Sometime in 1831 or 1832 the Reverend Andrew Wetzel arrived in Oneida County. Wetzel was the first Lutheran pastor to settle in this area and was the founder of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Born and educated in Germany, Wetzel followed upon the heels (some might say the souls) of German immigrants who had scattered themselves about the countryside. Wetzel began as a “circuit rider” sponsored by the Lutheran Ministerium of New York. For ten years he lived in New London (now Verona) but preached in Utica and Rome and made regular visits elsewhere.
In time, the attractions of Utica, a boom town on the banks of the Erie Canal, drew settlers from the countryside and lured even larger numbers from Europe. By 1842, Wetzel’s Verona congregation counted only forty-three communicants; his Utica congregation counted two hundred and fifty-nine. The time had come to move. In 1842, therefore, Wetzel organized and incorporated “The United Evangelical Lutheran and German Reformed Congregation of the City of Utica.” The charter members were all German born.
Services in Utica were first held in private homes and then, as the number increased, in rented halls and friendly churches. Finally, in 1844, the people of Zion entered a building they could call their own. On St. Michael’s Day the congregation dedicated what was known as “The White Church” on Columbia Street. This building served for only seven years before it was destroyed by an unfortunate fire. Wetzel and the congregation immediately resolved to begin again.
Zion’s second church, located at the corner of Fay and Cooper Streets, served the congregation for one hundred and seven years, from 1851 until 1958. The building remained standing until 1997, when it was destroyed by fire.
Under the leadership of Wetzel (pastor 1832-1878) and his successor John P. Lichtenberg (1878-1888) the congregation grew and prospered. Continued immigration added numbers; upward mobility among the first and second generation members assured adequate financial support. For the German community the church was the center of both religious and social life. In 1870, four hundred and seventy-five children received Sunday School instruction. In 1880, week day parochial students filled Zion’s Hall, a newly built annex facing Columbia Street. The Young Men’s Society, the Young Ladies Society, the Ladies Aid Society, and other auxiliaries gave life and purpose to the church. Truly, those were halcyon days.
The years following, however, were years of controversy and change and even decline. In 1882, Lichtenberg and the congregation separated themselves from the Ministerium of New York. In 1892, internal dissension involving Pastor A. O. Gallenkamp (1889-1892) caused many members to separate themselves from the congregation. Fewer immigrants meant few numbers; geographic mobility disrupted continuity from one generation to the next. Membership and attendance declined. The Week Day School closed in 1901. In the words of an earlier historian, “many problems…were left for patient solution to the twentieth century.”
The patient pastors of the 20th century were Otto von Bueren (1901-1918) and William C. Nolte (1918-1945). The one problem symbolic of all others was the question of language. In 1893, it was resolved that no child be confirmed in English. Yet, if the congregation were to survive, it would be necessary to make a transition from the German speaking church of Wetzel to the English speaking church of today. In 1917, on Zion’s 75thAnniversary, von Bueren conducted the vesper service in English. In 1921, Nolte began regular services in English as well as German. The transition was gradual but nearly complete by the end of Nolte’s ministry.
The transition from past to present can be traced by examining the altars of the church, the altar of 1924, now in the Fireside Room, bears large German inscriptions:
HEILEG HEILIG HEILIG
KOMMET HER ZU MIR ALLE
And smaller English inscriptions:
I am the bread of life
I am the true vine
The altar of 1958, now free standing in the chancel, is entirely English.
The twentieth century was not without its problems. Immigration all but ceased during and after World War I. Social and geographic mobility continued to disrupt continuity within families and within the congregation. Although Zion could properly claim to be “the mother of most and the grandmother of some,” there were now five nearby Lutheran congregations with which to contend. During the thirties the depression undermined financial support. No major renovations or additions were made for nearly a decade. At one point nearly one-third of the congregation was either on relief or without relief except for the church. Despite these problems, the congregation managed to sustain itself and its members managed to nurture each other under Nolte’s leadership.
In 1939, the congregation adopted its seventh constitution, the first written in English, and its present lawful name, “Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.”
Zion’s modern era began with the installation of Pastor John H. Sprock (1950-1971.) By mid-century new problems had arisen to take the place of old. Members of the congregation were no longer clustered in West Utica but were scattered about the countryside in suburbs and villages. Wetzel the circuit rider would have felt at home. But once again, the time had come to move. In 1955, the congregation contracted with the Lutheran Laymen’s Movement to conduct a modern building fund campaign. The campaign was successful. The congregation resolved to sell the old building and to begin anew.
Zion’s third and present church, located at the intersection of French and Burrstone Roads, has served the congregation since 1959. Dedicated on All Saints’ Day, it quickly became known as “The Church with the White Steeple.” Under Sprock’s leadership membership and attendance gradually increased. The congregation strengthened its ties with the community and the church at large through active participation with the Council of Churches and the Lutheran Church in America. In 1970, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Holy Communion (founded in the late 1880’s) and Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church merged to create an even larger and stronger communion. Upon his retirement in 1971, Pastor Sprock served for a time as Vice Pastor at Ascension, Rome; he continued to serve as pastor emeritus until his death April 10, 1994.
Among many gifts to Zion two deserve special attention. First is the mural of Christ Triumphantwhich was painted by Willard Sauter, who passed away in October 2000. Christ Triumphant dominates the chancel and challenges the congregation. Second is the antiphonal organ created by Robert Hunter from ecumenical parts. Both gifts were extraordinary labors of love.
In 1971, the congregation called to service Pastor Ronald E. Meyer (1971-1977.) Under his leadership the congregation continued its gradual growth. Existing programs were re-designed to meet changing needs. New Confirmation and First Communion practices allowed young people to become active at an earlier age. The Bethel Series engaged more than one hundred adult members in serious Bible study. Cassettes and video tapes enriched the lives of the elderly. In 1977, Pastor Meyer accepted a mission call to develop Shepherd of Life, North Arlington, Texas.
Pastor Paul D. Joslyn served from 1978 -1994. Under his leadership three developments were worthy of notice. Holy communion has become the central act of the congregation at worship and an added source of strength and comfort for many. Committees and auxiliaries have shown renewed life and energy. In 1981, the congregation resolved upon an extensive renovation and addition to its property. With these renovations we have handicapped accessibility.
Pastor Roger F. Beiswenger served from April 1, 1995 – June 17, 2012. Under his leadership, we have taken many new steps in caring, sharing, growing, and serving. He has launched a contemporary service, and a new contemporary Children’s Ministry based on the church, Willow Creek, in Chicago. The formation of many small groups with individual interests have formed to bond people together as they grow in their spiritual journeys.
We are presently blessed to have Pastor David Cleaver-Bartholomew as our intentional interim pastor. His delight in sharing this period of revitalization with our church family gives us new energy.