Like many of the area’s earliest churches, St. Paul’s Evangelical Church was formed to fill a void. When an influx of German immigrants began arriving in Marietta in the 1830s, no church services were offered in their language.
“They were all in English, and they didn’t understand it,” explained the Rev. Tom Hendershot, current pastor of church.
Responding to the ever-growing German population, prominent German immigrant and builder George Danker organized the German Religious Society in 1838, said Hendershot.
In 1849, under the name of the German Evangelical Church, the group spent $200 to buy the large plot at the corner of Fifth and Scammel streets. They then spent another $1,000 to build the one-room church that still welcomes church-goers with its white brick facade, said Kurt Ludwig, 73, a Marietta historian interested in the German experience in
Formed as an amalgam of Christian denominations, the earliest parishioners of what would become St. Paul’s had only their German language and faith in Jesus Christ in common, said Hendershot.
While St. Paul’s has come full circle to return to its inter-denominational roots, it has morphed in and out of a variety of denominational affiliations in its 165-year history, he added.
“The bigger they got, the more divisive they got,” he said.
After only six months of holding the reigns as first pastor, Danker broke off and took around 40 families to form the German Methodist Church, said Ludwig.
Germans were used to a forced mixture of denominations in Germany where royals and authority figures had demanded the merger of certain denominations, explained Ludwig.
Here however, they could fracture however they wanted, he said.
“There was no King of Prussia here telling them they all had to stay together and be efficient,” he said.
Not long after Danker left with the Methodists, the church’s seventh pastor made a similar move, taking a group and forming St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.
Ironically, it was not fractures but mergers of certain denominations on a national level that shaped the church for many years.
In 1934, a merger of the German Evangelical Synod of North American with the German Reformed Church transformed the church from St. Paul’s Evangelical Church into St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church.
According to the church’s website, the next denominational merger in 1961 turned the church into St. Paul’s Church of Christ.
But in 2004, deciding their beliefs were not well-aligned with their morphed form, the church broke away from the Church of Christ and returned to its roots as St. Luke’s Evangelical Church, said Hendershot, who has served as pastor since 2008.
Somewhere along the way the church also broke away from its German language tradition. Its officially adopted English in January of 1909, said Ludwig.
“There had been children and grandchildren born and they were speaking English more fluently than German,” he explained.
Diana Andris, of Marietta, would not be surprised if her great-grandparents had attended German services at the church.
“I remember my great-grandmother. She always had a German accent,” recalled Andris.
While Andris’ great-grandparents were some of the earlier members of the church, Andris has been a life-long member of the church, as was her mother.
Her favorite part about the church: “I like that we’re still here.”
The fact that the church has survived so long and through so many changes is impressive, agreed Hendershot.
Not least of the challenges is the upkeep on a 165-year-old church, he said.
“The upkeep is continual,” he said.
Within the past year, the church added a restroom near the entrance. Previously church-goers had to either exit the church entirely or walk straight through a door behind the pulpit to reach the bathroom in the church’s spacious 1960 addition.
The church is currently having its 1932 art glass windows restored. The large colorful windows depict various biblical scenes.
The site is currently in a state of growth, said Hendershot. Around 70 people typically attend Sunday morning service at the small church. On busier days the attendees overflow into the balcony.
That makes parking in the densely residential area a challenge, he said.
Through all the changes, the small church with the big history has stayed true to its mission, said Hendershot.
“We are humble that God has allowed this church to be a witness for him for all of these years, and we’re excited about what he’s going to do in years ahead,” he said.