From the Antigo Daily Journal:
Far from the land that incubated it, the little church stands quietly in the dale.
Estonian Lutheran Church, a humble one-of-a-kind, was the first congregation of its type established in the United States, but it never had a full-time pastor and, today, lies forgotten in the woods at the Langlade-Lincoln County border near Gleason.
Strike that. It’s almost forgotten, except for a few hardy historians and a Lutheran pastor with a propensity for pastoral ponderings.
“Have you done the old Estonian church on (aptly named) Estonian Church Road near Bloomville and Gleason?” Rev. Nancy Richmond, pastor of St. John and Arbutus Lutheran Churches, asked in an e-mail to the crew. “I heard or read somewhere that it was the first Estonian Lutheran Church building in the whole U.S. Picturesque place at any rate.”
She’s right on all counts. It is, and we haven’t, until now.
Gleason and Bloomville—Irma too—are known for things as widely diverse as giant spiders and trout fishing, and the quality of their historians should be added to the list. In the span of time that it takes to type Estonian Lutheran Church, the crew heard from its own Marge Baraniak, who grew up near the area, the Mondeik family, whose patriarch, George, lived very close until moving into Merrill, and Bill Dexter, a connoisseur and chronicler of all things historic in the region.
Pennies, or perhaps Estonian krooni, from heaven.
Better writers may be able to explain the feelings that envelop a visitor to a forgotten house of worship, but the crew will have to make do with describing it as a mix of melancholy and an appreciation of the piety of an early community.
Those feelings only grow when the history of the church is revealed
The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, known in the native tongue as Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirirk, is a Christian Protestant Church following the teaching of German theologian Martin Luther.
Chafing under the weight and oppression of the neighboring Russian empire, Estonians began immigrating from eastern Europe to the United States in about 1900. Encouraged and assisted by the Lutheran Colonization Co. in New York and the Wisconsin Valley Land Company, they flocked to the Gleason area, some from the eastern U.S., others from North Dakota and some likely direct from Estonia.
Estonians and Latvians alike were lured by letters suggesting Gleason and Bloomville was the land of big timber and opportunities, resembling their Baltic homelands, Mr. Mondeik said.
Like the Pilgrims 280 years earlier, they came for many reasons, and one of them was freedom to worship free from the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a 1978 series published in the Merrill Shopper & Foto News, preserved by Bill Dexter, reporter Sharon Thatcher documented how the Estonians, led by Gustave Sommi, carved out a community.
Worship services first took place in the Sommi home, according to Ms. Thatcher’s article, and traveling minister Hans Rebane reported that by 1903 there were 29 members in the congregation.
(An aside here: According to Mr. Mondeik, Rev. Rebane also served the thriving Latvian Lutheran community, helped recruit them to the area, and was instrumental in the construction of the Latvian Lutheran Church just down the road. That’s a place for another day.)
Meeting in a barn or sitting room was fine, but the little congregation yearned for a worship center of their own. In 1907, three members each anted up $25 to purchase four acres of land from Heineman Lumber Company.
The Estonians were home.
The first beneficiaries of the consecrated site were the deceased, with a cemetery established in 1909.
The church itself began to take shape five years later, constructed over the summer months by the pioneers themselves, with the assistance of their preacher Conrad Klemmer.
According to Ms. Thatcher’s article, it was “built with care and the personal sacrifice of if its members,” with simple furnishings that included two columns of backless, plank benches consisting of five or six rows each. Men sat on one side, women and children on the other.
Ms. Thatcher wrote that up front was a simply-constructed lectern and altar, a plain wooden table draped with a crocheted altar linen. In later years, when services were infrequent, women would bring flowers from their gardens to decorate the sanctuary.
The church even had a bell, and that’s a tale of its own.
According to Ms. Thatcher, Albert Sommi wrote to Sears Roebuck, stressed that Estonians were good customers, and asked for a donation “of one of their smallest bells.”
The catalogue giant complied.
Mr. Mondeik said that at the first service $4.60 was received in the collection plate, a rather princely sum for the little congregations.
Little did they know it, but the Estonians had made history, constructing the first Estonian Lutheran Church in the United States, an honor that continued until 1972. Even in 1978, Ms. Thatcher reported that only one other Lutheran church had been built by Estonians, one other was owned and the rest were rented from other congregations.
The Estonians made good—if infrequent—use of their house of worship.
Ms. Thatcher reported that while the congregation never had a full-time minister, it used lay ministers for weddings and baptisms with itinerant preachers coming by a couple times a year to bless the babies and conduct memorial services for the deceased.
Ms. Thatcher reported only two marriages in the church. There were 14 burials in the little cemetery and 11 remain interred there. Five have been relocated to Merrill Memorial Park.
Peak membership came in 1930, at about 135.
After the 1930s, as the Estonian community dissipated to larger cities the church was used only rarely. There were periodic visits by Estonian Church officials into the late 1950s.
Never a large or prosperous congregation, the last reunion of Estonians took place in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of the church, when Estonians throughout the United States came to celebrate.
Mr. Mondeik recalled that the event brought Estonians from throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and the little church really put on the Ritz for its visitors. It also wore a new roof, something that has continued to preserve it to this day.
Afterwards those attending retired to a nearby lake for a picnic, he recalled.
It would turn out to be a bittersweet event.
Even before the anniversary, the secluded church had become a target of vandals, and it happened again after the grand celebration.
The second time, everything was taken or destroyed including the benches, altar and even the little bell. Windows were smashed and the door hammered in.
The handful of remaining members were crushed, and in 1970, decided to board up their little house of worship,
“There was no use in trying to renovate it because it only seemed to invite vandalism,” Ms. Thatcher wrote. “By keeping it worthless, the Estonians were keeping it safe.”
It remains safe today.
It is shameful—but appropriate somehow—that the Gleason church fell victim to vandals, since the mother church in Estonia did too.
During World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Estonia, dissolved most Christian organizations and confiscated church property. Bishop Johan Koop escaped to Sweden in 1944 and it was not until 1988 that church activities were renewed when a movement for religious tolerance began in the Soviet Union.
Today, the church’s North American headquarters are in Canada and the denomination has about 200,000 members worldwide.
Mr. Mondeik said there is an occasional work day at the little church, with brush clearing and the like, and the cemetery remains consecrated and undisturbed ground.
“It’s amazing, looking at old pictures and seeing all the trees now. But that’s what happens,” he said. “There were efforts three or four years ago to preserve the structure but they gave it up because of its location. It’s just in such an inaccessible place.”
So the little structure on Estonian Church Road, and the graveyard behind it, waits. For what, no one knows,
Hidden Places is a weekly Antigo Daily Journal feature that examines some of the more unusual or unknown places and events in and around Langlade County and occasionally farther afield. The crew is always looking for ideas, photographs and willing tour guides. Contact Lisa or Debbie at the Journal office, 623-4191, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.