A Brief History of Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Bethlehem began as a dream of Swedish immigrants who arrived in St. Charles in 1851. Strangers in a new land with little knowledge of the English language, their first thought was to establish a Lutheran church where they could worship in their own tongue. In 1852, these newcomers obtained a little framed cottage for worship, and Swedish clergymen of various denominations visited them from time to time to conduct services.
In 1853, when a pastor arrived from Sweden to serve both Chicago and St. Charles congregations, he found that the church had been stolen on Easter eve. For the next 29 years, the Swedish Lutherans of St. Charles traveled to Geneva Lutheran Church for worship.
In 1882, the St. Charles families sought and received permission to purchase another church, and the Swedish Evangelical Bethlehem Lutheran Church of the Augustana Synod was born. A parsonage was built and the church building was renovated, including the installation of electric lights, in 1900.
Pastor J. Mellander of Elgin, Bethlehem’s fifth pastor, began a program of expansion for the quickly-growing congregation. A church organ was purchased, and the growing membership decided to build a larger building. The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, July 22, 1902, and the first service was held in the church basement in Advent of 1905.
At Bethlehem’s Golden Anniversary Celebration in 1932, the baptized membership totaled 825. In 1950, it was 1,138.
In 1954, Pastor J. David Ekstrom, Bethlehem’s seventh pastor, initiated plans for a new building. The five-acre tract of land on which the current Bethlehem building is built was given to Bethlehem in 1956 by the Norris family. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on March 9, 1958, and the new building was dedicated on September 20, 1959. The social hall was named Ekstrom Hall on September 23, 1965, to honor Pastor Ekstrom on his 75th birthday.
Pastor Arthur Holmer was called to be Bethlehem’s eighth pastor in 1962. He and his family lived in the parsonage right next to Bethlehem. The house is no longer used as a parsonage, but Bethlehem uses it for a variety of purposes. Upon his retirement in 1985, the parsonage was named Holmer House.
Pastor Kenneth R. Ahlstrand became Bethlehem’s pastor in 1985. Pastor Jane Kunzie-Brunner joined the pastoral staff as Associate Pastor in 1988 and served until October 2002. Pastor Ahlstrand led the still rapidly-growing congregation through a building program which added much additional space. This new addition was dedicated on May 17, 1992. In 1993, Pastor Robert Schumm joined the Bethlehem staff as Visitation Pastor. Pastors Schumm and Ahlstrand have since retired from Bethlehem, and Pastor Rod Broker became Senior Pastor in February 2001 and served until February 2003.
Pastor Mark Larson was called as Senior Pastor in December 2004, and Pastor Sarah Rohde joined the staff as Associate Pastor in 2013. Today Bethlehem is a congregation of 2,200 members who, together with the pastors, lay staff and many volunteers, help fulfill Bethlehem’s mission of proclaiming the gospel.
On Feburary 4th, 2007, Bethlehem celebrated its 125th anniversary. Special activities were planned throughout the year to mark this special occasion.
Pastor Larson accepted a call to Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta, GA in March 2017 and his Godspeed Service was held on May 7. Bethlehem wishes Pastor Mark and Cindy Holler Larson well as they embark on a faith journey with this new church family.
Bethlehem’s Congregation Council and staff leaders are working with Bishop Miller and his office to identify and appoint an interim pastor to serve alongside Pastor Sarah. We will then begin a larger process to search for and call a new permanent full-time pastor to Bethlehem.