It is rare for a once ethnic-based church, started by a German-American congregation, to survive for a century and a half, and that makes St. John Lutheran’s 150th anniversary truly remarkable.  

Churches like these have shut down in Forest Park and have closed their doors across the country. St. John, however, is tackling these 21st-century challenges by finding ways to serve the residents who surround its landmark 150-foot-tall tower. 

The current church was constructed in 1914, for a cost of $60,000. The thrifty, hard-working members made sure it was paid off in time for the dedication. Thousands attended that ceremony, as St. John then had 1,100 members. Besides holding packed services at the church, they held large outdoor services at The Park during the summer.

That wouldn’t happen today but, as St. John historian, Bev Jagow said, “The Forest Park community was built around the churches.”

The town was still called Harlem when St. John constructed their first church building in 1867 on the corner of Marengo and Franklin. The wood frame structure cost only $1,164.72, which included $40 for the bell. The pastor’s annual salary was twice that much — $80 per year in two payments. 

Three years after they built the church, the congregation started a school. The tuition remained 50 cents per year all the way into the 1920s. As the church continued to flourish, the congregation moved the old church to the back of the lot and used it for a school building. They built a second church, on the front of the lot, in 1873. It had a towering steeple and cost $8,035. In 1928, they built a second school, at 1033 Marengo, to serve the south side of Forest Park, as enrollment peaked at 556 students.

St. John didn’t just hold worship services. The church had many organizations for men and women. There was a Young People’s Society, a Men’s Club, and an interchurch sports league. 

“My great-grandmother was a charter member of Ladies Aid,” Jagow recalled. “Five generations of my family attended St. John.” 

Jagow herself attended the school when it was located at Circle and Warren, where the church parking lot is now. That school stood for 61 years before it was torn down. Classes at the south campus were also discontinued when the present-day school was built north of the church in 1964. It closed in 2009. 

The closing of the school was a terrible blow for St. John. Meanwhile, membership declined and it looked like the congregation would go the way of so many mainstream Protestant churches. 

That’s when the church began to fully engage the people of Forest Park. It started with a weekly PADS program and AA meetings. The church became a huge supporter of the Forest Park Food Pantry.

“We pass out grocery bags to the congregation every month,” Jagow said. “They bring them back full, the following week. The people at the food pantry said they didn’t know what they would do without St. John.”

The church also started another type of food program. Pastor Leonard Payton walked the streets around St. John and asked residents what the church could do for them. Many asked that they start a community garden. The church had vacant land along Washington Street and began renting plots for $20. (This fee is refunded in the fall, after the renter cleans up their plot.) 

Many of St. John’s programs are open to the public, including concerts and tours of the church. They even open the parking lot for revelers attending the Christmas Walk. The church joins in the festivities with a brass band and a choir singing carols. 

St. John is also helping Wesley Lutheran Church by allowing the congregation to worship in one of their classrooms. They recently signed a five-year contract with the YMCA to allow them to use classrooms for their pre-school, after-school, and summer programs. The school gym is home to an adult basketball league. Forest Park’s Boy Scout Troop also meets at St. John. 

“We now have a culturally-diverse congregation,” noted Jagow. “The church directory isn’t all German names.” 

The congregation continues to fill the church and school with meaningful activities, like a new quilting group called Sew What! which makes quilts for cancer survivors and others who need a good comforter. 

“The church has been evolving for 150 years,” Jagow said. “The community has changed and people are more mobile. We don’t have generational families anymore, but we’ve become more community-minded.” 

In that spirit, the church is welcoming its “friends and neighbors” to enjoy the festivities marking St. John’s 150th birthday. The Oct. 1 all-day affair will kick-off with a service at 9:30 a.m. This will be followed by tours of the historic church at 11:30 a.m. and an organ concert at 4 p.m. After the concert, the celebration will culminate in a potluck dinner. It’s free to the public, but the church asks that guests RSVP by calling 708-366-3226.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.