The founding of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon, Iowa, began with the effort of the Bruno Beckman family. Bruno taught for many years both at Cornell College and at the Mt. Vernon High School. Back in about 1950, the Beckman family’s car broke down on their way to a Christmas program in Marion. It was then that Ella (Mrs. Beckman) decided to find other Lutherans in town who might be interested in having a Lutheran church here. She visited anyone who seemed to have a Lutheran connection. Helen and Herman Schmidt of rural Lisbon helped them to begin the new congregation, even though services for students were already being held at Cornell. However, these were on third floor in Main Hall, not easy to access, and also were only held during the school terms.
Chauffeured by Bruno, Ella Beckman canvassed the area, and in 1952 the first church service was held in the old American Legion Hall, next to City Hall on Main Street, Mt. Vernon, with 24 in attendance. On April 22, 1955 a group met at the Herman Schmidt home near Martelle and a congregation was organized as a mission of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. In August that year, the first minister was installed as pastor of two mission congregations, Mt. Vernon and Hiawatha. Soon thereafter plans were made for construction of the first Lutheran Church building in Mt. Vernon.
In 1954, when Helen Beckman was 15, she and her mother Ella went to New York City, where Helen won 2nd place in the Pillsbury Bakeoff contest with a cookie recipe. She won $2,000 and a stove. She gave $200 to the church and with that they bought the communion set, cross, candlesticks and collection plate for the church which was yet to be built. Helen Beckman later attended Valparaiso University and trained as a deaconess. She was consecrated here at St. Paul. She now lives in Sisters, Oregon and is the author of fourteen books on various religious themes. Her husband Dave Haidle, and daughter, Elizabeth, illustrated her books.
The name chosen for the new Mount Vernon church was St. Paul Lutheran. Plans were made to build in Mount Vernon and four lots were donated by the Iowa District East Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. They were purchased on 5th Avenue S., in the Lusted Addition, across from the new Washington Elementary School, for the total price of $6,000. The first part of the church building was dedicated in May, 1957. The floor plan was one the district had previously used for three other churches in Iowa. The Mt. Vernon group made very few changes in those plans. A great debate took place over whether or not to have a basement. They have been satisfied with the decision not to have one. At the time, the District was in the habit of giving money to build, so new congregations would not have big debts hanging over their heads. St. Paul’s gift was $32,000.
The pulpit, altar, lectern and baptismal fount were built by Emil Grams, with help from Lewis Berends, Charles Hoeft and Herman Schmidt. A Baldwin electronic organ was later purchased. In 1957, the first wedding, of Vicar Roland Krekeler and Pat Resewehr a parishioner, was celebrated in July. Up until that day, folding chairs had been used but pews, a gift of the Newhall church, arrived in time to be enjoyed by the wedding guests, even though the pews were not yet fastened to the floor! The Priscilla Guild was organized in 1957 and later became affiliated with the International Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. They support many mission projects, maintain the church kitchen, hold Fall Festivals and serve receptions and banquets, providing funds for hymnals, the Christus Rex, other altar furnishings, etc.
Rapidly St. Paul’s became self-supporting and was removed from mission status. The 10-room educational wing, which includes the library, was added in 1966. Also that year, the church and fellowship hall was renovated, insulation added, the ceiling of the hall lowered and paneling applied to the Sanctuary walls. The first parsonage on 6th Avenue was purchased in 1961. In 1967, a newer parsonage was purchased on 2nd Avenue S., Mt. Vernon. The pastor serving the longest term to date was Rev. Harger, whom many readers today probably remember. He was here 15 years while raising his family and so acquired many friends outside the congregation, too.
Two members of this parish, Harold Scheer and David Hinman, are ordained ministers. A long-time member, Vivian Stromer, volunteered as a secretary, doing ‘whatever needed to be done’, for about 25 years. A preschool/playschool was organized and served the community for 11 years. The location across the street from Washington Elementary School was ideal! Susan Schmidt was the primary teacher for this venture. The older youth of the congregation belong to “Youth On A Mission”. They enjoy fellowship and worship at their meetings and provide help for the adults when meals are served. An Adult Fellowship Club supported projects for improvement of church property, such as carpet, chairs, parking lot surfacing, etc. One large group activity is a food stand at “Sauerkraut Days” in Lisbon.
Beginning in 1993 St. Paul’s has sponsored a Living Nativity in December. This has been well received in the community. Since 1996 the audience has been invited into the Fellowship Hall after each performance. Soup, stew and goodies are enjoyed by all. The last few years the Living Nativity has been presented at the City Park Gazebo one night and at the church a second night. Each summer, the vacation bible school is open to the children of the community.
After three years of planning by the “Building by Faith” teams, in the year 2000 St. Paul’s broke ground for a new, much larger building to house the main worship space. It is connected to the old worship space by a large gathering area, giving it a very spacious look when one enters. Gracing this area are two large crocheted pictures of The Last Supper and the Lord’s Prayer. These were made and given by Kay Hertzler.
On the side of the gathering area opposite the worship space are two offices and a new, large kitchen, the planning of which has primarily been the project of a kitchen committee made up of Evelyn Berends, Elva Wolrab, Kim Spiess and Deb Wieditz. The old worship space, which also opens off this gathering area, provides an ample seating area for meals, meetings and even basketball for the youth when the tables are taken down. All of the exterior of the original church, educational area, etc. has been newly sided to match the newest addition. New heating and cooling was installed throughout the whole building.
The chancel area features two new large side crosses flanking the center Christus Rex (the Risen Christ) cross. The Christus Rex is mounted on stained glass which was given in memory of Barbara Ohlfest. The two side crosses, plus the mantle and the hymnal holders, were made by Chuck Ohlfest. All the rest of the altar furnishings, formerly built by the four men listed above, were moved over from the original worship space. The windows, which are plain for now, were installed with the future in mind. When economically feasible, the present ones can easily be removed and replaced with stained glass of whatever kind the parish desires.
Adjacent to the worship area is a small room which provides respite for mothers with little ones. The babies’ cry room is decorated with very colorful pictures of biblical themes, a work of Mickey Woods, a local artist. A second room, off the previous worship center, is furnished as a play area for preschoolers.
Under the direction of building project director Gene Freiberger, this facility was built primarily by Laborers for Christ, a Lutheran organization which sends retired couples to a project which has been approved for the use of their services. Many of these retired men are electricians, contractors, etc. by trade. They work for minimum wage and come with the condition they will be provided a facility for parking their travel trailers, a place for showering and washing clothing and picnic tables at which to gather. Gene and Laurena Freiburger converted their corn crib for such a facility.
Not all Laborers for Christ work together each year. They sign up in the St. Louis office, are chosen for the jobs according to their talents and assigned by that committee. Each year the Laborers may be in a different state, so they enjoy adventure and see our country, tool They also meet new friends with the same common goals – that of helping their fellow Lutherans. What better way to enjoy retirement ! The Laborers for Christ received the unusual volunteer support of 10,000 hours of labor by 50 members of the congregation, truly a beautiful sharing of a labor of love.
St. Paul’s new facility was dedicated Sunday, April 29, 2001. Founding members of St. Paul’s who were still in the congregation at the time were Evelyn Berends, Darlene Blythe, Gloria Krob, Carla Wieben, Glenn & Betty Kurth, Irene Mounce, Jim Schmidt, Walter & Vivian Stromer, and Elva Wolrab.
The above history is edited version of a column that appeared in the May 3, 2001, edition of the Mt. Vernon Sun titled, “History of Mt. Vernon Churches, part 6: St. Paul’s“, by Mrs. Dolores Suchomel.