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Humble origins to Elmira landmark

It’s one of the most visible structures in downtown Elmira, but St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church hasn’t always been the landmark it is today. The evolution of both the building and its congregation will be much discussed as the church celebrates its 160th anniversary this year.

Hans Borch is the 20th pastor in the 160-year history of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Elmira.
Hans Borch is the 20th pastor in the 160-year history of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Elmira.

The occasion will be marked by Hans Borch, the 20th pastor to have served the church.

“The church has gone through a number of changes and transformations, both to the physical structure and to the congregation, and now we are celebrating its history with a few important events,” he explained.

The church’s story began when a group called The North Woolwich Evangelical Lutheran Congregation was organized in 1850, a time when Elmira was but a cluster of buildings consisting of a few houses, a store and a post office. The parcel of land where the church now stands was originally purchased for 11 pounds and five shillings (less than $25). Built there was a ruggedly constructed log building that became the congregation’s first home. Pastors Hildebrandt and Lorenz, of whom little was recorded in the church’s history, were the first leaders.

Two years later, on Easter Sunday, the Rev. Jacob Werth, a resident of St. Jacobs, assumed charge of the congregation and preached his first sermon to a group of only 52 members.

In October of 1868, a congregational meeting was held to make initial plans for the building of a new brick church and in December of the following year, that vision became a reality, and a small white brick church was erected. In 1875, the congregation decided to install a modern pipe organ to the building at a cost of $1,200, and requiring an enlargement to the front of the structure.

In 1912, after the death of Rev. Schulz, the Rev. J. Strempfer of Toledo was installed, overseeing a time of rapid growth and large increases in population. New factories sprang up and many new homes were built, with Elmira evolving from a village into a town. And with the growth of the community, the congregation also blossomed, eventually outgrowing the church building.

On Jan. 1, 1914, preliminary steps were taken to develop a building program. Building materials, including sand, gravel and brick, were hauled to the grounds before the breaking up of winter and on Apr. 26, 1914, the last service was held in the white brick church.

May 1915 saw the completion of the present church at a cost of approximately $28,000.  Some 1,000 people were there to see the building consecrated.

In 1954 the interior was renovated when it became apparent that the size of the building, which was now 40 years old, was no longer adequate for the complete program carried on by the congregation at St. James. The renovations included a change to the seating arrangement in order to permit a centre aisle and new flooring was laid.  Almost 10 years later, the church expanded one last time and a Christian education wing and a fellowship hall were added, at a cost of approximately $120,000.

In recent years, like many mainstream churches, St. James was part of a trend that has seen declining membership. But Borch sees an interesting development in the demographics of the current congregation.

“When I first arrived at this church in 2002, I would have said that it was a primarily older congregation, but now we are starting to see a turnaround; a number of young families are involved now, and our Sunday school now teaches about 40 people in comparison to the five we had a few years ago.”

In addition to a growing congregation, Borch said he has noticed an increased willingness and eagerness from members of the congregation to help out in the community, a trend which he hopes will continue in the years to come.

“In the future here I hope to enable people to continue looking outside of the box, outside of our four walls and recognizing that God is not just within this building, but He is out there and is busy doing things – and we can be part of that,” he said. “Whether it is going down to the Dominican to help with our mission trips or whether it is helping out at Woolwich Community Services.”

To celebrate the anniversary of the church, there will be several events for the community to attend:
Feb. 7 at 3 p.m., the Cambridge Male Chorus will be performing;
May 16 at 3 p.m., there will be an afternoon of chamber music;
Oct. 24 at 3 p.m., the Gloryland Chorus will perform.

For additional information about upcoming celebrations, contact the church office at 60 Arthur St. S, 519-669-5591.

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