Several of Forest Park’s oldest churches are struggling with financial shortfalls, low school enrollment and inadequate staffing. Churches are merging their staff and their schools to save money, making cuts to their programming and looking for new ways to boost revenue. The problems are daunting, but the history of faith communities in Forest Park teaches us that this rocky ground is actually familiar territory.
The first faith community to face a challenge was that of the Native American population. The challenge came in the form of European Americans. As evidenced by two burial mounds in what is now Forest Home Cemetery, the Algonquin Indians worshiped Manitou, the Great Spirit, in this area for hundreds of years before Europeans like Marquette and Joliet passed this way around 1600.
The challenge for Indian religion has been the ongoing, systematic attempt by white people to eradicate native religion. The Encyclopedia of Illinois Indians declares that the U.S. government sponsored a program to “stamp out Indian religions.” It quotes former U.S. president Andrew Jackson as saying Indians should “cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized and Christian community.” Arguably, Native Americans lost that challenge, or at least up until now have been losing.
The first permanent Christian presence in what is now called Forest Park was made by German immigrants. Their first challenge was to organize some religious order in the midst of the chaos of arriving in a new land and to build houses of worship.
It was the lay people who settled here in the 1860s, not pastors or missionaries, who organized the first congregations.
“Our congregation is the result of the untiring efforts of noble and Christian laymen,” the Silver Jubilee Souvenir Program of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church declared. “They were men of vision.”
What would happen is a group of lay people would gather in someone’s home, express the need for a church, organize a congregation and then call a pastor. St. John Lutheran Church was the first to be organized (1867). St. Paul’s Lutheran was the second (1879), what is now Forest Park Baptist was third (1890), a Presbyterian congregation that no longer exists was fourth (1892) and St. Peter’s Lutheran was fifth (1899).
In the beginning it was German that was spoken both in worship on Sunday and in the confirmation classes. The Germans also brought with them their culture. A history of St. John entitled “The Transformation of a Church” listed the expenses for finishing their first church building: “The amount included a bell which cost $40 plus $1 for beer consumed by the men who mounted the bell.” The Baptist church was known as the First German Baptist Church of Oak Park until 1940.
The paid staff of churches in those days worked long hours and received small salaries. The first teacher at the St. John school at one time had 80 students until he appealed to the congregation for help. The pastor’s salary in the 1870s was $80 a year.
In the late 1800s the cost of constructing a church building was big money. In 1899 John Schulz used his own money to buy the two lots where St. Peter’s now stands for $500. Since the congregation could not afford a complete building, the first floor was built at a cost of $3,500. Rich Vitton, the president of the Forest Park Historical Society, said the difference in coloration between the stone used in the first floor and that of the second floor, which was built later on, is still visible. In 1903 the Baptist church spent $14,000 building its main auditorium.
During the last half of the 19th Century, Christians were concerned about protecting the purity of their doctrine and behavior. A St. John publication called “The Scope” said that “the congregation, whose members had no use for a spineless religion, wanted something firm, substantial, and reliable.”
“The Transformation of a Church,” also from St. John, noted, “The charges advanced in cases of discipline included failing to attend church and communion, drunkenness, adultery, following a faith healer, believing in the millennium and belonging to fraternal organizations.”
It was that last phrase-belonging to fraternal organizations-that rankled some St. John members who wanted to join the Masons. They left St. John and together with others formed what would become St. Paul’s in 1879.
Once congregations were organized and houses of worship constructed, the challenge for churches in Harlem, as the village was then named, was to keep up with the flood of more than 2 million Germans who came to the U.S. between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century. They did this by establishing programs like Sunday schools, women’s groups, day schools, men’s groups and missionary organizations. The various ministry programs were well attended throughout the first half of the 20th Century.
Shirley Gifford Zapfel, who was baptized 79 years ago at St. Paul’s, remembered her days in a youth program called Luther League.
“At that time we had good attendance,” Zapfel said. “We didn’t have all the outside activities going on to pull people away from the church. The church was not only meeting the faith needs of the members, it also provided entertainment and a chance to be with other people.”
Jean Leinweber, who is a fourth generation member of St. Paul’s, fondly remembered how hard the Ladies Aid worked to put on the Christmas Bazaar. St. John Lutheran Church put on the biggest holiday bazaar in town.
Jan Beauchamp said the women would work in three shifts to crank out 1,400 fruit cakes in one day.
“And they were good,” Beauchamp added.
Leinweber recalled how much of the ministry with children was based on memorizing. Already, at 3 years old, she was given a part to memorize for the Christmas pageant, a part she can still recite 67 years later: “I’m fond of toys and dollies, and nuts and candy too. And I’m so glad it’s Christmas, I don’t know what to do!”
Anna Mae Correl Rogas, a member of St. Paul’s for 71 years, said that Sunday morning was a time for fancy dress. Women wore dresses, hats and white gloves. The men and boys had on suits and ties.
Although the clergy were strict with the children, most old timers remember them also being very kind and loving to their younger members. Marge Moskos raved about Msgr. Wagener who served St. Bernardine from 1935 till 1968.
“He could have been a bishop, but he wanted to stay with the people,” Moskos said. “All of the priests coached sports after school.”
She chuckled as she described Sr. Hermes in full habit playing baseball with her students on the playground at lunchtime.
Dorothy Lambke, also a longtime St. Bernardine member, said the priests in those days were very human, as well as holy. Father Wagener would come over to her house on Tuesday evenings after the St. Vincent de Paul meeting and go to the basement and play pinochle with her father and two other men all night.
Times weren’t always easy during those years, however. The Great Depression and two world wars tested the faith of those second and third generation children of immigrants. There was also some anti-German sentiment, especially during the war years. Arlene Troike, a fourth generation member of St. John, said that she was unable to study German at the St. John School because some people were calling it a Nazi school. In 1940 the First German Baptist Church changed its name to Forest Park Baptist Church.
“Because of the over zealous nationalistic fever that was sweeping the nation, the teaching of the German language in the school and the announcements and sermons at Masses were given in English only thereafter,” Otto Nabholz wrote in his history of St. Bernardine parish.
During these glory years, St. John, according to Beauchamp, at one time had 1,200 people at worship on Sunday morning. St. Paul’s built a Parish Hall in 1954. St. Bernardine completed its convent in the same year. St. John dedicated a new school building in 1962.
No sooner had congregations in Forest Park finished their building projects than they faced a whole new set of challenges caused by cultural changes sweeping the U.S. beginning in the 1960s. Chief among them was a changing demographic. New “immigrants,” this time from the west side of Chicago were starting to move into the new high rise apartment buildings being constructed all over Forest Park.
Black Chicagoans who came west at first went back into the city on Sunday mornings. When they tired of driving half an hour to church, they were not attracted in large numbers to the Lutheran and Catholic churches in Forest Park. Forest Park Baptist Church did the best in attracting new black members.
Apparently what was most attractive to black residents were the parochial schools run by St. John and St. Bernardine.
Beauchamp, who is black, joined St. John 38 years ago, with her family and said that her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, which met at the school, looked like the United Nations. Donna Kruse, a longtime teacher at the school, credits the vision of Pastor Erwin Paul who made a courageous stand for integration during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At the present time almost all of Forest Park’s congregations are multi-cultural.
Another new phenomenon in the last 20 years is the arrival of what could be called minority or ethnic congregations. A Thai congregation meets at St. Paul’s and a Telugu fellowship meets at St. John. New Harvest Fellowship is comprised mainly of second generation Mexicans. The members of Chicagoland Christian Center, Hope Tabernacle, Peace, Mercy and Charity Church and of course Living Word are primarily African American.
Pastor Bill Winston came to Forest Park in 1990 with just a handful of people and has grown Living Word to some 12,000 members and counting. In 1997 Living Word purchased the Forest Park Mall on Roosevelt Road, built a state of the art worship auditorium and is now one of the fastest growing churches in the area. On an average Sunday more than five times as many people worship at Living Word than in all the other churches in Forest Park combined.
Changing demographics has been a chief cause along with other factors of declining worship attendance in every congregation that is more than 20 years old, with the exception of Forest Park Baptist Church. Whether these older congregations can make the changes necessary to grow in these again changing times is the challenge they all are trying meet.