A Brief History of
Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit
Allen J. Kerkes
Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of Detroit was founded on June 4, 1882, by 51 men. Ten were members of the mother congregation, Immanuel, then located at 17thand Pine; forty-one were mostly recent German immigrants from West Prussia, now a part of Poland. The parish is the outgrowth of a branch school organized in 1877 by Immanuel on Wesson, then a part of Springwells Township. In this wooden house turned school, midweek Advent and Lenten services were conducted by Immanuel's Pastor, the Rev. Konrad L. Moll, until Zion was officially organized. Wilhelm Burhop was the first teacher, followed by Johann Von der Au in 1880.
On October 15, 1882, at Immanuel, the Rev. Christian F. Schatz was installed as Zion's first pastor. Almost immediately thereafter, the school building was moved to Welch (now Military) Avenue. The dedication of the first church, a 700-seat wooden edifice with a tall steeple, occurred on July 8, 1883.
Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ First Building, dedicated July 8, 1883 A.D.
Two years later, a second school was built with four classrooms. The enrollment, all children of parishioners, increased so rapidly that a branch school had to be opened 1/2 mile away on 31st Street. Also, additional space was made available in the first Zion Young Mens Club Hall across the street from the church. Within a few short years, the school had almost 500 pupils, the largest Lutheran school in America. To alleviate the crowded conditions, two classrooms were added in 1901.
With Lutherans moving away from the near-downtown location of Immanuel Church, and with hundreds of West Prussians continuing to arrive in southwest Detroit until 1900, Zion, to relieve the pressure on her pastor and teachers, organized or assisted in organizing seven daughter congregations: Bethlehem, 1887; St. Stephen, 1890; Concordia (Delray), 1901 and Tabor, 1916. She solely organized Gethsemane in 1891 and St. Matthew in 1903. In addition, Pastor Schatz ministered to the Lutherans in west Dearborn, and under his supervision, Emmanuel was organized in 1895. Immanuel German Evangelical Church on Livernois (later United Church of Christ) was started by dissident members of Zion, several of whom had been excommunicated.
At Zion's numerical peak in the early 1890s, she had 3,100 parishioners, and was the largest parish in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which she had joined in 1883. For several years, Pastor Schatz officiated annually at 200 infant baptisms, over 75 youth confirmations, and 150 burials.
The three bells of Zion were installed in 1890, and ring to this day. After serving Zion for 32 years, Pastor Schatz retired on November 1, 1914, and was succeeded by the Rev. Walter E. Lussky, who was installed on February 15, 1915. That same year, the new Mens' Club Hall, consisting of auditorium, bowling alleys and dining, choir and meeting rooms, was built. The Rectory was dedicated the following year, 1916.
In 1924, Zion again peaked in membership, with 2,500 souls and 417 students. The following year, 1925, saw the beginning of English language services, though only once a month. After October 6, 1974, German was no longer employed in worship at Zion .
The New Building
Following the Golden Anniversary Services in 1932, the first church was demolished and building begun on the present 600 seat neo-Gothic stone edifice. Stone used in the building was obtained from the recently demolished Post Office/Federal Building in downtown Detroit. On May 27, 1933, the new church was dedicated, with thousands present for the various services.
Newspaper article on new Church Building, May 27, 1933 A.D.
In 1936, Gottwaldt Wendt, who served as principal, died, after serving Zion for 53 years. Other longtime teachers included Ludwig Maurer, Knud Hansen, George Bernhard Sohn, Melchior Zehnder, John Nuechterlein, August Trapp, Christian Kaiser, Karl Wittkopp, Armond Schoof, Robert Schultz and Flora Loeb.
The Tenure of Pastor Runge
Kenneth E. Runge was ordained and installed as assistant pastor on June 5, 1938. Following Pastor Lussky's resignation in 1939, Pastor Runge became pastor of the parish.
For the final time, in 1940, membership peaked with almost 2,100 souls, the seventh largest parish in the Missouri Synod. 1941 saw the bricking of the school and also the commencement of World War II, with six members perishing corporeally, including Edward Klann, sailor-cook on the USS Arizona, and well over 200 parishioners serving in the armed forces. (Two members died in the Spanish-American War; four in World War I; and one, Kenneth Fletke, during the Korean conflict.)
"Faith Faces the Future," the expansion program begun in the early 1960s, saw the installation of a new parking lot, the dedication of the new school and activities center, and three landscaped gardens, in 1964 at a cost of $750,000. The debt was terminated in 1978, a year early.
The Present Era
After returning to the practices of the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions, especially the celebration of the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and holy day, Pastor Runge retired on October 6, 1974, after serving Zion for 36 years. Following the pastoral vacancy, the Rev. Fr. Gene Evans was installed as fourth pastor of Zion on May 25, 1975. During his pastorate, the centennials of both school (1977) and parish (1982) were celebrated and the Second Century Fund and Endowment Fund were initiated. Also, the console of the Holtkamp organ was modernized at a cost of $25,000.
Because of overwhelming expenses to the parish and declining enrollment, the school was moved into the activities center in 1994, with most grades eliminated. The school, the oldest in Detroit Lutheranism, was finally closed in 1998.
On July 23, 1995, the Rev. Fr. John W. Fenton was installed as Zion's fifth pastor. In 1998, the school was leased to a charter school, Voyageur Academy. In 1999, an annex was built next to the school at a cost of over $500,000. Following the 120th anniversary in 2002, Zion began a major restoration of the interior of the Nave. Almost $200,000 was expended for this purpose.
Following the resignation of Father Fenton on October 29, 2006, the Rev. Fr. Larry K. Loree, Jr., was installed as Zion's sixth pastor on August 26, 2007. Father Loree resigned on April 20, 2008. Over 300 worshippers were present as Zion celebrated her 125th founding and 75th dedication anniversaries with Holy Mass on May 18, 2008.
The Rev. Fr. Mark P. Braden was installed as Zion's seventh pastor on January 4, 2009. Under his leadership, adult and childrens classes resumed, with mens' and womens' groups re-organized. Renovation of the Undercroft, at a cost of $105,000, was completed, with restoration of the Rectory following.
Several parishioners have served Zion as office secretaries: Florence Sohn, Jean Wrenbeck and Sherrie Williams. Dorothy Geisler served as school secretary for 13 years. Allen Kerkes served as a lay worker.
Zion is rich in Christian art and symbolism. Entering the Nave and facing the organ loft, you will notice depictions of the Apostles' Creed in wood. Looking up, plaques in the roof trusses feature symbols of the twelve Apostles. On the lower walls of the Nave and transepts are the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross. In the transepts and underneath the loft are various holy pictures, including a diptych of the Annunciation to St. Mary by the Archangel, St. Gabriel. A separate baptistry includes the large stone Font with elaborate cover, Altar with carved wooden reredos, sacrarium, and various carvings. In the niches to both sides of the chancel are European-carved statues of Christ as an adult and as an infant in the arms of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Lectern is the Agnus Dei, Christ as the Lamb of God; symbols of the Four Evangelists adorn the Pulpit, with a Crucifix of Christ as King and Priest above it. An Aumbry (or Tabernacle) in the Sanctuary (the area around the Altar) features a carving of a pelican and her chicks, representing Christ's service for us in the Holy Eucharist. At the opposite end of the Sanctuary is the Piscina. The Altar reredos has angels holding lilies (symbolizing purity) and a wooden carving of the Last Supper and carvings of the Resurrection: a peacock and victorious Lamb of God. The Altar Wall includes golden Fleur-de-Lis, representing the Holy Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Altar itself is constructed of various Italian marbles. The chancel window features the Ascending Christ with the Archangels, St. Michael and St. Gabriel (the first Church contained a painting of this subject matter on the Altar reredos). The various windows in the Church were made by the Detroit Stained Glass Company in 1933. Also notice the artifacts in the Narthex, including communionware from both the closed Gethsemane Church and Zion's first church, the German Bible of Pastor Schatz, the St. Michael painting and a framed photograph of Zion's first church.
In the loft or balcony is the 2,128 pipe organ. Additional pipes are located in the Chancel. Zion's first organ was installed in 1883 for $1,200 by the J. G. Pfeffer Company of St. Louis, Missouri. This instrument was replaced by the 1914 Felgemaker, costing $5,000. Because Zion's present church was built at the height of the Great Depression, the Vottler-Holtkamp-Sparling Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio, saved the parish thousands of dollars by incorporating the 1914 pipes into the new instrument. Famed organ builder Walter Holtkamp personally took charge of the construction and installation. There are five divisions: Great, Swell, Choir, floating Chancel and Pedal with three manuals. The organ also includes a harp and cathedral chimes. Organists have included Gottwaldt Wendt, John Nuechterlein, Harold Rutz, Lowell Borcherding, Norman Tiedje, Dana Hull, and Allen Kerkes.
Zion's Role in the Church
Zion has had eight sons of the congregation enter the Holy Ministry, the first being the Rev. Dr. Otto Sohn, long-time professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and editor of the synod's German periodical, Der Lutheraner. Others were the Rev. Adolph Koslowsky, the Rev. Arthur Zehnder, Jr., the Rev. Kenneth Haupt, the Rev. Evan Schiller, and the Rev. Roland Holder. A number of vicars have served Zion: Ryan Beffrey (2010-2011) and Peter Eckardt (2012-2013). Part-time pastors have included Rev. Frederick Lussky, Rev. Henry Quitmeyer, Rev. Paul Czamanske, Rev. Arne Kristo, Rev. J. H. Gerdes, Rev. Earle Beck, Rev. Roger Ruff and Rev. Robert Cullinan. Two have served as associate pastors: Pastor Runge and the Rev. Richard A. Zeile (1991-1993). Vacancy pastors since 1882 have included Rev. Konrad Moll, Rev. Frederick Tresselt, Rev. Herman Metzger, Rev. Robert Cullinan, Rev. Arthur Zehnder Rev. Allen Lunneberg, Rev. Joel Baseley, Rev. Dr. Frank Pies and Rev. Christopher Thoma. Fifteen sons and daughters of Zion became teachers and professors in the Missouri Synod school system.
In addition to organizing seven daughter congregations, Zion has contributed to the well-being of the church at large by assisting in the founding of the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Detroit (in her Undercroft in 1943), the Lutheran Homes of Michigan, the Deaf Institute, the Glen Eden Lutheran Memorial Park, the Lutheran Center Association, and other organizations. In addition, she sponsored synodical meetings that formed America's first Lutheran monastery, St. Augustine's House in Oxford, Michigan.