Most of the 34 people sitting in the pews and awaiting the beginning of services last Sunday at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church came with the understanding that this would be the last time the congregation would worship in its own building, at 500 Hannah Ave.
The church does not have the money to pay the salary of its part-time pastor, Rev. Audree Catalano, according to St. Peter’s Council President Judy Jilek. The church council was, therefore, considering the option of discontinuing Sunday morning services until they are able to sell the building, which was put on the market a few months ago.
St. Peter’s is hoping that the cash from a sale will enable it to hire another part-time pastor, while a new owner permits the church’s congregation to continue to worship in the building it built in 1899. That is all still in the works.
But, the congregation enthusiastically greeted Jilek’s announcement that Rev. Catalono was willing to make the two-hour trip from Bloomington Ill. to celebrate Holy Communion with the church on the first Sunday of every month, when there is a new owner.
Nevertheless, for many of the members it was a time to say good-bye: tears were shed and hugs were shared. Even Pastor Catalano choked up near the end of the service.
The congregation now known as St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was first organized as the Evangelische-Lutherische St. Petri-Gemeinde zu Harlem on May 19, 1899. The cornerstone of the present building was laid one month later, making St. Peter’s the oldest church in town.
The congregation’s first sixty years were marked by growth and energy. Jilek remembered that during the early 1960s she and other confirmation students would “scurry up to the balcony before the service, because, out of sight, we could horse around.”
“Looking down from the balcony, people in the pews were sitting shoulder to shoulder,” she added.
Then, starting in the 1970s, both the demographics in Forest Park and attitudes about church attendance in American culture began to change, resulting in the beginning of a long, steady decline in attendance and income. The congregation responded by selling other buildings it had acquired over the years and used the money to help pay the bills. Contributions received from New Harvest Christian Fellowship, which began using the building for their programming in 2005, helped slow the financial bleeding, but last Sunday the money ran out.
The irony of the situation, said Jilek, is that lately attendance has been growing.
“Last summer, our attendance at Sunday worship was as low as eight people. We now have about 20 people every week,” she said.
“I’d say at least seven congregations have looked at our building,” Jilek said, “and five are interested in the property. The problem is that right now financing is hard to get.”
In her sermon, Rev. Catalano framed this big transition in St. Peter’s history in a hopeful way when she said: “The seeds of ministry planted by St. Peter’s will bloom and grow when another church takes ownership of the building.”