A number of Germans who had settled in the township of Sevastopol (centered about 7 miles NE of the village of Sturgeon Bay, then called Sawyer), began meeting in various homes for worship as early as 1884, and were assisted from time to time by Pastor J.Oehlert of St. Paul, Algoma. His successor, Pastor Christian A. Doehler, continued this work in 1885, and by the summer of 1886 the Germans of Sevastopol township were ready to form a congregation. Incorporation papers were filed on August 28, 1886. Pastor Doehler was granted permission from St. Paul to preach at Sevastopol at least 9 times each year. At first services and meetings were held in the boarding house in Valmy (then called Voseville), or in members’ homes. Very soon a small piece of land about 1½ miles south of the church’s present site was purchased and a log cabin chapel begun. The little chapel was completed in July, 1887.
In 1888, St. John called its first resident pastor, the Rev. August W. Vogt. That same year the Rev. August Doehler, who had been serving Salem Lutheran Church of Nasewaupee Township (west of Sturgeon Bay) from his church in Forestville, accepted a call elsewhere. Pastor Vogt was then called also by Salem, and he served both St. John and Salem from his rented home in Institute (within a half mile of St. John’s chapel). Pastor Vogt was also approached that year by a group of German Lutherans living in Jacksonport Township (one township north of Sevastopol) for leadership in organizing a church there. Unable to do so himself, he asked the Wisconsin Synod for help. They sent a young man who founded Zion Lutheran Church in January, 1889, under Pastor Vogt’s supervision. (This man is called “Student Adaschek” in Zion’s histories and may have been George Adascheck, who would become one of the first missionaries to the Apache Indians, but a conclusive identification was not possible with the information available to this writer at the time of publication.) Pastor Vogt preached at Zion from time to time and taught catechism classes for Zion. In mid 1889, Pastor Vogt, discouraged in his work, resigned his pastoral calls and went into teaching.
Pastor Ferdinand Rottluf succeeded Pastor Vogt at St. John, Salem, and Zion, boarding at various places in the town of Sevastopol. He resigned his calls one year later, but not before helping a group of German Lutherans in the village of Sawyer, who would soon organize as St. Peter Lutheran Church.
In late 1890, John Kaiser, a German doctor, arrived in Sawyer (now called Sturgeon Bay). He was colloquized by the Minnesota Synod and was ordained and installed by Pastor F. Eppling, Pastor C. Doehler’s new successor at St. Paul, Algoma, as the first pastor of the new St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Pastor Kaiser was also called by St. John, Salem, and Zion, and served all four congregations from a rented home in Sawyer. In 1892 he established a hospital in what was then called Bay View. Late in 1892, he was removed from office for joining a lodge. After a short time of serving a breakaway congregation, he moved to Green Bay, where he practiced medicine.
Pastor Immanuel Brackebusch accepted the calls of St. John and Zion and found housing in Jacksonport, becoming Zion’s first resident pastor. (St. Peter and Salem remained vacant until July of 1893.) Pastor Brackebusch was a talented musician and very active in mission work, spreading the Gospel to Baileys Harbor, Carlsville, and Egg Harbor. Efforts at Egg Harbor, however, were fruitless; and a small congregation begun at Carlsville (one township west of Jacksonport) were so hampered by the Lodge that after three years the families there disbanded their little church and joined either Zion or St. John. In Baileys Harbor, Emanuel Lutheran Church was founded. Zion, St. John, and Emanuel purchased and remodeled a house for a parsonage in Jacksonport, but before the work was completed in early 1901, Pastor Brackebusch resigned his call, yet remained a member of Zion before accepting pastoral calls to churches near Tomah, WI. (Emanuel is now a part of ELCA and details of the break with Wisconsin, which occurred in 1926, are not available to this writer. Given that the Lodge was a major controversy in the county at the time, that may have been an issue.)
St. John then called Pastor Emil G. Schulze, who had been serving Salem and St. Peter since 1899. (Zion and Emanuel called John Dowidat in July, 1901.) Pastor Schulze served the three congregations (and, occasionally, Zion and Emanuel) until he accepted a call to Kansas in September of 1904. Under his pastorate, the congregation decided to build a new facility at its current location on land donated by one of the members. A finely built altar and pulpit were constructed by three of the congregation’s members. The new 30' x 60' structure was dedicated on August 21, 1904. There were services in both German and English. The Jacksonport band provided music. Later, the church cemetery was moved and the old land was sold. A large horse stable was also erected in 1904, and enlarged in 1908. Stalls were owned by members and could be transferred to their children.
That Fall, Salem, St. Peter, and St. John called Pastor Frederick Schumann. At this time there were twenty-two families at St. John. By 1917 that number grew to sixty-six. The Ladies Aide was organized in 1907. Pastor Schumann organized the Sunday School and taught catechumens in both German and English. Some of his church records are in German, some in English. Living in the parsonage at St. Peter, Pastor Schumann came to St. John every Sunday by buggy (or cutter, in winter) and was nicknamed “the Bishop of Door County” for his large size and stately posture. He also served Zion and Emanuel from time to time as vacancy pastor and in difficult times.
A special highlight of Pastor Schumann’s ministry at St. John was the congregation’s 25th Anniversary in 1911. This event demonstrated the kind of joyous cooperation that has been common for the Door County WELS churches. Pastor Christian Doehler, the founding pastor, preached the Jubilee sermon in the morning. Pastor P. Barthke of Jacksonport, reknown for his great oratory skill, delivered the afternoon mission sermon. St. Peter’s choir beautified the services with several appropriate anthems.
In 1923 Salem, St. Peter and St. John had grown to the point that there was more work than one pastor could handle. St. Peter asked Salem and St. John each to call their own pastors, which they were able to do. St. John purchased land and built a parsonage across the road from the church. Its first resident would be Pastor Paul Bergmann, described in our histories as “untiring”. (Pastor Schumann would continue with St. Peter until 1943.) The congregation continued to prosper. With Pastor Bergmann, all official records were kept in English (by resolution), but German services were continued for many years. He received permission from St. John to conduct English services also at St. Peter. The gradual transition to English was “without the least dissension”.
In 1926, Pastor Bergmann accepted a call to Rhinelander, and seminary graduate Otto C. Henning accepted the congregation’s call. Continuing growth moved the congregation to remodel and enlarge the church building, moving it 20 feet and setting it on a foundation with a basement. An interesting record from the minutes of this time reads: “Motion made and seconded that the congregation dig the basement, haul the gravel and help raise and move the church. and anyone that does not help is to pay $3.00 Motion carried.” The altar and pulpit were sold to St. John of Witten, South Dakota.
Pastor Henning served the church for thirty years, and is the pastor who confirmed most of our current senior members. His long tenure saw many changes at St. John. In 1930, one half of the barn was dismantled and sold. In 1932, the congregation took out a 99-year lease on a small triangle of land across the road from the parsonage and between it and the main highway. The committee that volunteered to level and dress it (as it had been roughed up by improvements to the main highway) was made up of: “Teams (horses): Rud. Ehlers and Hjalmer Knutson; Truck: Ewald Schmock; Hand work: Carl Schultz, Arnold Wolfgram, Bruno Birnschein, John Schopf, Felix Vandrell, Geo Gerlach, Aug. Wilke, Josh Busch, Carl Schuster, Walter Hinz.” In 1933, a collection of food was made for the children’s home in Wauwatosa, and delivered by one of the members. The need for funds moved the congregation to mortgage its property in 1934. That and the next year additional loads of produce were donated to Kinderheim (children’s home) at Thiensville. In 1935 most of the remaining portion of the barn was taken down, and the remainder converted into a storage shed. The automobile had replaced the horse and buggy.
In 1936, the week of November 22-27, St. John celebrated its 50th Anniversary with worship services on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday (Thanksgiving), plus a three-act play by the Luther League at the consolidated school on Friday. Sermons were delivered by founding pastor C. Doehler, former pastors Schumann and Bergmann, and by Pastor Henning.
Late in 1941, Pastor Henning’s salary, which had been cut during the depression, was raised to $125.00 per month, but only after considerable discussion. Pastor Henning indicated he would again accept a cut, if necessary. In 1942, the mortgage, extended in 1939, was paid in full. In 1947, the congregation purchased a few additional acres of land, immediately west of the church building and cemetery. The next few years saw extensive landscaping of the entire church property, inside and out. A building fund was started in 1949.
In 1951, St. John marked the beginning of the second half of the 20th Century by adopting a motto: “Forward in Fifty-one for Christ and his kingdom in our church and community!” A men’s club was organized, and was at first called “the Corncob Club”; bringing one’s corncob pipe was required. Pastor Henning, whose salary had been raised to $200.00 per month, was granted a $300.00 bonus. In 1953, the local building fund reached $554.00; $928.50 was collected for the synod’s building fund, and the church had established special funds for a film projector and a neon cross. In September, 1956, Pastor Henning accepted a call to Salem, Nasewaupee.
After a brief vacancy filled by Pastor T. Baganz of St. Peter, Sturgeon Bay, Pastor Richard Werner was installed in December of 1956. As with Pastor Henning before him, he would serve St. John for a very long time - more than thirty years. In 1957 the Book of Hymns was replaced by The Lutheran Hymnal. In 1960 and 1961 the building was extensively remodeled, reversing the location of the altar adding bathrooms, library, office, and side entrance. The old steeple was removed and the bell placed in a special cote. These improvements were completed in time to celebrate the congregation’s 75th anniversary. The congregation worshipped in the basement while the remodeling was being done. After the upper portions were completed, the basement was redone, with chalk boards and drapery dividers for the Sunday School classes. The $20,000 mortgage was paid off in January, 1967. A new large and modern parsonage was designed and built by the members and dedicated in 1977. The proceeds from the sale of the old parsonage plus $26,000 raised in a special offering paid for the new building.
Under Pastor Werner’s leadership the congregation became active in supporting formal weekday Christian education, by supporting and participating with Zion of West Jacksonport in establishing a school in 1974 and 1975. The Christian Education Fund continues to be an important part of the congregation’s budget and at present supports the full tuition costs of any members who wish to enroll their children at Zion. When St. Peter, Sturgeon Bay, established a school, this same policy was applied also to St. John children enrolled there.
Upon Pastor Werner’s retirement the congregation called graduate Randy Loux, who served from 1988 to 1995. Under his leadership the roof was upgraded, and the basement extensively remodeled with oak wainscoting supplied and installed by the members. The ladies did an especially nice job in decorating the restrooms. He was followed at the beginning of 1996 by Pastor Erich Stuebs. Both before and after Pastor Stuebs, St. John was served by Pastor Darrick Kolterjahn from St. Peter, Sturgeon Bay, as vacancy pastor.
From November, 1996, until April of 2009 St. John was served by Pastor Randall D. Styx. Again, Pastor Derrick Kolterjahn from St. Peter, Sturgeon Bay, served as vacancy pastor. During a special voters’ meeting the congregation decided to request a graduate from our synod’s seminary. Their prayers were answered when graduate Benjamin Enstad was assigned on May 22, 2009. He and his wife Amber moved up to Door County in early July 2009.
The summer after pastor Enstad’s arrival the parking lot was repaved and the church received new siding. In 2011 we celebrated our 125th Anniversary under the theme: Celebrating 125 Years of Grace. Acts 2:39 was the main focus of our celebration: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” We prepared for this celebration with many smaller renovations. We celebrated with a Jubilee service on October 20th; History & Game Night on the 21st; a Family Fun Day on the 22nd; and our Festival Service on Sunday the 23rd. Professor James Korthals (WLS) preached and an anniversary dinner followed the service. In 2012 new flooring was installed in the kitchen and library. In 2013 a new church sign was installed, and so was a beautiful new playground for the children. Many other smaller renovations have taken place to update our facilities. But most importantly, God’s people have been gathering in his house, inviting friends and encouraging those had lapsed in their worship attendance. We pray the Lord would continue to richly bless us as he has in the past.