Early Beginnings

Emanuel Lutheran Church traces its beginning to August 3, 1874 when a small group of Swedish people adopted the following resolution: “Since the Swedes living in and around Ludington have long felt a need for a Christian church organization, the following persons have come together for the purpose of organizing in the name of the Lord a Swedish Lutheran congregation and have called Pastor N. A. Youngberg from Whitehall to organize such a congregation.” Typical of a male dominated culture, the petitioners were all men, signing John P. Swanson and wife, Anders Anderson and wife and so forth.

Not surprising, the roots of Emanuel Lutheran Church are historically linked to the founding of Ludington. Naturally settlers who came here begin organizing a community and seeking opportunities to worship among those who shared some common interests. Founded in 1873, Ludington began with a population around 2,000 and soon experienced significant growth. That year nearly 200 buildings were constructed including the courthouse. The following year, the Pere Marquette Railroad reached the city. The presence of virgin timber near the shore of Lake Michigan provided impetus for settlement and soon drove a booming local economy. The promise of America lured Scandinavians to Mason County. Swedish immigrants fueled the organization and growth of a Lutheran congregation and comprised the working class of a new community for they brought skills in various crafts, experience in the woods and they knew how to fish.

In 1874, a group of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians joined together to build and establish what was called a Scandinavian Lutheran Church located at 110 East Danaher Street. Its location may seem insignificant today, however, the church was situated in the first block east of south James Street, a developing commercial district and very near the waterfront. Thus the church was near the center of commerce and where we might expect working class people to settle.

Apparently both the Swedes and Norwegians formed their own distinct congregations yet they along with a few Danes held some common worships services. In the process of finishing the church building, debt was incurred and the Danish representatives being few in number and unable to afford the financial responsibility, left the joint spiritual venture. Undoubtedly financial necessity motivated these Scandinavians to band together in worship for they were at the bottom of the socio-economic rung in a new land. Despite a challenging beginning, there was a growing interest at least among the Swedes for an independent church. The purchase of an organ in 1878 for the exclusive use of the Swedish congregation was a telltale sign.

The churches first two pastors, N. A. Youngberg and O. Chilleen were very part-time in their ministry in Ludington both originating from their larger responsibilities in Whitehall. Finally in 1883, the Scandinavian Lutheran Church in Ludington succeeded in attracting its first resident pastor, C. V. Vestling yet he also served churches in Big Rapids and Reed City. These itinerant ministries underscored the fledging nature of this new church. Ludington was considered the parent church or the home base, and therefore contributed the largest portion of Rev. Vestling’s salary, $400.00 a year!

The seeds of separation germinated in 1887 when the two Lutheran congregations split and the Swedish parishioners purchased the Norwegian’s interest in the church building. By 1895, interest in a new church facility began to surface but the will to proceed wavered until the close of the century.

Finally after rejecting the alternative to expand the existing church, the congregation purchased two lots further east at the corner of Danaher and Lavina and in 1901, constructed a new church. Completed and occupied in the fall, the building measured 72 feet in length and 40 feet in width. Built of brick, the structure cost $3,418.42. In the transition, the old church building was sold to the Free Methodist congregation and later moved to North Robert Street where it remains in service today.

Again the need for historical perspective is important for there were no automobiles at this time. The Swedish Lutheran congregation was a neighborhood church where most members walked or rode to church in a conveyance pulled by horses. Just as the congregation had done years earlier at the site of its first church, they erected a barn behind the church to house the horses while their owner’s worshiped.

It is easy to understand why immigrants in a new country would be especially concerned for the education of their children. That concern surely motivated the decision to build a school adjacent to the church in 1903. The first Christian school begun by the congregation dates back to 1878 and this initiative should not be confused with what we know as our current Sunday school. This was a parochial school that operated during the three months of summer.

Along with this major development, the church purchased and installed its first pipe organ and established a library from which parishioners could borrow books.

Pastor C. V. Vestling died in 1907 ending a 14-year ministry. This spiritual pioneer led the congregation in its very formative years.

Melting Pot

During its first 47 years, all worship services and related activity were conducted in Swedish. But after nearly a half-century, the strong sense and urge to maintain language and culture began to wane as the natural forces of the American melting pot impacted these immigrants. A new generation had grown up in America and as noted in a later issue of the Ludington Daily News, “there was also intermarriage with those of other nationalities.” It is amusing how language has different meaning at different times in history.

Children of these immigrant families were learning English in school and when the church created its library in 1889, older parishioners were saddened by the inability of some to read in their native language. “It is to be regretted that the present growing generation does not read the language in which these good books were written.”

The Swedish Lutheran Church of Ludington began the process of becoming a bilingual congregation in 1921 when two services were held, one in Swedish and one in English. Given our firm hold on tradition and the difficulty we have making significant changes today, one can imagine the trauma and tension involved in this monumental change. Surely the introduction of an English language service at 10:00 a. m. followed by the Swedish service at 11:15 a. m. and dropping Sunday evening worship suggests that compromise carried the day. The announcement prompted interest in the church from other nationalities and the church board passed a resolution allowing non-Scandinavians to join the congregation.

The bilingual transition caused older Sunday school teachers to resign as they lacked the ability to teach using the English language. Soon, English became the sole language of Sunday school. Reverend J. A. S. Landin issued the first pastoral report in English in 1928. The inevitable occurred in 1939, the congregation voted to cease using Swedish as a language of worship and to officially drop Swedish from the name of the church.

After 65 years, these immigrants had become Americans and adopted their new language even in their house of worship. With that fundamental decision, they also adopted a new name – Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ludington.

The Congregation

A small flock of 49 brought this church into being on August 3, 1874. Since more than a half-century would pass before Emanuel became a church for all Lutherans, congregational growth was tied to the flow of Swedish immigrants coming to the Ludington area. After just a decade, church membership had grown to 200. Given the relative poverty of many members and their experience with state supported churches in Sweden, these parishioners were not very generous stewards. Their approach toward giving to the church is certainly strange and foreign from present philosophies and attitudes. Although there were special appeals for support particularly related to capital expenditures, the Swedish Lutheran Church more than once adopted member fees as source of revenue. In 1884, the congregation set annual membership fees at $8.50 per couple and half that amount for a single person. And not everyone paid their dues thus jeopardizing their membership in the church.

These early Swedish Lutherans in Ludington were tough minded about the requirements of their religion as some members were excommunicated and others simply dismissed. In 1895, the congregation received 50 new members and dismissed 35.

Church membership peaked at 687 in 1912 and remained fairly steady never falling below 622 during the next dozen years. An all-time high was reached in the mid-60s when membership totaled over 700. As the church celebrates its 125th anniversary in 1999, its membership stands at 550.

The Development of the Place of Worship

For most religions, the place of worship commands very special meaning and importance. We are taught that Christ is everywhere but the sanctuary of our church is where most of us especially feel God’s presence.

The brick building at the corner of Danaher and Lavinia has demonstrated great staying power in the hearts and minds of its ever-changing parishioners. Expansion, enhancement and modernization have been an on-going development of this structure. A review of church history reveals that Emanuel has seldom been without a building project.

In 1910 even hardy Swedes recognized the value of a comfortable church in the winter as they added steam heat. Four years later, the congregation invested in a number of improvements to the schoolhouse adding a kitchen, restrooms and basement and installing a furnace. In 1922, reconstruction of the chancel end of the church occurred.

When the church celebrated its golden anniversary in 1924, it commissioned the publication of an impressive hardbound history book. Among its many illustrations, are several photographs of church groups taken between the church and what was then commonly called the Swedish School, now referred to as Luther Hall. These photographs illustrate a significant space between the old schoolhouse and the church. In 1940, Luther Hall was again expanded, widened to its current dimension and the connecting structure so familiar to all of us in 1998 was constructed. During that same decade, a new copper cross was placed atop the steeple.

The 60s brought a new wave of building improvements. In 1963 the church installed a new Moller organ, 15-rank with mixtures. This wonderful new instrument replaced an organ built in 1905. A few years later, the congregation accepted the stewardship challenge of expanding to the north adding office facilities and classrooms, and renovating the kitchen and basement.

Major renovations were done in the narthex, nave and chancel in preparation for the congregation’s one-hundredth anniversary in 1974. All plaster was removed and replaced with drywall with new softer colors for the walls and ceiling. The altar rail was moved to the front of the chancel and became a communion rail. The altar and reredos were separated to create a freestanding altar and the painting restored to its original brightness. In addition, the rear walls to the nave were removed and a glass screen was placed between the narthex for soundproofing and visibility.

After a lightning induced fire that severely threatened the loss of the church building on August 13, 1995, the congregation once again returned to Luther Hall for worship while the roof structure and interior (including the pipe organ) was removed and repaired. Restoration began in 10 days with the resolve to stay at the Danaher Street location. Counting our blessings, we returned to our beloved sanctuary on December 17, 1995.