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St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Iron River, Michigan

Stambaugh, Michigan, began as a mining town. Iron was discovered in 1851, but since the region was so remote, exploration did not begin in earnest until the 1870’s, and the first mine was opened in 1880. Soon there was a rush of activity, and numerous mines were in operation by 1910. The earliest mines were on the west side of Stambaugh hill, and atop that hill ten nearly identical two-story homes were built for the mine managers. At the end of that row an even statelier brick building was erected. This was the parsonage for St. Peter’s congregation. To this day,  two open pits from abandoned mines can be seen a short distance down the hill from the parsonage’s back yard.

With the mines came people from many places: numerous  Italians and Finns, and some Swedes and English and Germans. And so, in 1889, St. Peter’s congregation was formed, to serve especially the German Lutherans in the community. It was rather informal at first—a pastor came from Florence, some 35 miles away, by horse and buggy. Services at first were in homes, then in a rented church building. But the Gospel was desired by the settlers and the Gospel was proclaimed. By 1906, the congregation was large enough to construct the church building which is still in use. In 1915, the first resident pastor was called.

The area was growing (in 1937, there were thirty-seven mines operating in the county), and so did the congregation. Some years there were as many as twenty-one, or even twenty-four, baptisms. But there were also problems. After one pastor committed suicide, the congregation lost many members. The following pastor resigned under a cloud. Some difficulties developed between the congregation and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) over discipline matters, and the congregation even joined the Iowa Synod for a brief time. But unity was restored in the congregation, they rejoined the Wisconsin Synod, and the congregation again grew. One can see the size of the Sunday School in 1931 from the picture above. The Lord sustained the congregation through some hard times.

In 1937, St. Peter’s called George Tiefel. He also served a congregation in Crystal Falls, until it dissolved ten years later. Pastor Tiefel deserves special mention because he served the congregation for thirty-two years, and is still remembered in the community. He also was the pastor who found it necessary to lead the congregation out of their old fellowship and into the newly formed CLC. This action was taken in 1960.

When the mines began closing in the 1960’s, the region’s communities suffered population decreases, and so naturally did the congregations. The last of the mines closed in 1975. Stambaugh shrank, and so did neighboring Iron River, until it was thought wise to consolidate into one city, and call it Iron River. St. Peter’s congregation now is smaller, only about forty souls, but it continues to be active.

The Ladies of St. Peter’s group meets monthly and does the usual things of planning, assisting in, and funding special projects. One special activity is the Christmas party in December. Each lady makes a point of inviting someone from the community to come as her guest, and the numbers swell. We sing carols and exchange small gifts, and guests always seem to enjoy themselves.

We have only a small Sunday school, but we have always had a VBS in the summer, which draws others from the community. We have benefited greatly from the Traveling Vacation Bible School (TVBS) program which, for several years, has helped us to spread fliers throughout the town. Last year we passed out fliers at the big parade in connection with the rodeo (the only professional rodeo in the Upper Peninsula!) The results are modest, but the effort worthwhile.

One ministry the congregation has supported is a regular service in the Iron County Medical Care Facility. This began when members of St Peter’s were in residence, and has continued into the present, although we currently have no members there. The number of those who attend services is not large, but there are regulars you can expect to see nearly every week. Occasionally it becomes clear that I am the only pastor with whom some of these people have contact. Once when I was asked what church I served, the conversation turned to people all naming the churches they are members of, and one woman looked and me and said, “You’re my pastor.” While that wasn’t true and is not likely ever to be true, it nevertheless shows the value of serving them, to the extent we are able.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.