By BRENNA GRITEMAN
The two stained glass windows gleaming like gemstones inside the sanctuary at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church have essentially been part of the church since 1901.
It’s just that, for the past 57 years, they’ve stood watch over an abandoned building.
Thanks to the quick thinking of lifelong member Fred Gohlke and the cooperation of Bigelow Glass, the windows caught up with the rest of the congregation which has worshipped at 1701 Tiffin Ave. since 1961. They were culled from the church’s original location on Front Street, built back in 1868 and then rebuilt at the same site in 1901.
When a developer began razing the old church to make way for new townhouses, Gohlke expressed interest in acquiring some of the stained glass windows left inside. The church gained ownership of two sections of window, about 6 feet by 4 feet each. One depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd; the other his ascension into heaven.
Gohlke explained some restoration of the windows was required, though the church chose sections with the least damage. Some windows in the old church were extensively aged or damaged by rocks thrown by youths.
He noted Bigelow Glass was accommodating throughout the process and was happy to see the windows remain a fixture in the local community.
“I think they were appreciative that they were coming home,” added Leni Mueller, another lifelong member of St. John’s.
The restored windows were dedicated during an April observation of the church’s 160th anniversary. Historical photos, marriage and confirmation certificates and other memorabilia from the early church were collected and displayed, much of which continues to line the main hallway leading to the sanctuary.
Mueller’s grandmother is pictured in several of the photos, including one of the woman’s confirmation class.
“For some of us, there’s a lot of history and tradition tied in,” she said of the anniversary.
“And to look at some of these old baptismals, you’ve got to know how to read German,” added Jack Brink, a member of the church for all of his 76 years.
Like the others, Brink was baptized down at the old church on Front Street. The church’s original marble baptismal font, inscribed with German lettering, stands at the entrance to the new sanctuary.
In hanging the stained glass windows, church members were mindful of the “For Sale” sign on the front lawn. The panels were placed in a way that will make them easy to move and carry to a new location when the time comes.
When that time comes — and where to? — is anyone’s guess, said intentional interim pastor the Rev. Doris Mars.
She came to the church nine months ago, during a time of great uproar and division. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of gay marriage had caused a rift among the congregation, which was still struggling three years later to settle its moral stance on the issue. Further, financial reviews showed the church’s building expenses were more than it could accommodate.
Mars led the congregation through “faithful conversation and discussion to put the building up for sale,” adding the church will consider its new location once a buyer comes forward.
St. John’s membership is over 200, yet the church refers to its active membership as the “faithful 40s.” Mars said this average weekly attendance number is the church’s body, hands, feet and heart, responsible for the lion’s share of outreach and day-to-day operations. This includes Lutheran Social Services and its food pantry, which operates within the church.
Mars said through all its challenges, “This congregation has in its DNA the heart and the ability and the willingness to move in the direction as God intends.”
The anniversary celebration and the symbolic pieces of the old church have helped solidify that reality and reduce internal strife, Mars said. The windows in particular helped many, especially older members or those who don’t regularly attend services, to reflect on from where they came and where they’re headed in their own faith.
“They were just so appreciative that the history of the church was lifted up. It was just a glorious celebration of how far this church has come,” she said.
“The windows in a way brought us together for a common purpose, to see that some of our heritage is restored,” Brink added.