In search of a better life for those immigrating to the United States, many Northern Europeans journeyed to America by boats crossing the ocean from their homelands. Perhaps they had also heard of job opportunities in America such as farming and furniture making. Many came from Sweden, arriving here in the fall of 1852. Due to a cholera epidemic in Chicago, they were encouraged to travel onward as far west as they could go. As they were traveling by train, Rockford was the last stop. A railroad bridge was not yet finished across the Rock River. In 1853 and 1854, even more Swedes settled here. As they had been faithful Lutherans in Sweden, the people longed for a church. They missed the sermons in their native language and also missed receiving the sacraments. Rev. Erland Carlsson, from Chicago, was called to help organize a church. So on a snowy, below zero day, January 15, 1854, Rev. Carlsson led the first worship service, which was held in a barn. It was attended by forty-five Swedish immigrants and thirty-two children. They celebrated The Lord’s Supper and Pastor Carlsson preached the sermon.
At the organizational meeting in the afternoon, this new congregation was given the name, “The Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Rockford.” A constitution was adopted and officers were elected. Two deacons were chosen, as well as two trustees. It was agreed that Pastor Carlsson would visit the congregation four times a year to conduct a Communion service. The afternoon and evening of the first Monday of each month, he would also conduct a service.
In 1855 or 1856, the first church building was erected on the northwest corner of North First Street and LaFayette. Andreas Andreen was the first Pastor to be called. He presided at twenty-four baptisms and seven weddings on his first day! Pastor Gustav Peters was called to be the Pastor in 1864. He remained for twenty-one years. Due to rapid growth, a new church building was started at the present site of South Third and Oak Street. In 1870, Rev. T. N. Hasselquist dedicated the new church. In 1882, the congregation was still growing due to the large number of Swedish immigrants still coming to Rockford. They could see that even the second church building was becoming too small. At a meeting in 1883, it was decided to build an even larger church! A farewell celebration was held in the second church on June 24, 1883. The building was torn down within two weeks. Many of the old bricks were saved to be used in the new church building, and one wall that we know of was saved. It is the front wall of our present sanctuary. The cornerstone was laid on August 21, 1883 by Rev. Johannes Wickstrand, president of the Illinois Conference. About one hundred fifty members left our congregation to organize Zion Lutheran Church. Those who left were given money and land to build Zion. The new church building was completed in the fall of 1884 and dedicated on December 7, 1884. A new pipe organ was also installed. Pastor Peters had wanted to resign for quite some time. But the council held his resignation until the new church was finished. As a parting gift, the congregation contributed money to purchase a horse (from Zion Lutheran), a carriage and a sleigh for Pastor Peters. Unfortunately, the horse died during the presentation! Pastor Peters left in June of 1886 to serve several different churches in Nebraska.
In 1886, Rev. Lawrence A. Johnston began a nine year ministry at The Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church. He was born in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, the first Pastor to be born in America. Due to the large number of Swedes still immigrating and settling in Rockford, our church grew quickly, even though there were two other Lutheran Churches nearby. In a few short years, we had over 3,000 members, and were the largest Swedish Lutheran Church in America! As our church only held 2,000, it was standing room only on Sunday mornings!
In March of 1893, Rev. Edward C. Jessup was called to be an assistant Pastor. Our church had built a chapel on Broadway and Eighth Street in 1888, which served the Swedes who had moved into that neighborhood. Luther Hall was built in 1891, at 608 Kishwaukee Street, to serve the Swedish youth. Rev. Jessup preached in the chapel on Eighth Street on Sundays, in the church basement on Wednesday evenings, led the young people’s meetings at Luther Hall, as well as Sunday School and visited the sick. Rev. Johnston accepted a call to First Lutheran in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1894. In 1895, at the annual meeting, it was decided that we could no longer support two Pastors. (Apparently there was a recession during that time.) Rev. Jessup stayed on until Rev. Haff arrived. Rev. Jessup received and accepted a call to the Swedish Lutheran Church in St. Charles. He began as their Pastor in May of 1895. Rev. Joel Haff, who was born in Skane, Sweden, began his ministry as our Pastor in April of 1895. At that time, we had 902 children enrolled in Sunday School! Rev. Joel Haff only served our congregation for nine months, becoming ill, and died after attending a celebration at his former parish in Minnesota. He was only thirty-four years old. Johann Seedoff, a friend of Rev. Haff’s was called to serve our congregation, arriving in September of 1896. During his service of thirty-one years, the church records were updated. In 1903, we went from 2,066 to 1,400 communing members. We did, however, pay off a debt of $28,000 and purchased Luther Hall to use as a ’Swede School.’
In 1917, sixty-seven young men from our congregation enlisted at Camp Grant to serve in World War I. Some controversy developed at our church over how to use $75,000 that had been given as a legacy from the estate of J. Godfrey Grant. It was finally decided to purchase an organ. At this time, discussions and questions also arose regarding changing our worship language to English. In 1927, Rev. Seedoff retired. We began looking for a new Pastor to lead us. Rev. Albert Loreen, from Minnesota, was called and officially installed on September 23, 1928. Our church undertook a major reconstruction which included remodeling the kitchen, basement, new gas heating plant, new doors and new exterior brick.
In 1941, extensive repairs were made to the lighting, roof and sanctuary. We hosted 3,500 youth for the National Luther League Convention. World War II was approaching and young members joined the military. Pastor Loreen’s son, Paul, who was a pilot, was the only member killed during the war. Loreen Hall was named after him, which formerly had been the old Westminster Presbyterian Church. After a fire in 1946, which gutted their church, we voted to purchase it for $17,500. It took almost $140,000 to refurbish it so that we could use it as our youth education building. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Loreen Hall was home to the Choir School Program. Our youth met in Loreen Hall every Saturday morning to sing, develop wood working skills, learn sewing skills and join in fellowship with one another. This program involved many lay people from our church. Men would volunteer to help the children learn how to handle various tools, develop wood carving skills and much more. The women were involved in teaching the girls how to use a sewing machine and various craft projects. All of the children were involved in singing in the children’s choir. This appeared to be a happy, busy time in the life of First Lutheran Church. Pastor Loreen served until November, 1956. Rev. George Bernard was called and installed on February 3, 1957 as our next Pastor. During this time, a proposal was made to ‘modernize’ the sanctuary, which would cost over $600,000. Accepting a call to LaGrange, Illinois, Pastor Bernard left in November of 1959. Rev. Melville Sjostrand was called to be the Pastor. He was very much in favor of the alternate plan to major reconstruction, endorsed by the Illinois Conference of the Augustana Synod, and Bishop O.V. Anderson. The plan was to close and sell First Lutheran, and build a church on a tract of land on North Mulford Road. After months of debate a vote was taken; the vote to move was rejected, but only by a narrow margin. Three hundred members left and built St. Mark Lutheran Church. In August of 1961, Rev. Sjostrand left to accept a call to Erie, Pennsylvania. Pastor Loreen came out of retirement to serve until a new Pastor could be called.
Pastor Philip Nelson became our Pastor on June 10, 1962. He served our congregation for seven and one half years. He then accepted a call to Faith Lutheran Church in Moline, Illinois. During the interim, Rev. Ragnar Moline, assisted by Pastor Emeritus Loreen and Rev. Kostka, who had been our assistant pastor under Pastor Nelson, served our church until a new pastor could be called. On December 28, 1969, Pastor P. Gerald Leaf, from Vandalia, Illinois was extended a call to be our next Pastor. After accepting the call, he began as our Pastor early in 1970, staying for six years. During this time, in March of 1971, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Professor Carl G. Alexis as our church organist. He retired in 1974, after serving as our organist for fifty-three years! Pastor Leaf left our church to become director of development at Bethphage Mission in Axtell, Nebraska. Pastor Ragnar Moline, assisted by Pastor Emeritus Albert Loreen and lay assistant, Gene Clark, took over the Pastoral duties until a new Pastor could be called. Pastor Arne Peterson was called and began his pastorate on June 1, 1977. He was the last pastor of First Lutheran to be ordained by the Augustana Synod, which had merged into the Lutheran Church in America in 1962; he left in 1981. Rev. David L. Powers was called in November of 1981 and installed as our pastor on January 17, 1982, serving through 1987. During his time with us, a weekly television ministry began. It featured Pastor Powers, giving his sermon from that Sunday, along with several hymns. Pastor Robert Driver-Bishop was called and was our pastor for two years, from 1988 to 1990. He left to work with the ELCA in the field of Internal Communications, and later to serve a co-pastorate with his wife, Terri Driver-Bishop, Grace Lutheran Church in Loves Park. In November of 1990, Rev. Timothy Kenyon was called to be our pastor. He served our congregation for about fourteen years, leaving in 2004 to accept a call in Peru, Illinois. It was a general time of peace during his pastorate. Pastor Lisa Hufford was called to be our next pastor, our first female pastor. She served our congregation for two years, leaving in 2007. Pastor David Lawson joined us as an interim pastor for two years.
At this particular time in our history, we are in the rebirth/renewal stage! Pastor Jane McChesney was called to be our pastor in 2009. We are reaching out to help those in our community. We hold a weekly Community Bible study at Katie’s Cup; we are helping our neighborhood schools, Kishwaukee and Nelson; we help at Carpenter’s Place when they have a special need. We are an active part of the Midtown Lutheran Parish, the seven ELCA Lutheran congregations in the 61104 zip code of Rockford. We also have formed a new partnership with the Music Academy of Rockford, who now makes their home in Loreen Hall, and our legacy of fine music continues as hundreds of children and adults come for music education with their skilled faculty. We also have embarked on building up a fine concert series, called Sounds From the Sanctuary, with many gifted musicians performing in First’s beautiful sanctuary. The organ has been refurbished and is a state-of-the-art instrument, the largest pipe organ in Northern Illinois outside Chicago and the suburbs. We have also welcomed other fine performing groups, such as the Bach Chamber Choir, Kantorei and the Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the Music Academy’s students regularly perform in our sanctuary, Friendship Hall, and Loreen Hall. We have been privileged to also host Augustana College’s Symphonic Band and the internationally-acclaimed Augustana Choir, as well as Elizabeth Von Trapp in concert.
We have humbled ourselves before God and are seeking God’s guidance in everything we do and say. God is still with us today, stretching and growing us, loving us and guiding us. We prepare in 2013 to celebrate 160 years of ministry and presence in Rockford in 2014.