaching a peak of 462 souls, (327 communicants). English became the primary language in 1933, although German services were held twice a month for the elderly until 1956. After World War II, the area’s population declined as fewer people were required to operate farms.

In 1948 the congregation suspended fellowship with the Missouri Synod because of false teaching at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The congregation left the synod in 1951 after the synod failed to respond to its memorial. Forty percent of the members then left, choosing to stay with Missouri Synod. St. John’s later sponsored a conference at which the Orthodox Lutheran Synod was formed. This group was later determined to be legalistic, and the congregation declined to join them.

The congregation began supporting the work of the CLC in 1961 during the pastorate of Rev. Ruben Ude. St. John’s became a voting member of the CLC in 1976.

Further testing occurred in 1983, caused by the controversy surrounding fraternal benefit insurance companies. Membership dropped to 170 souls.

Since that time St. John’s has received many blessings. Membership has remained around 200 souls for the past twenty years. The Christian day school was restarted in 1995 (the congregation’s centennial year). While local area population has declined, the congregation is one of the few in the county that has a full-time pastor and teachers. Members live in a widespread area. Several faithful members regularly drive over fifty miles to attend services. The closest CLC sister congregation is sixty-four miles away.

In 2015, the average attendance at worship services was 112 souls.  Bible Class attendance averaged fifty-five adults, with twenty-five children attending Sunday School. Twenty young people were students at ILC or secular schools.  The pipe organ in the balcony was installed in 2003.

In addition to the Christian day school, the congregation also sponsors a preschool program conducted by volunteers from among the members.

The vacation Bible school program is always popular and serves as a great influence on our children. Nineteen of the children in the 1999 photo above, for example, went on to attend Immanuel Lutheran High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This year’s vacation Bible school was held in late July, at a time when children are looking forward to a new school year.

St. John’s church choir, in addition to regularly singing during services, also performs two concerts per year in the original church building, which is now located at Pioneer Village in Worthington, Minnesota.  Approximately twenty voices present annual concerts on Christmas and the Fourth of July.

A youth choir meets weekly during the school year to prepare musical selections for worship services. The Ladies Aid supports the congregation’s activities in many areas, including Sunday school artwork, building cleaning, and the provision of meals for special occasions and funerals. They also provide monthly support for an orphan in Nepal.

Pastors of St. John’s,
1895 to present:

C.F. Malkow

Emil Ulbricht

H.F. Soeldner

E. Trapp

George Schweikert

Ruben Ude

Clifford Kuehne

David Lau

Robert Wehrwein

George Barthels

Vance Fossum

James Albrecht

Full-time CDS Teachers,
1904 to 1916:

Anna Stoeckmann

Louise Grabarkewitz

Ida Grabarkewitz

Rev. H.F. Soeldner

1995 to present:

Candace Ohlmann

Phil Strike

Ruth Eserhut Eigenberg

Joel Gullerud

Valerie Bernthal Hammett

Erin Libby

Chad Seybt

Lana Romberg Strike

Ross Kok

Jolene Beekman Albrecht

David Ahrens is a member of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.