It was over 90 years ago, on February 22, 1920, that St. John was officially organized. The origins may even have begun in 1912 when Charles and Anna Kitchenmaster moved from far-off Goodison to Rochester where they attended church services given by a visiting Iowa Synod minister from Romeo.
The Kitchenmasters eventually became dissatisfied with the services provided by the visiting pastor from Romeo. Perhaps the services were sporadic; perhaps spiritually unfulfilling. Whatever the reason, they and five other Lutheran families decided in 1919 that they needed to establish a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in the Rochester area.
The Kitchenmasters, acting on the advice of their neighbor, Rudolf Zimmer, approached Pastor Otto Frincke of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Royal Oak to guide their small group in organizing a congregation. Finally on February 22, 1920, in the home of Charles and Anna Kitchenmaster on Drace Street, the St. John Lutheran Church of Rochester, Michigan, became officially established with six voting members and fourteen communicant members. They must have felt great joy as they sang "Nun danket alle Gott" or "Now Thank We All Our God" at that first official service.
Pastor Frincke conducted services in German in a member's home every other Sunday at 2:00 p.m. As the congregation gained more members, other quarters were needed for their place of worship. The then Town Hall (now the Paint Creek Center for the Arts) on 4th and Pine was the first place. In the winter Charles Kitchenmaster carried kindling down North Hill to start the fire in the wood-burning stove before services. Some of the other locations used by the congregation were the "Opera House" above what is now Lytle's Drugstore, the American Legion Hall, and The Nazarene Church on Walnut between 1st and 2nd. From 1931 to 1935 St. John had to move four more times.
In spite of all these trials the congregation slowly grew. Services were conducted in German until 1928 when, because not all the children could speak or understand German, the services were conducted alternately in English and German. This continued until 1931 when all services were finally conducted in English.
Pastor Frincke served the St. John congregation from its fledgling humble beginnings until 1931 for a period of eleven taxing years, during which he also served St. Paul Lutheran in Royal Oak. Imagine coming to Rochester from Royal Oak in winter on a Sunday afternoon, having held services and Bible study in the morning. Imagine temperatures of -10º F, a snowstorm, maybe freezing rain. Did he drive a Model T, an Olds or Chevy? Or did he ride on a D.U.R. streetcar in all weathers? Heaters were primitive or non-existent and air-conditioning didn't exist in vehicles, so the trip must often have been very unpleasant regardless of the season. We owe so much to the perseverance of our founding congregation and the devoted, loyal Pastor Frincke.
1931 saw another important change, for in September of that year St. John welcomed our first resident pastor, the Rev. Charles Zeisser. The congregation still didn't have a permanent house of worship, but not having to share a pastor with another congregation was certainly an important step in St. John's journey.
The next step was to acquire a permanent place of worship. The Church Extension Board gave the church assistance in purchasing a residence on the corner of Walnut and Second, which was converted into a church by the members. This building was dedicated as St. John's first church on August 24, 1935. The building stood until early in the 21st century, being eventually demolished to make way for condominiums.
St. John's second resident pastor, the Rev. E. C. Knorr, was installed on April 19, 1936. During the Rev. Knorr's pastorate, St. John began full time Christian education. In the fall of 1942, Mr. Walter Zwintscher was called by the congregation and the District Mission Board to begin a Christian Day School. This was begun at a new mission church, Gethsemane, which Pastor Knorr was also serving. However, in September 1943, St. John officially took ownership of the school.
By 1945, the congregation had grown to 135 communicants, and the need for larger facilities was recognized. After much prayerful consideration, a piece of property on the corner of Helen and Fifth Streets (now University Drive), including a residence and a two-story barn, was purchased. The barn was converted into a classroom and parish hall. The residence became the parsonage, remaining so until 1966.
In the spring of 1946, Mr. Zwintscher left to continue his education and Mr. Erwin Bauer was called as principal. Erv, as he preferred to be called, was installed on July 28. A few weeks later, Pastor Knorr accepted a call to Trenton, Michigan.
St. John's call, in turn, was accepted by Pastor Walter C. Gerken, a former Army chaplain who was installed on November 10, 1946.
In the late 1940's, the congregation wanted to expand the opportunities and experiences for the Sunday School and youth of the church, and felt that a bus would be very useful to this end. Eventually a well-used bus was purchased. Erv Bauer was the designated driver and drove the youngsters of St. John to roller rinks, ball games, and on other fun excursions. He recalls that the bus needed fixing regularly - the work being done by members - and that the roof leaked over the driver's seat. When it rained Russell Hummel held an umbrella over Erv's head as he drove! How times have changed!
Pastor Gerken and Erv Bauer formed a strong partnership, and the church and school both grew as the population of the Rochester area increased. By 1947 the communicant membership had reached 250 and a new house of worship was needed. The congregation was still paying off loans for the church on Walnut and for the site on University and Helen where the school and parsonage were located. The debt per member was $225. However, with a large measure of faith, the congregation elected to embark on a $130,000 building project for the new church. This raised their debt to nearly $2,000 per member; a very large sum in 1947. Compare this to our total debt per member in 2001, which was only about $1,000 per communicant member!
Ground was broken for the new church, where our Chapel and Luther Hall are today, on March 28, 1948. Two years later on March 12, 1950 the first purpose-built St. John was dedicated. Services had started in the basement the previous October as the congregation couldn't wait to move in. From this date to today, the church and school have been together on the same site.
Sunday, December 4, 1954 was another red-letter day in our history as the first broadcast of "Your Gospel Voice - The Rochester Worship Hour" went on the air enabling shut-ins and people around the area to hear the Good News.
On April 27, 1958 ground was broken again! This time it was for a further school expansion. The new building, connected to the church/school building by the atrium, included the gymnasium, multiple classrooms, a library, a well-equipped kitchen, and offices. This was also a major undertaking and only eight years after the church was completed.
In 1960, Pastor Gerken asked for peaceful release to accept a call to Fort Wayne, Indiana. The congregation had grown to over 900 communicant members under his leadership. Pastor Richard Schlecht was called that same year to become pastor of St. John. Soon after, in 1961, Erv Bauer retired from school ministry, and Roy Kaiser was called and installed as principal and teacher. (Click here to read Roy's memoirs from his years of service at St. John.)
The congregation and school continued to grow, and from 1962 until 1967 we had the services of eight vicars. In 1967 the Rev. Charles Schutt was called to be St. John's first associate pastor.
Pastor Schutt arrived when St. John was in the throes of yet another major construction project. By 1965 the congregation had grown to over 1,200 communicant members and the need for yet another church became apparent. Groundbreaking took place in 1966 and construction began. The cornerstone was placed in 1967. The older church was incorporated into the new and our present sanctuary was dedicated in September of 1967. During the construction, more classrooms were added, giving the school a capacity for 450 pupils. A beautiful three-manual Casavant pipe organ was installed in the church sanctuary and later dedicated in May of 1968. Pastor Schutt served at St. John until 1969.
In 1970 Pastor Schlecht became President of the LCMS Michigan District. The Rev. Ronald Irsch, who had served the congregation while a vicar, accepted our call to be senior pastor. A dual pastorate was now essential, and the congregation called the Rev. E. Paul Burow as associate pastor in 1972.
Throughout the 1970's and 1980's, St. John's ministry expanded with the inauguration of satellite school arrangements with St. Stephen Lutheran Church of Drayton Plains and Gethsemane Lutheran Church of Rochester Hills, and the development of adult education, preschool and Christian Care programs. Yet another renovation and expansion of the school building was completed in 1986.
In 1984 Dr. Roy Kaiser received one of fifty "National Distinguished Principal" awards presented to the most outstanding school principals in the country by the U.S. Department of Education. In 1986 the U. S. Department of Education awarded St. John School the distinction of being a "School of Excellence in Education".
Also in 1986, Pastor Irsch left after 16 years of able leadership and Pastor Burow was called as senior pastor. Pastor Schlecht rejoined the staff from retirement and served as a part-time pastoral assistant. The congregation was now at 2,654 baptized souls and 2,067 communicant members. The school had 20 full-time teachers plus part-time and preschool teachers. Enrollment was 472 day school and 72 preschool children.
In 1987 the Rev. Steven Theiss accepted the call as associate pastor and served St. John until 1997, when he accepted a call to Illinois.
In 1990 the congregation called Rev. John Kassen to serve as Missionary-at-Large for the purpose of planting a daughter congregation north of Rochester. The new church started as a group of 6 families meeting as a Bible study and planning group. The first service of Living Word Lutheran Church was held at Hart Middle School on September 26, 1991, with 108 in attendance. Pastor Kassen was called as the first pastor of Living Word Lutheran Church in January of 1994.
Living Word and St. John joined together in a building program in 1994, providing a permanent house of worship for Living Word congregation and a second campus for St. John Lutheran School. During the middle 90’s, St. John School became the largest PS-8 Lutheran School in the United States and our congregation also one of the largest in the synod.
In 1995, after serving St. John congregation for twenty-three years, Pastor Burow accepted another call and departed for Texas. Also in 1995, Dr. Roy Kaiser retired after serving St. John for 34 years. He and his wife Eileen then departed for a year's ministry in Thailand.
Dr. William Hinz, St. John’s assistant principal at the time, was called as principal in 1995 when Dr. Kaiser retired. He served in this position for two years when he too received and accepted a call to Texas.
Following Dr. Hinz’s departure, Mr. Bruce Gremel agreed to step away from his role as Director of Christian Care for a year in order to serve as interim principal. In 1998, Dr. H. James Boldt accepted the call to St. John to serve as principal. Bruce Gremel then returned to his Christian Care ministry.
In June 1996 the Rev. Ronald C. Moritz accepted our call as senior pastor and served until December 1999. Under his leadership, plans for an expansion and major renovation of the church facility were conceived and later set in motion. The renovated facility was dedicated to the glory of God in May of 2001.
The Rev. Mark E. Heuser began his vicarage at St. John in June 1998, and was ordained and installed as an associate pastor at St. John in May 1999. He was joined in November 1999 by the Rev. Gregory M. Lorenz, who had returned after many years as a missionary in Guatemala. Pastor Lorenz stayed until June 2000 when he accepted a call to nearby St. Peter, Macomb.
Pastor Thomas W. Dunseth, also a returning missionary from Macau, China, joined Pastor Heuser to provide short term pastoral assistance from March through June of 2001.
In 2001, St. John principal Dr. H. James Boldt retired from full time ministry. Mr. Thomas Weiss accepted the call from St. John to become school principal in 2001, having served for two years as assistant principal at the North Campus. During Mr. Weiss’s tenure as principal, St. John assisted the members of Living Word congregation in opening their own day school. St. John Lutheran School was once again housed under one roof at University & Helen.
Following a senior pastor vacancy lasting well over two years, St. John congregation called and installed Rev. Karl Galik as senior pastor in 2002. Pastor Galik and Pastor Heuser were later joined by Rev. Luke Timm, a recent Seminary graduate, in 2004. This marked the first time in its history that St. John was served by three fulltime pastors. However, Pastor Heuser departed in 2005 and accepted a call to Washington.
In 2007, Mr. Thomas Weiss retired from fulltime ministry, and a school principal was sought once again. Mr. Mychal Thom came aboard that same year to serve as St. John’s next principal. Pastor Gregory Sawyer was called by St. John in December 2007 to join the pastoral staff.
In 2009, the Holy Spirit called all three pastors and the principal to other LCMS ministries. Pastor Ray Scherbarth and Pastor Stephen Schilke were called to serve as the intentional interim pastors to the congregation. Mr. Mark McLoughlin arrived at St. John to serve as our new Principal. In the summer of 2010, Mr. McLoughlin accepted a job offer in the Utica School District. The Lord graciously provided for St. John once again, as he sent Mr. Gordon Kennedy, with 40 years of classroom and administrative experience, to serve as interim principal of the school.
In March of 2012, Pastor Marc Schwichtenberg accepted the call to serve as Senior Pastor at St. John. Fond farewells were said to the two interim pastors, and Pastor Schwichtenberg was installed on May 20, 2012. We were further blessed by the arrival of our new Principal, Mr. Todd Pehlke, in August 2013 and our new Associate Pastor of Discipleship, Pastor Steve Grafe, in January 2014. The Lord has indeed showered blessings upon blessings on our St. John family!
With its new leadership team in place, the congregation formed a Campus Evaluation Team in 2016 to assess the needs of our existing facility and to project future needs to carry mission and ministry into our second century. The team’s findings were addressed through the One Legacy master plan and capital campaign launched in 2017. The congregation pledged its financial support to the One Legacy plan, which called for upgrades to our campus and expansion of our facility in phases.
In the fall of 2018, St. John moved the mission forward by welcoming Pastor Jon Trinklein as our Director of Mission Mobilization, and by breaking ground for the first phase of the One Legacy program. Site work involving our entry plaza, parking lot, and underground stormwater retention began in the spring of 2019.
The year 2020 challenged St. John in history-making ways. On February 22-23, 2020, the congregation gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of its founding and to give thanks for a century of blessings. Only three weeks after that joyful celebration, our campus was closed in response to the global COVID-19 virus pandemic. A shelter-in-place order issued to stem the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus meant that—like other schools and churches across the nation—St. John was unable to hold in-person classes or worship services. Instead, during the spring of 2020, the congregation worshiped through the online broadcast of services each weekend and participated in virtual Bible study and Sunday School lessons. Students and teachers in our day school worked together through remote online learning.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and depending upon Him for guidance and relief, St. John continued to serve and share God’s love throughout the months of the COVID-19 public health emergency. In addition to reaching out online with worship and prayer opportunities, members served our neighbors in the Rochester community through a new People Helping People ministry, which matched volunteers with individuals in need of assistance.
As we look to the future, we give thanks to God for His bountiful blessings; for the faith and perseverance of our founding members; for visionary pastors and leaders; for hard working staff and volunteers; and for the continued presence of the Holy Spirit among us in this place. We give God alone the glory as daily we pray for His continued blessings upon our parish as it continues to live out its history under His providence and guidance.