The First Congregational United Church of Christ has a long and rich history in the Elmhurst community. It was founded in 1889 in response to a need for an English speaking church in a predominantly German speaking town. The cornerstone for our sanctuary was laid in 1926. Other parts of our church complex were built in 1955 and 1971. The church mortgage has been paid off and a generous endowment fund supports both the physical and spiritual needs of our church.
We are a welcoming church open to all. We currently have about 175 members in our vibrant church community. We are searching for a permanent minister.
Currently, visiting ministers lead us in prayer and in our mission work to support one another, our community and the broader world in which we live.
The following is taken from the 1989 First Congregational United Church of Christ Album and Directory, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Church.
In the fall of 1888, three men, George F. Rosche, Henry G. Browne, and C.J. Albert, agreed that it was time for an English speaking church in Elmhurst. The community was largely German and German was the predominant language used by the three existing churches, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Evangelical.
A further conference on January 12, 1889, between Mr. Rosche, Mr. Browne, and Mr. Albert resulted in a call to friends in the community to consider the organization of a union church that would be a home for many denominations. About thirty people attended a meeting held in the Albert home on Sunday afternoon, January 20. Very shortly thereafter, a Sunday school was organized in the Rosche home with John R. Case as superintendent. An executive committee was also appointed to organize a church “based on two fundamental ideas-ecclesiastical independence and mutual concession in matters of opinion.”
The first services were held in the upper room of the public school, built in the prior year, which stood on the site of the present Hawthorne school. The first series of services was conducted by Rev. James D. Wykoff, who came from the Congregational Mission Board of Chicago. On April 21, 1889, the Rev. W. F. Cooley of Seward, Illinois, was invited to preach as “stated supply.” He remained until April 1, 1890, when he accepted a call to the Congregational Church of Short Hills, New Jersey.
On May 29, 1890, Mr. Rosche, Mr. Case, and F. S. Rockwood were appointed as a committee on permanent organization. The church received its charter on September 14, 1890, and the Union Congregational Church of Elmhurst became a regular legal and ecclesiastical body. The Rev. James Tomkins, D.D., was the first minister. William H. Emery offered land in the prairie southeast of town at the corner of Division and Center streets (Renamed Kenilworth Avenue in March, 1895, and Church Street in November 1901). This land was accepted and a contract let for the building of a chapel. The wood frame building was erected at a cost of $1,800. The first service was held in “the little brown church on the corner” on December 14, 1890. That first chapel was to serve until 1926. On September 21, 1890, the Rev. M.L. Williston became the second pastor and remained until May 1, 1896, when he resigned. Summer services were conducted by supply ministers.
On October 5, 1896, the Rev. T.E. Barr of Kalamazoo, Michigan, assumed the pulpit as supply but stayed for two years and is the third minister. At this time, the issue of reorganization was raised.
On February 1, 1897, the church membership met and adopted the constitution and form of admission printed in the first church manual. By this action, the old organization was transferred to the new, and the new name of the church was Christ Church, Elmhurst. The next year, Rev. Edward P. Drew became the fourth minister and served until the middle of 1900. The village population had grown to 1,700. Rev. William Danforth came as the fifth minister in 1900. He was the religious editor of the old Chicago newspaper, the Inter Ocean, and continued in that capacity at length. He served the church for fifteen years. The major physical achievement of his ministry was the building of the Community House. Social facilities of the church were limited, a community hall was needed as a “common meeting place, especially for the young people of the community. Dedicated in 1914 (at a cost of $13,000), it was the center for all sorts of community affairs. It served the church well by providing space for Sunday school, Missionary Society, Women’s Aid Society, Men’s Club, and Women’s Club. The top row of tiles in the building wall below the windows were hand made with designs by various community members . Some of these tiles are preserved as the Tree of Life in the present church foyer.
Reverend Danforth served Christ Church for nearly fifteen years. In 1914 Rev. Nelson Hall came as our sixth pastor to lead the church until early 1917. Rev. J. E. Sellard became our seventh minister and served until the spring of 1921.
Community and church life were changing rapidly, and Christ Church was at a crossroads. Calls were sent to pastors of various denominations who might fill that vacancy at this critical time. Over seventy applications were received. The pulpit committee and in turn the congregation unanimously selected Rev. Fred C. Harrison of the Congregational Church of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Rev. Harrison’s ministry, the eighth, began in September, 1921.
With Elmhurst growing to 7,000, the church continued to grow and needed a new building. Designs submitted by noted architect Norman E. Brydges, an Elmhurst resident, were accepted. An additional eighty feet on the south side of the old church site had been purchased so that there would be room for the entire church property of sanctuary, Community House, and parsonage. The foundation stone of the new church was laid in the fall of 1926, and the church formally opened on October 9, 1927.
The memorial window in the west wall of the sanctuary over the entrance was the gift of the Emery family, who were among early members and supporters of the church. The pipe organ was designed to serve many uses. The parsonage, built at the same time, was the south unit facing Kenilworth Avenue. The total value of the three buildings was estimated to be $150,000.
The Community House had outlived its original usefulness and remodeling was necessary. The gymnasium, bowling alleys and billiard facilities were eliminated. The stage was remodeled and part of it was turned into a choir room. Women’s Aid Society stuccoed the auditorium and made it far more useful. The Community House was enlarged by expansion to the west, giving alcove rooms on both floors.
It became evident to a growing number of people that Christ Church as a “community” church could not meet the needs of a city now approaching 10,000 people, and it was not a community church in the true sense of the term.
Denominational churches were coming into Elmhurst and even the name of the church, “Christ Church,” conveyed a wrong impression to many newcomers. For a whole year, the official board gave serious consideration to the matter. On April 6, 1926, it was decided unanimously to seek admission again into the fellowship of the Congregational Church. The new name of the church was The First Congregational Church of Elmhurst.
As Elmhurst grew from 5,000 in 1921 to 16,000 in 1942, the church grew from a membership of 140 to 1,000. The Sunday school grew from fifty to 400 with forty teachers. For some of that time, Rev. Harrison lived in the parsonage at 282 Arlington, and he was first to occupy the new parsonage on Kenilworth. In his final year, he saw the impact of World War II, as our church gave sixty men to the armed forces, and two died in that year. An energy crisis was endured in the winter of 1942, when a shortage of oil forced curtailment of much church activity.
The Congregational Church at Ottawa, Illinois, sought Rev. Harrison, and on December 1, 1943, that church and ours exchanged minister, a very unusual event, as Rev. Lawrence A. Gedcke became our ninth minister. The church was to achieve new peaks under his leadership. Membership and Sunday school enrollment were constant during the war years at about 1,000 and 400 respectively. After the war, the community and the church both grew together. An adult Bible class led by Dr. Rudolph Schade of Elmhurst College was a very popular feature of the next ten years. The mortgage was paid off in 1948. Rev. Otto Mayer was engaged as an associate minister in 1949, and during the next year, Rev. Charles Callahan was engaged to direct growing Sunday school activities. There were about 600 enrolled in Sunday school. By 1951, membership had grown to 1,400 with 630 in Sunday school. It was necessary to use facilities at Elmhurst College for Sunday school classes that had burst the seams of the church. Special services marked the 25th anniversary of Helen Leefelt’s direction of the music program.
During 1952, it became necessary to schedule two services. Rev. Callahan resigned and was replaced with Rev. Lawrence O. Johnson as youth minister. The Cruger house at the southwest corner of Arlington and Church streets was purchased in 1953, and the church again had a mortgage of $52,000. By 1954, membership listed more than a thousand families and planning for enlarged buildings was undertaken.
The obvious place for expansion was to fill the space between the Community House and the newly acquired Cruger residence. This was done in 1955 under the direction of Eric Anderson, architect and member of our church. It provided many more classrooms, a youth chapel, better ministerial offices, and a second hall, Pilgrim Hall, plus a library. Sunday school classes that had been meeting at Elmhurst College returned to the church.
In 1956, the lot at the northwest corner of Church and Arlington streets was purchased for $15,000. Rev. Gedcke forecast the need for a parking lot and the purchase was part of that plan. Rev. Otto Mayer resigned as associate minister on April 24, 1957 and Rev. Oscar Bollman was called as a replacement from the Congregational Church in Rockford, Illinois, on August 1, 1957.
By this time, the national leadership of two denominations, the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, had consummated a union and established the United Church of Christ on June 25, 1957. Our church had to decide whether it wished to remain independent and autonomous or to join the new denomination. After three years of study, the decision to join was made in a special meeting of the congregation on March 26, 1961. The name of the church then became First Congregational United Church of Christ, Elmhurst.
During Rev. Gedcke’s ministry, the church reached a membership of more than 1,900, a Sunday school enrollment of nearly 1,000 and confirmation classes of more than 120. Church property was valued at $525,000. Elmhurst had attained a population of 38,000. In 1960, purchase of the Orval Catt residence at the northeast corner of Church and Kenilworth opened the way to construction of the large parking lot. Rev. Gedcke’s ministry ended with his resignation to accept a church in Minnesota on March 26, 1961.
Rev. Bollman served as interim minister while the pastoral committee searched for a new minister. Rev. William H. Dudley accepted the call on September 22, 1961. Leo G. Von Feld was engaged as a lay minister during November 1962. Rev. Donald G. Stoner ws engaged as youth minister, August 17, 1963.
Helen Leefelt Wilson retired on September 1, 1964, after having served thirty-eight years directing the music programs of the church. Shortly thereafter Lois Lundvall became our organist. Rev. Dudley resigned during August 1965, to accept a place on the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ. Mr. VonFeld resigned at the same time. Dr. Fred W. Schroeder accepted our call to serve as interim pastor, while our pulpit committee searched for a new minister. Rev. Stoner resigned on march 15, 1966 to accept a place on the staff of Elmhurst College.
Rev. Ernest H. Huntzinger, Jr. became the eleventh minister of our church in January 1967. Rev. Robert J. Tripp, of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Waukegan, Illinois, was called to be associate minister on January 1, 1968. Rev. Tripp resigned on May 28, 1969, to enter the Armed Forces, and Randall Brakemeyer, a theology major from Elmhurst College was called on September 1, 1969, to serve as student associate minister. In the fall of 1969, a study group was formed to recommend a building program to improve the physical facilities of the church. The architectural firm of Kroeber, Jensen and Associates was chosen to design a complete replacement of the Community House with a chapel, church parlor, choir room, church school classrooms, and new offices. The new and enlarged structure that replaced the Community House was completed in 1971. The parking lot was also completed that year.
Rev. Brakemeyer was ordained on October 22, 1972, in a ceremony in the church and was named associate minister. He resigned in 1973 to accept a church in Moline, Illinois, and Linette Stenberg was named director of church school in 1974.
Since 1973, the church has celebrated Confirmation on Palm Sunday. It is a time of affirming the young adults who by this rite become voting members of the church, and it is a reaffirmation for all those who attend this service. It was during this year that Gertrude Johnson assumed the position of parish visitor. Her efforts have been constant and have established a tradition of service.
In 1978, following the resignation of Linette Stenberg, Dr. Earl Kruse joined our staff as a student associate minister. Erla Faye Boyle assumed the part-time position of director of Christian education. Jean Tracy was named youth director. Her expanded responsibilities in the area of adult education established a series of seminars which cover the gamut of living in modern society. Dr. Tracy served in this capacity until 1983.
Dr. Kruse was ordained June 15, 1980. He thereafter tendered his resignation to become the minister of the Village Church in LaGrange Park, Illinois.
The financial complexities of running a church have multiplied many times in the past decades. As a result of this awareness, Dr. Huntzinger appointed Dan Bash to draw up the procedures to establish an endowment fund. This fund was established in June 1979. Through the generosity of Anna Emery Hanson, in particular, a growing list of members contribute to the fund which supplements the Church’s yearly income.
A major change in the church occurred in 1983. The congregation voted to reverse the arrangement of the sanctuary to focus on the Christ Window. The reversal, funded by Anna Emery Hanson, also enabled the modernization of the sanctuary substructures. The reversal involved turning pews, rearrangement of the organ and choir area, and the installation of a dias and altar below the stained glass window in the west wall. As the sanctuary arrangement took shape, the congregation benefited from the many gifts which now enhance the church including a new baptismal fount, the eternal light, a brass cross, candelabra, and a new sound system. Other gifts refurbished the library/conference room and Pilgrim hall.
In 1987, Erla Faye Boyle was ordained at the church and became minister of Christian education.
In preparation for the centennial celebration, Women’s Fellowship designed and assembled the Centennial Wall Hanging for the parlor. The entire congregation participated in the fund which raised the Centennial Bell into the tower. The bell was first rung Christmas Eve 1988, ninety-nine years after the first Christmas services were held in the “little brown church”. The theme for the centennial year is “One Hundred Years in His Steps”. It is hoped that what has been entrusted to the present congregation will be a source of strength for those who in years to come will continue to walk in His steps.
Reverend Rick Magnall was our twelfth permanent minister. Reverend Magnall retired in July of 2013 after 7 years with our church. Reverend Phillip Price served as our interim minister until late 2015.