Zion Lutheran Celebrated 125 Years in Community

October 9th & 10th, 1999

By Brad Ritter

Cadillac News Staff Writer

CADILLAC — Times were hard for the Scandinavian immigrants that came to what was then known as Clam Lake to work the forests and sawmills. Most spoke only Swedish and were faced with the temptations of the many saloons and boarding-houses that abounded in town.

But a group of 13 people saw the need to care for the spiritual and social needs of the population, and founded the “Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church at Cadillac” in 1874. That congregation, now known as Zion Lutheran Church, celebrates its 125th anniversary this week, with a congregational dinner at Cadillac Country Club Saturday night and festival worship services at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Bishop Gary L. Hansen of the North-West Michigan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will speak at the Sunday services. The congregation’s current pastor, the Rev. Thomas Reinertson, and its longest-serving former pastor, the Rev. P.T. Calvin Johnson, will serve as liturgists. “This church has always striven to meet the spiritual needs of people, and will continue to do so,” Reinertson said.

The congregation is the third oldest in Cadillac, following the Cadillac United Methodist Church (1871) and First Presbyterian Church.

Seven men and six women, the latter wives of the original members, signed the first church charter in May 1874, with a building erected on the corner of Nelson and Simons streets in 1876. “Cadillac was a lumber town, very rough, and there were saloons all over and every kind of sin imaginable,” said Lee Brown, president of the Cadillac Area Community Foundation who is organizing the church’s anniversary activities.

“There were far more men than women, and they spent long periods of time in the woods.” The pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Tustin, the Rev. John Forsberg, visited the new congregation for services, with students from the Augustana Synod Seminary in Rock Island, Ill. assisting. “A pastor’s salary in the 1880s was around $500, and once a parsonage was built, they allotted $100 for it,” Brown said.

The congregation’s first full-time pastor, the Rev. W.P. Anderson, came to town in 1887. Once more women came to the area and started working as cooks, domestic workers or clerks, the church started a “Young Ladies Society” in 1894 and a “Willing Worker Society” in 1896. “That society was mostly ladies, doing the work of the church — my great-great aunt, Trina Jorgensen, was its first president,” Brown said.

Worship was conducted exclusively in Swedish until 1904, when an English service was introduced. The church’s Sunday School reached its peak attendance in 1906, with an enrollment of 176. By the 1910’s the church’s membership had grown to exceed the capacity of the original whitewashed wood building, and it was moved to the current site of the Fired Earth pottery studio down Nelson Street. A new red-brick building, with an illuminated steeple and clock, was built on the Nelson and Simons corner. The church later added a parsonage next to the church for $10,000. “The wife of Dr. Conrad Wachtman donated the money for lights to light the steeple,” Brown said. “It was painted silver and you could see it all over town.”

Nels Nelson donated the clock for the tower, which was installed in 1917. A confirmation class bought a statue of Christ for $3,500, and the statue still holds a place behind the pulpit in the church’s current Pearl Street location.

World War I changed the consciousness of the congregation about how to maintain its Swedish heritage in a changing Cadillac.

“The church was changing — people came in that had a Swedish background but didn’t speak Swedish, and their children were learning English” Brown said. When the Rev. C.O. Lorimor succeeded the Rev. J.E. Rydback in 1930, shortly after the congregation’s 50th anniversary, the decision was made to worship in English only and to change the church’s name to Zion Lutheran Church.

“An interesting thing about that building is that the youth group assumed the responsibility for raising funds for a pipe organ, which cost about $9,000,” Brown said. “It’s an indication of how times have changed.”

“The organ was repaired in 1929 and brought up-to-date for about $5,000 — it was clearly the most important possession of the church.” While the Zion congregation was formed as a mission congregation, it also provided preachers for congregations in Gilbert, Hobart and Jennings at various times in its history. “In 1904 the church separated from Gilbert, but took on Jennings and Hobart,” Brown said. “We pastored Hobart until 1921 — some of the founders (of Zion) actually came from Gilbert, seeing us as a mission church.

“Pastor (Carl) Benander was our last pastor to serve Gilbert.” As part of the Hobart congregation’s assimilation into Zion in 1929, Zion assumed responsibility for maintaining Hobart’s cemetery south of Cadillac. Many of the church’s early members are buried there. The post-World War II era, as it did for many churches, changed Zion’s character and its involvement in the community,” Brown said.

“More of the members moved into the middle class, and instead of being uninvolved in the community, they started getting involved,” he said.

The Augustana Synod became a part of the Lutheran Church in America in the early 1960s, and the LCA joined the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the ELCA in 1988.

Johnson served Zion from 1968 to 1989 and administered many baptisms and confirmations as families grew up in the congregation. The Rev. Dr. Nicholas Martin served the congregation from 1990 to 1994, and Reinertson has been the congregation’s pastor since 1996. From its early days, the congregation has taken a concern for its members’ practical, as well as spiritual, needs.

“The members of the men’s group used to pay sick benefits for those who got ill or couldn’t work,” Brown said. The congregation today conducts a socks and underwear ministry that provides clothing to people in the larger community through the Project Christmas outreach, and has recently worked on bone-marrow donor drives. “There’s been a steady progress from helping poor Swedish lumbermen that spoke no English, meeting their spiritual and material needs, to reaching out to the greater community,” Brown said.

Zion-Cadillac.org wishes to thank the Cadillac News and Brad Ritter for allowing us to repost this article. Thank you!

Article © Brad Ritter and the Cadillac News.