A Short History of Zion
The Rev. Andrew Wetzel founded Zion Church, Utica’s first Lutheran congregation, in 1842. Pastor Wetzel immigrated to Central New York from Germany in 1832 and, by circuit riding, established Lutheran missions in Utica, Verona, Boonville, Rome, Hawkinsville, Constableville, and West Leyden. His Utica church grew so rapidly that the pastor concentrated his efforts there, which resulted in Zion’s genesis. Wetzel’s German-American parish was originally called “The United Evangelical Lutheran and German Reformed Congregation of the City of Utica,” shortened to “The Evangelical Lutheran Zion’s Church” in 1877.
Wetzel and his followers created a vibrant West Utica congregation; their spirit endures in contemporary Zion. When their first sanctuary burned in February 1851, Zion’s faithful rallied quickly, built a new house of worship at the corner of Fay and Cooper Streets within nine months, and dedicated it at Christmas. This building served the church until it moved to New Hartford in 1959. Zion opened an elementary school in 1846, an event that reflected the high priority that Wetzel’s flock gave education. When German immigration to Utica swelled during the industrial revolution, the church built a school hall at 613 Columbia Street in 1880 to accommodate increased enrollment.
After the school closed in 1901, members remodeled the hall into a parish center that not only served the congregation, but also its West Utica neighborhood. A first floor auditorium, complete with stage, hosted the church’s “Crescent Dramatic Society” and, later, “Zion’s Players,” theatre troupes that produced popular dramas for the general public. German dinners, fairs, and festivals became regular events, and conventions of New York’s German Lutheran Synod and organizations like the Saengerbund (a workers’ choral association) savored Zion’s Hall’s hospitality.
The issue of language divided the congregation throughout its early history. Many German-Americans wanted to worship in their native tongue, while others preferred English. Resistance to change continued for decades. In 1911, for example, the congregation voted 200-9 against English worship, but attitudes changed when World War I erupted in 1914. In that year, the Church Council approved one service per month in English and, by 1921, weekly rites were conducted in both languages. As more members assimilated and their children became active, attendance at German services declined, while numbers at Zion’s English counterparts increased significantly. In 1941, prior to our country’s entry into World War II, the Council ended German worship.
Demographics stressed the church after World War II. The diaspora of later generations of German-Americans to the suburbs brought membership losses and financial difficulties. In response, Zion’s Council resolved to relocate. The congregation purchased its French Road property from New York State in 1957, laid a cornerstone on October 12, 1958, and dedicated its new sanctuary on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1959. The church has thrived in New Hartford.
Positive changes have blessed Zion since its dedication. In 1966, the church unveiled artist/member Willard Sauter’s “Christ Triumphant” mural, a magnificent painting twenty-feet high, which rises from the altar to the stained-glass windows above the chancel. In 1974, longtime organist Robert Hunter rebuilt and expanded the chancel organ. The congregation enlarged its building in 1983 and included ample handicapped access. In 2015, Zion’s members refurbished their church’s white steeple which, when illuminated every night, radiates inspiration and hope.
Zion’s members value their heritage. They rekindled the age-old “Octoberfest” celebration in 2015 and publish articles about the church’s past in every monthly newsletter (accessible online). The congregation has preserved treasured reminders from their history such as an oak altar, hand-carved by nationally famous artist/member Reinhold Pietsch in 1913. The altar’s German and English inscriptions reflect the church’s bilingual era.
As 2017 approaches, this growing Lutheran congregation invites the greater Utica community to a celebration of Zion’s 175th anniversary, which coincides with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther in 1516. With its deep roots in the Utica area providing a strong base, Zion is well positioned and looks forward to continuing to serve the surrounding communities for another 175 years.