Seventy-eight years ago, in the early summer of 1941, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church had its first worship service, conducted by Pastor Reinhardt Schierenbeck of Sanborn, Minnesota. On June 27 of 1941, St. Paul’s was incorporated and its constitution adopted. At the time of organization, St. Paul’s membership consisted of fourteen charter members with their families; a total of forty communicant members. At that organizational meeting it was proposed that a young seminary graduate by the name of Lester Schierenbeck take charge of the work in Austin while he awaited a call and the congregation called its first pastor. Pastor William Blauert was installed on October 5, 1941. St. Paul’s also purchased property for their church structure along the banks of the small Cedar River, on the corner of what was then called River Drive and St. Paul Street. That small river would become a big challenge for the congregation in years to come.
Due to the war restrictions on new construction, St. Paul’s was able to finish only a basement sanctuary for worship until years later. Less than three years after the installation of their first resident pastor, Pastor Blauert was called home to the Lord after a sudden illness. Pastor Lester Schierenbeck was called to serve the young congregation and served as pastor of St. Paul’s for the next twenty-five years.
In 1953 the iconic stone church and parsonage, built in the gothic tradition, was dedicated and served as the home of St. Paul’s for the next four decades. In the mid-90’s, however, persistent flooding of the Cedar River forced the congregation to move to a new home in the southwest corner of Austin. The new church and school building was constructed in 1995. This newer building has served the congregation well, not only by being far more energy efficient, but also by offering far easier accessibility for elderly and handicapped members.
St. Paul’s opened a Christian day school in 1972, calling Miss Shirley Wendland and Miss Carla Thurow as their first teachers. Over the years the school faced many challenges, including the repeated flooding of the schoolrooms and sharp internal controversies in the congregation. Nevertheless, a series of dedicated teachers continued to provide a spiritually nourishing Christian education for the youth of the congregation. The school was finally closed in the spring of 2004.
The members of St. Paul’s come from a wide area of southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa. While a core membership still lives in Austin, others come from Albert Lea, Rochester and Lake Mills, Iowa; some drive even farther. Why drive all that way? Many throughout our Church of the Lutheran Confession could answer that question. In this age of doctrinal neglect, with social justice being the mission of many denominations, and of deeds being seen as more important than creeds, by the grace of God St. Paul’s, along with our brothers and sisters throughout the CLC, stands on the truth of the Word of God. Scriptural correctness far outweighs the political correctness of our society that celebrates sin rather than calling for repentance. The mission of the church is the same as it was in the days of the Apostle Paul, “So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel!” (Romans 1:15) And so Pastor Lester Schierenbeck was quoted in a local newspaper many years ago, “The purpose of the church is simply to proclaim the unconditional gospel.”
This still remains the Church’s God-given purpose, which St. Paul’s congregation endeavors to sustain with faithful ministry. The congregation’s membership has declined over the years; at one time numbering over five hundred souls, it now has only about sixty. Nevertheless, the Gospel message of a crucified and risen Savior remains the same. That powerful message is proclaimed from the pulpit and taught in Sunday school and Bible class every Sunday, as well as in catechism and instruction classes throughout the year. Our services continue to be broadcast on a local cable access channel, with many viewers. The congregation’s website is an increasingly important tool for reaching out with the Gospel. As the Lord grants us opportunity, we go forward trusting His grace and power to bless the testimony of this precious Gospel which proclaims to a sinful mankind the forgiving grace of God. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes!” (Romans 1:16)
Theodore Barthels is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Minnesota.