By Susan Johnson
First Lutheran Church, 225 S. Third St. in Rockford, has had its steeple restored by Mulligan Restoration. Dave Smith of Mulligan spoke with The Rock River Times and shared with us the church’s Centennial book, which documents the early history of the church.
“It’s the oldest Lutheran church in Rockford,” said Smith. “It was semi-restored in the late ’60s and again in 1994. We even have some of the architecture. One of the people on the church board has all the old newspaper clippings. We have an original blueprint.”
History of the immigrants
According to the Centennial book, published in 1954, the original Swedish immigrants (two families) had planned to go to Texas, but the ship they wanted had already sailed, so they took another ship loaded with Swedish iron. Three weeks into that voyage, they were hit by a terrible storm; the rudder broke, and the iron in the hold broke a seam, causing the ship to take in water.
By this time, they were off the coast of Ireland. A pilot had asked the captain to turn back, and he did. The sails were ripped to shreds; a mast had splintered and gone over the side. “The vessel drifted helplessly before the wind,” says the book. Conditions were desperate, and the cook quit handing out food. The people feared that they would all end up at the bottom of the sea. Finally, the storm spent itself, and the ship reached a port on the shores of Ireland.
After months of waiting, the immigrants again set sail across the Atlantic. It was still a stormy crossing, but after 10 weeks, they landed at Boston. “The land of promise did not look so promising when they arrived,” recalls the book. The little party went west to Chicago, and then on to Rockford, where the two families had rented a house for $3 a month. It was early summer of 1853.
Building a church in the community
“On Jan. 4-9, 1854, the combined Mississippi Evangelical Lutheran Conference met in Chicago. To this meeting the Rockford Swedish settlers who had met with Pastor Carlsson a few months before, sent a representative to present to the conference their spiritual and church needs. … Pastor Carlsson had come as a result of the request, and now the project had been launched,” says the book.
“A new bridge was being built across the river, and with the use of the water power, the first of Rockford’s industrial colony began the manufacture of the Manny reaper.” In 1855, while the building of the church was in progress, “many things were happening in the congregation, the city, and the country. Abraham Lincoln visited Rockford as an attorney for the Manny Reaper Company.”
The first church was ready for use in November 1855. It was in a house at North First and Rock streets and had no steeple. The first building constructed as a church was a brick structure built in February 1857 at First and Lafayette streets. The second church was built in 1867 and dedicated in 1870. In 13 years, the church had grown so much that it was decided to tear down the building and erect the third church in the same location. It was completed in 1884.
“The church bell from St. Louis World’s Fair was installed in 1905,” says the Centennial book. “Loreen Hall [the fellowship hall] was dedicated in 1951, in honor of Pastor Albert Loreen.”
Restoring the structure
Mulligan’s Restoration, at 121-123 S. Madison St., has shared much of the early history of Rockford’s east-side community with the church. “Mulligan was built in 1890 as the Pioneer Hall,” said Dave Smith. “In 1901, our building was turned into Germania Hall. In 1903, the Germania Club installed the first bowling alley in Rockford. The Germania Club ran it until 1970. From 1971-99, it was the Rockford Rescue Mission. Mulligan purchased the building in 2005 and started the restoration. We do general contracting, specializing in historic preservation and restoration, and also full-service remodeling. We restored the south steeple this year, with the north steeple to be restored next year.” The height of the steeple from ground to top of finial is 122 feet.
They have a long history with the church. “We have always done all the work for First Lutheran over the past 10 years,” he said. “But we just did the roof shingles and copper and whatnot on the bell tower. [The church] is an image of the church in Sweden, where the original immigrants came from.”
Pastor Loreen said, “The steeples are a real witness to the community that here is a place where we look up to God and worship Him, and hope that First Lutheran will never remove its steeples.”
From the Sept. 7-13, 2011, issue