JUNEAU - Any good anniversary is fueled by fond memories.
Judging from conversation at a recent, after-church coffee klatsch, St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ is well on its way to a happy 125th.
Founded in 1887, St. Stephen’s still stands at 426 North Main St., where a 125th anniversary celebration is planned for Oct. 28.
There was no shortage of reminiscing on Aug. 6, as a few St. Stephen’s stalwarts gathered after services — over coffee and cake — to exchange stories and review church history.
“This church was started by a bunch of cheese makers,” said Dick Haertel, of Juneau, describing the efforts of 21 families in the spring of 1887.
Haertel said his grandfather, Ferd Lindeman, helped found the church.
Marlene Steffen, of Juneau, said her paternal grandparents, Frederick and Louisa Schumacher, were early members and Lila Mae Schliewe who, along with her husband, Harold, lives in Hustisford, said her mother’s parents, Frank and Martha Ritter, also were charter members of St. Stephen’s.
Lila said she was baptized at St. Stephen’s about a month after her birth on June 22, 1932.
“They didn’t believe in taking a baby out of the house until they were baptized,” Lila said, noting a one-month waiting period also was common.
Steffen said, “I was the church’s 50th anniversary baby, or so I’ve been told.”
She said her father, Clarence Schumacher, worked at Dairyland, once a prominent milk-processing plant in Juneau.
Schliewe said her father, Fred Winger, an immigrant from Switzerland, also was a cheese maker, an occupation that caused services during St. Stephen’s early days to be held Sunday afternoons.
“This was a cheese maker’s church,” said the Rev. Carol Lange, who confirmed St. Stephen’s sole Sunday services once were held in the afternoon because, as Jean Wienke, of Juneau, explained, “farmers brought in their milk to cheese factories early Sunday morning and processing started right away.”
Eventually, afternoons gave way to Sunday morning worship and Steffen recalled walking to St. Stephen’s from her family home on East Oak Grove Street in all types of weather.
Haertel, who also grew up in Juneau, recalled trips to church were made on foot because, “my folks never had a car.”
“Sunday school was at 9 and church was at 10 and it still is,” Lange observed.
Both Schliewe and Steffen recalled teaching Sunday school, a well-attended event that caused the church to expand its footprint eastward in the 1960s to nearly twice its original size.
At about the same time, the vestibule was added to St. Stephen’s western frontage along Main Street, but the job was not quite complete when Wienke wed her husband, Dennis, on Nov. 6, 1966.
“Martha Witmer, (pastor Melvin Witmer’s wife) kept calling the contractors and was on their case the whole summer to get that done,” Wienke recalled.
“One week before our wedding, she was on the contractors to get the carpeting in, ‘because we’ve got a wedding coming up,’” she said.
“Finally, Mrs. Witmer told me the carpeting would not be in and I walked down the aisle on a white sheet that extended up the stairs to the altar at the front of the church.
“When we turned around to be introduced to the congregation, I started to slip on that sheet, off the top step, but Dennis grabbed me tightly and nobody knew,” she said.
Before the vestibule was added, the church organ was installed in the balcony above the original front door.
Steffen recalled the pipe organ had to be hoisted from the main floor and over the balcony railing, because the stairway leading upward was too narrow to permit its passage.
Steffen said she married her husband, Ken, at St. Stephen’s in 1968, sometime after her confirmation there in 1951.
Schliewe said she was confirmed at St. Stephen’s in 1947 and a year later, at 16, married 22-year-old Harold, who shortly thereafter joined St. Stephen’s, too.
Lila Mae Evelyn Schliewe admitted she married a bit young, “but in those days, it wasn’t unusual,” she said, adding, “of course, people talked.”
No one could remember exactly when St. Stephen’s first got a telephone, but all agreed it was installed in the parsonage next door to the church.
“Fulton” was Juneau’s telephone exchange code in those days and “FUL-6” would connect to St. Stephen’s on a party line,” Haertel said.
Lange said the church now has its own telephone, but when it rings, so does the phone in the parsonage.
Lange said German was the common language at St. Stephen’s during its early years, although the congregation grew with Swiss and Dutch members, “because this was closer to the Reformed tradition in the old country.”
Steffen recalled when St. Stephen’s services were conducted partly in German, a tradition that ended in 1945.
World War II also ended that year and Steffen remembered St. Stephen’s bell, which still hangs in the tower above the original entrance, rang in celebration along with others in Juneau.
That bell remains in service today, suspended on a log trunnion and rung with a rope to summon the faithful each week.
Also in 1945, St. Stephen’s official minutes recorded, “there is a need for women’s advice to the consistory,” Lange said.
Steffen took that to heart and served on the congregation’s consistory and as church treasurer.
Lange arrived as St. Stephen’s first, permanent, female pastor in January 1989.
She noted the interim pastor, who served St. Stephen’s before 1989, also was a woman and said the United Church of Christ first ordained a woman during the mid-1800s.
“It was not a common practice, but there was a woman who got ordained back then,” Lange said. “There were not a lot of them. Until the 80s — the 1980s — it did not become widespread in the ministry.”