History- First Lutheran Church
By Elmer E. Jensen
When I think of the history of First Lutheran, I have to bring in a little background of personal family
history. Dad was born in Denmark. Mother was born in Mist, just a few miles from Clatskanie. Both
were brought up Lutheran. Mom was a school teacher in Goble, and Dad worked on the train ferry
which ran between Goble and Kalama when they met, and then married. They established their
home in Rainier---Dad a longshoreman, and Mother a homemaker. There was more longshore
work available in St. Helens, so they moved to St. Helens in 1919.
There was no Lutheran church in St. Helens. The closest was Bethany in Warren. Mom thought that there should be a Sunday School so, being the organizer that she was, she gathered a few ladies together and organized a Sunday School. Where to meet? The Seventh Day Adventists had a small church at what is now 17th and Columbia Blvd. They made arrangements to use that facility on Sunday for Sunday School. None of us had autos at that time, so each Sunday morning we all trudged out there for Sunday School. Sunday School was held there for about 3 ½ years.
The basic means of transportation in those days was either railroad or water. Sawmilling was the primary industry in the area at that time. There was a big mill at the foot of First Street, another near where the Boise Cascade paper mill is now located, the shipyard on Sauvie Island and another sawmill on the northern tip of the island, a big mill at Columbia City and another at Prescott. The longshoremen traveled by water to these industries. Dad had a couple of launchers which held 25 to 30 men which he used to transport these workers. On Sunday, when our group wanted to go to church, Dad would load up his boat
and head up the river to Warren. There was a dock at Warren which served that area and then we would walk up the road to the church for services. Occasionally, services had been held in individual homes.
On January 18, 1924 at a meeting of "The Lutheran Ladies Aid," they discussed the question of a new church. It was reported by Mrs. Jensen that a lot on the Corner of Winter (now 4th) and Wyeth Streets could be had for $450.00 plus payment for bonded street improvements and sewer assessments of about $95.00. All in attendance were in favor of trying to organize a congregation and buying this lot.
On February 1, 1924 a group of 7 families, consisting of 18 adults and 15 children, met at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Nels Welinder for the purpose of effecting a church organization. The result was the organization of the "First Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Helens." The 'Articles of Incorporation' were filed March 6, 1924 and the group was off and running. They negotiated for the purchase of the lot, borrowed $1,300.00 from Axel Carlson, a member of Bethany, and proceeded to build a church building. At the Conference meeting in Moscow, Idaho, the congregation's application for inclusion into the Augustana Lutheran Synod was approved. The laying of the 'Corner Stone' on May 25th drew a large gathering of people and the services were both appropriate and inspiring. The building was constructed with voluntary labor under the supervision of a carpenter, Roy Popejoy, who each day laid out work for the members.
Our church was a beautiful church with stained glass windows and plastered interior. A Mr. Nels Welinder was a finishing carpenter and made the altar, altar rail, pulpit and all the pews. I recall comments made over the years as to how comfortable our pews were. They were not the straight back flat seats that were so common for homemade pews, but were curved back and seats. Of course, all
of our men, women, and children pounded nails, etc. in building this fine structure. It was ready for dedication just short of one year from the beginning of construction. Dedication day was January 25, 1925.
For the next 22 years (1924-1946) we were served by a split pastorate with Warren. Four pastors served us during that time. There were various service programs. We first started with one morning and one evening service each month. A young man by the name of Regnar Kullberg was going to medical school in Portland and he would come down on Saturday evening and lead us in Bible study worship on Sunday. Dr. Kullberg, upon graduation, settled in Astoria and was instrumental in forming the Columbia Hospital (a Lutheran Hospital) in Astoria. Later, services were held more frequently and finally we had services at 9:45 a.m. and then the pastor would go to Warren for an 11:00 a.m. service at Bethany.
In 1930 the adjoining lot was purchased and in March, 1938, the congregation met and decided that we needed a Parish Hall. We were just coming out of the depression – with lots of enthusiasm and very little money. One member, Bill Keutzer, was a carpenter and didn't have much work at the time, so we hired him at a nominal wage to draw the plans for the new building. He was on hand every day and as the men got off work, or whenever they could, he would have work lined up for them to do on the building. The women also helped by keeping the coffee and goodies in good supply. Seven months later, October 17, 1938 the Parish Hall was dedicated. The complex now consisted of the Sanctuary and Parish Hall which was connected by the woodshed.
Church dinners for the public were prevalent in those days, and those good ladies at First Lutheran were no exception. I remember well the first public dinner that was held in our new Parish Hall. I was working the ticket table. The room was filled with diners and the line went out the entry way, through the passage way to the Sanctuary, out through the vestibule and onto the sidewalk. The dinner was a huge success. The gals used all sorts of means for raising money. Within a year the Parish Hall was paid for. Some remodeling and additions were made to the hall in 1946 and 1952 in order to provide office space and Sunday School rooms.
In 1946 the membership met and decided that we could or should have our own pastor. We called a Rev. Roderick Johnson. He was a single man. We needed to furnish him with living quarters so at that time we walled off what had been the stage in the Parish Hall, made an upstairs room and created an apartment which Rev. Rod used during his six years while he was our pastor.
In 1952, Rev. Johnson left and we called Rev. LeRoy Pillman. Rev. Pillman had a family so the apartment was not adequate. The area was then converted to a nursery and Sunday school classrooms. We then purchase a residence on South 7th Street which was used as a parsonage until 1974 at which time we converted to a parsonage allowance program which is still in existence today.
Early in the 1960s we started thinking about a new church. Our congregation had grown to a point where we were having two overflowing services each Sunday. In the meantime, we had purchased two additional lots on 4th Street. We began a building fund drive which was very successful. Everybody seemed very enthused. There definitely was a need to be met. The decommissioning service in the old church building which had served us for 38 years was held on July 8, 1962. The following week it was taken down and the ground breaking for our new church building was held
on July 15, 1962. Construction began immediately under the supervision of Mr. W.E. Nelson as contractor. We borrowed $50,000.00 from Lutheran Brotherhood Life Ins. Co. on a 20 year monthly amortization and $9,400.00 from the Board of American Missions on a 1 year payback. With these funds together with funds on hand, we began building our new church which included office space and restrooms. In the meantime, we had moved the Parish Hall, turned it sideways and placed it on the back of the lot adding a furnace room and restrooms. The construction of the new building was contracted out with church members doing all of the finishing such as painting, staining, etc. Bill Pribyl was the Chairman of the Building Committee and under his careful supervision, ten months later the building was finished and was dedicated on April 7, 1963. In addition to the financial pledges, almost all of the furnishings were donated by family members. The mortgage was burned on January 22, 1984.
The following is a commentary by the architect, Robert Chervenak relative to the colored glass used in the sanctuary:
Symbolism in the Colored Glass
The colored glass used in the sanctuary is to symbolize the suffering and death of our beloved Lord, Jesus Christ. The color violet symbolizes the atonement or
redeeming effect of Christ's incarnation, suffering and death and reminds us of the fact that Christ died because of man's sinfulness. The color red symbolizes Christ's suffering and humiliation and further represents the Church in her work and the zeal of the Church for her Lord. The amount of red used progressively becomes more frequent as walls of the sanctuary near the chancel area. The progression and saturation of red reaches its climax at the chancel depicting the total sacrifice of crucifixion which our Lord endured. The relationship and progression of Christ's suffering as symbolized near the chancel area is meant to be a reminder to us that through Christ and His sacraments we may obtain His forgiveness and salvation. Robert Chervenak, Architect
In 1979 it was again time to make some more improvements. More classrooms were needed so we built an addition to the then office area which gave us the needed classrooms. By so doing, it eliminated the courtyard between the two buildings which necessitated the moving of the 'free standing cross' to its present location. Again, all work was done by church members.In 1985 a planning committee was formed with Stan Mendenhall serving as its chairman. Its task was to project the long-term needs of our congregation and assess possible solutions and expenditures. To facilitate our future growth, we purchased 1 ½ lots on the corner of 3rd and Wyeth Streets which joined our present property. In 1989 the committee recommended to the church council and to the congregation that we embark on a major building project for a new Parish Hall. John Fister was retained as our architect and presented preliminary plans.
Our fund raising program was established and on August 15, 1993 we broke ground for our new Parish Hall. The building which had served us for 55 years was demolished the following week and construction of our new Parish Hall, offices and Sunday School classrooms was begun. Stan Mendenhall served as Building Committee Chairman and under his supervision the building was completed and dedicated on October 30, 1994. $169,500.00 was borrowed from Aid Association for Lutherans on a 20 year amortization program to assist in this current building expansion program. Included in the project was the re-roofing of the existing building complex together with renovating the church chancel area. Again, many of the furnishings for this new structure were donated by family members. Our current property holdings now consist of a total of 6 ½ lots.
I think it is commendable how our members, during each of our building projects, have banded together and pooled their resources to complete a project for which we can be so proud.
This has been just a little bit of history. There is much more that could be said. Life at First Lutheran hasn't always been easy, but we like to think of and remember the positive aspects of our history.
I would like to conclude by quoting from an article that my Mother, Johanna Jensen, a charter member, made at the time of the dedication of our church sanctuary."We thank God for all His blessings during the past years and we humbly pray that He will continue to bless our congregation and the work here in St. Helens. May each member strive to be a living witness for Him and by His strength be instrumental in bringing others into the fellowship of Christ and His Church."