Our History
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Lutheran Forefathers
The true history of St. Matthew's Ev. Lutheran church goes back to the days of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany beginning in 1517.  Descendants of those early German Lutherans became part of the German immigration that came to America in several waves.  The German immigrants who came to America during the period of 1840-1890 became the core for the founding of thousands of Lutheran Churches, particularly in the mid-West.  German Lutheran settlers poured into the area that became the location for this congregation.  Most of the founders and early members of the congregation were farmers.  The farms were usually small, from 10 to 40 acres.  A few farms went beyond 100 acres.  The area was dotted with family farms and the area became well-known for its produce.  Tomatoes, pickles, beans, onions and carrots were some of the best crops.  Much of the produce ended up at the Randolph Street or South Water Street markets in Chicago.  It was in this German, rural setting that the history of St. Matthew's Ev. Lutheran Church begins.

Preliminary Steps
As German Lutherans settled in the area, several Lutheran Churches were founded.  Two were of special significance for St. Matthew's.  St. Paul's Lutheran Church of Niles Center (Skokie) provided Pastor Frederick Detzer as the pastor who gathered a group of Lutherans together in 1895.  Some of the first members came from St. John's Lutheran Church of Niles, only a few miles to the south.  Nine founders adopted and signed a constitution on January 29, 1896.  The name adopted was:  Evangelisch Lutheranisch St. Matthaus Gemeinde.  There had been a church by the name of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church during the early 1860s.  It was located on the site that was considered for the building for our first church.  The existing church building may have been more of a house than a traditional church building.  St. John's Lutheran Church of Niles used that facility in its formative years until it formally organized in 1859.  That church site is now St. Matthew Lutheran Cemetery on Shermer Road in Niles.

Early History
The following history was recorded by Pastor Karl Buenger:

 
"The first services were held in the public school.  After several delays, circumstances were such that all efforts were put forth to build our own church.  The original plan was to build on church yard property where a Lutheran church had stood for many years.  This church had been the first in this area.  In a meeting held on the 25th of October 1896, it was resolved to gather pledges for the building of a church on this plot.  However, this plan was changed because in the meantime, Messrs. Christopher Engel and Wm. Wichmann declared themselves ready to donate a parcel of land of about three-fourths of an acre in area to the congregation for the building of a church.  Therefore, in a meeting held on November 22, 1896, it was resolved to accept this offer with thanks.  After a sufficient number of pledges were gathered to build the church, we proceeded quickly with the work, putting our trust in the Lord.  A building committee was chosen and was made up of the following: Christopher Engel, Hermann Schwinge, August Geweke, and Heinrich Schwinge.  The contract for the work was awarded to Mr. Louis Rugen.  Already in December of the same year (1896), the cornerstone of the church was laid by Pastor Detzer and a large number of fellow believers from our own and from neighboring congregations were in attendance for this event."

First Pastor
The first resident pastor was Pastor Karl Buenger and his wife Clara.  The children who were born here were Clara and Martin.  Pastor Buenger unfolds the history in these words:
"The next step in the history of the congregation was the calling of a resident pastor.  This business was taken up in a meeting held on January 10, 1897.  The result was that a resolution was passed that the Secretary seek union with the Wisconsin Synod (an orthodox Synod) with the purpose of calling a pastor from this Synod.  The negotiations proceeded favorably and the result was that Professor Ernst of Watertown, Wisconsin, held a conference with this congregation for the purpose of discussion of this union and the call. Since nothing was found to hinder this union, the business of calling a pastor could now proceed.  The congregation held a call meeting on the 28th of March, 1897, and called Student of theology, Karl Buenger, from the Seminary of the Wisconsin Synod in Milwaukee, as its shepherd and pastor.  Then the salary of the pastor was decided upon and the congregation also resolved to build a parsonage."
"In the meantime, the building of the church progressed rapidly and was near completion. Then the congregation made preparations for the decorating of the interior of the church. By means of freewill offerings from individual members and from the young people, the congregation was in a position to purchase a bell, an organ, and suitable benches, plus altar and pulpit appendia.  Now, by the grace of God, the contruction of the church was completed; the interior of the church was beautifully decorated; and the church bell rang out to its members of the congregation and to fellow believers from far and near to attend the joyous celebration of the dedication of the church.  (This took place June 6, 1897.)"

"After three weeks had passed (June 27, 1897), the ordination and installation of the called candidate (Karl Buenger) took place in our house of God.  Pastor P.E. Dornfield of Kenosha, Wisconsin, preached the sermon at the ordination and installation service and Pastor Detzer officiated at the rite of ordination and installation being assisted by Pastor Dornfield.  In the following spring, a Christian Day School was started in order to lead the lambs of Jesus into the green pastures of the Word of God.  By the grace of God, the congregation increased and grew even under trial, so that today (May, 1902) it is made up of sixty families."

 
Pastor Julius Toepel
Pastor Buenger accepted a call to Friedens Lutheran Church of Kenosha, Wisconsin in May of 1902.  That opened the door to the longest pastorate in the history of the congregation.  Pastor Julius Toepel began his fifty-year ministry on March 1, 1903.  He, too, came as a candidate for the ministry and was ordained and installed by his father, Pastor Adolph Toepel of Iron Ridge, Wisconsin.  Actually, Pastor Toepel was also called as the pastor of Jerusalem Lutheran Church of Morton Grove.  He served both congregations until August of 1904 when Jerusalem Lutheran became self-supporting and called its own pastor.  Mrs. Toepel was Laura and children were Florence, Marcus, Elva, Ada and Hildegard.

After 50 years in the ministry, Pastor Toepel resigned for health reasons.  His resignation was effective March 1, 1953 to allow him to complete 50 years of service.  His retirement was very short.  The Lord called him home on March 17, 1953.
Christian School
For more than two decades following its beginnings in 1902, a little school flourished.  Classes were taught by the pastors who had busy ministries in addition to teaching.  The side room, or annex, of the church was used for classes.  The teaching was in German and sometimes the children called it the "German school".  A public school was located across the street where the children also attended until finishing about the 4th or 5th grade.  For the upper grades, the children attended St. Matthew's school.  Included in the curriculum were catechism instructions. After going at least two years to "German school" and completing 8th grade, children might continue into high school for another year or two.  Often the option of going to business schools was chosen.  These schools taught things like sewing, typing, shorthand, record keeping, and other business skills.  The courses were often short, lasting less than a year.  College educations were rare in those days.
The congregation continued to grow as more settlers, often German, poured into the area.  It was obvious that the side room of the church would no longer serve adequately as a school.  The decision was made to build a separate school with two classrooms upstairs and a church hall or auditorium downstairs.  The original church had no basement or meeting area.  Additional property was obtained from Oren Jaacks so that the school could be set back from Milwaukee Avenue.  The school was built in 1923.  

Mr. Lester Sonn was called as the first teacher and principal.  In 1924, Miss Anna Winter was also called as a teacher.

It was not until 1955 that Kindergarten classes were started.  The decision stipulated that there had to be 8 children enrolled before the class would be added.  There were 10 children in that first class.  Their mothers made little, white graduation gowns and caps which were used for many years.
When the village of Niles annexed our property in January of 1959, it became necessary to enclose the stairwell in the school to meet fire department regulations.  Annexation also made it possible to use city water and abandon the well which stood near the parsonage. Our school continues to be an important facet of the congregation's ministry.  During the summer of 1979, the school building was completely remodeled.  The structure built in 1923 was still solid, but the interior was outdated.  New plumbing, wiring, walls, ceilings and floors were installed.  As educational trends changed, St. Matthew's school opened the doors to a preschool program in 1981.
 
Service and Fellowship
As St. Matthew's grew and had more adequate facilities, it opened up opportunities for service and fellowship.  The Ladies Aid Society was organized in 1924.  Their energies were directed back to serving the congregation.  One could not begin to count the number of meals that were served over the years.  Much of the care for the interior of the church was gratefully offered by members of the Ladies Aid Society.  The school auditorium was a beehive of social activity.  This was the place to gather for bunco and harvest festivals, for weddings, anniversaries and funerals, and for plays and concerts.

Some of the fondest memories and cleanest fun came at the bowling alley.  It was erected in 1924 and stood until the mid-1960s.  During the fall and winter, the lanes were used almost every night of the week.  Teams came from the neighboring towns and friendships developed that lasted a lifetime.  Bowling alleys in churches or on church property were not unusual in this period of time.

 
The Great Depression
The Depression in the 1930s put everything on hold.  St. Matthew's weathered that period better than some congregations.  We were able to maintain the school.  Perhaps the rural flavor of the area helped.  Farmers are never without a job.  Prices may drop and farms may be lost, but the rural life could be lived with much self-sufficiency.  An addition was built to the parsonage in 1930 even though times were tough.  In fact, by 1937, the Ladies Aid Society and congregation were in a position to add a kitchen to the back of the school building.  A small slice of land was obtained from Leo Jaacks behind the school after the kitchen was already on it!  A hint of changing times can be found in the decision to hold services in English every other Sunday.  This happened on January 15, 1933.  Some English services had been held plrior to this date.  For instance, the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the church was held on June 11,1922 with two German services and one English service.
Modernization and Growth
For the first 50 years of St. Matthew's existence, the facilities had a decidedly rural, almost primitive, look.  Sheds, barns and chicken coops dotted the property.  And also outhouses - three of them!  It was not until 1947 that indoor plumbing was added to the school and parsonage.  A washroom addition was added to the school to accommodate the modernization.  A septic system and well water were still necessary, but the future was looking brighter for the country and for our neighborhood as well.  A teacherage was built on the church property in 1950.  Up to that time teachers lived in rented homes and quarters.  With wise foresight, two building lots adjoining the church property were purchased in 1954 for $4,250.


Pastor Howard Henke was installed on April 26, 1953.  His wife was Jane and their children were Thomas, Susan and Mark.  Since Pastor Henke was not as fluent in German, German services were discontinued.
The next major undertaking for the congregation was the planning and building of the present church facility.  The late 1950s and 1960s were the boom years for the area. Housing was going up in Niles and surrounding communities.  Golf-Mill Shopping Mall was built during this period of time.  The congregation was experiencing steady growth as people moved into the area.  The original church became inadequate to meet the needs of the congregation.  A new church was built in 1962-3 at a cost of $110,000.  Funds did not allow for including a kitchen and a finished basement, nor for the paving of the parking lot.  Both items were added in a few years.  Dedication of the new church building took place on September 29, 1963.

Activities for children increased in the 50s and 60s.  A succession of organizations included 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, and finally the Lutheran Pioneers.  School enrollment grew and a sports program was added to the school program.  The old church became the "gym" since it was empty and available.

During the 1950s and 60s, St. Matthew's congregation changed along with the changes taking place in the area.   All of the little farms that dotted the area and formed the community were sold and developed.  Where barns, sheds and far houses stood, now stand stores, malls, schools, apartments and houses.  The German immigrants who flocked to this area were no longer dominant.  Now the immigrants and residents included people from South and Central America, from the Middle East, from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and from European countries.  Some people moved out of Chicago which is a city of great cultural mixes.  The German flavor that has remained in the congregation was supplied by people who moved from Germany after World War II, some escaping from East Germany.  Once the church was a community church where members could gather with family members and friends.  Now the church is a commuter church with members scattered around the neighboring suburbs and communities.

The present church site was acquired over a period of 64 years.  The two original parcels were given to the congregation by Mr. Christopher Engel and William Wichmann in 1896. The property for the school was given by Oren Jaacks in 1923.  In 1946 an additional little slice of property that wrapped around the rear of the school was obtained from Leo Jaacks.  In 1954 two city lots that adjoined the original parcels were purchased.  This parcel is the site of our present church building.  William and Katherine Boettcher gave the back part of their property to St. Matthew's in 1960.  All of the various parcels together comprise about 4 acres.  

With graditute to the Lord, St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church celebrated it's Centennial year in 1996.  The desire to remain faithful to the Word of God and to teach and preach in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions which caused the founders to seek affiliation with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod remains the desire of the congregation to the present. God's grace has been rich and steady on this congregation of believers.

 
The Village of Niles
Niles is one of the northern suburbs touching the city limits of Chicago.  On August 10, 1833, Chicago was registered as a village with 250 inhabitants.  In 1837, Chicago reincorporated as a city with a population of 4,180.  In 1832-33, the first log cabin was built in Niles on the north branch of the Chicago River.  By 1837, the North Branch Hotel was built along the old Milwaukee Avenue which served as a stagecoach route.  The village of Niles was known as "Dutchman's point" until at least 1884, according to the historian Andreas.  Niles Township was incorporated in 1850 and the name Niles was later chosen for what grew into present day village of Niles.  On August 25, 1929, the Chicago Tribune reported:  "Where the name came from is a matter of conjecture.  There was no family by that name among its settlers.  But the city of Niles in Michigan, one of eight spots in the country with that name, was so called in 1829, and its namesake was the Niles Register, a newspaper of widespread political influence at that time, published in Washington, D.C." 

Historian Andreas wrote in 1884:  "The village of Niles now contains two stores, two hotels, one drugstore, one harness shop, two blacksmith shops, three churches, two schools, one physician and about 200 inhabitants."  Most of the village was located in the southern part of Niles in the area of Touhy, Harlem and Milwaukee Avenue.  The area which became the home of St. Matthew's was more rural and went under a succession of names such as Town of Maine, East Maine, Des Plaines and finally Niles when the area was incorporated into the village of Niles in 1959.
 
To God alone be the glory!
With humble hearts we offer God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all the praise and glory for allowing us to exist as a congregation where the Word and Sacraments are treasured and the gospel of Christ is openly proclaimed and his Word faithfully taught.  May the Lord bless us with his grace and love in the future, as He has in the past!
"Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed." ~ 1 Peter 1:13