St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, in New Rochelle, NY, was started by a group of German Lutheran immigrants who wanted to attend service in their mother tongue. The first services of the “German Evangelical Lutheran St. Lukas Church” were held in 1855 in the home of two families the Mahlstedts and the Popps and attended by about 25 people.
Through a gift of a couple of members, they were able to purchase a property by 1869 and officially organize a church with a five- member church council. The building was located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Charles Street, and was dedicated on May 22, 1870. The next year, the Rev. Alexander Von Schlichten was elected as the first regular resident pastor.
From 1890 to 1898, under the direction of the Rev. Martin W. Gaudian, the congregation and Sunday School developed so rapidly that the church proved too small. Additional property was purchased adjacent to the church and plans were developed to build a new, larger church. Also during this time, a marble baptismal font was purchased by the Sunday School. The same baptismal font is used in our church today.
The new church was dedicated on March 25, 1900, and a parsonage was built on the property shortly thereafter. Physical improvements to the church continued through the first couple of decades, including the installation of a pipe organ, stained glass windows and electrical lighting. Additional windows were added through 1950, and two mosaics were given in memory of Albert Mahlstadt.
The church community gradually transitioned away from the German language services and Sunday School instruction. In 1945 the name of the church was changed to St Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of the City of New Rochelle. It was a time of anti-German sentiment and it became less common for families to teach their children German. After 1950 the Pastor was no longer required to speak German.
In April, 1946 they learned that a new parkway would be built called the New England Thruway and would require the property of the church. Though the project was delayed, the thruway ultimately did come through. In 1954, the church purchased the properties at 95 and 101 Eastchester Road. A building fund was instituted to raise the funds for the erection of the new church at a cost of $420,000. The groundbreaking service was held at the 95 Eastchester Road site on October 2, 1955. The church was dedicated on March 24, 1957. The stained glass windows and mosaics from the second church building were moved to the new building. A new organ was also purchased. The parsonage, located across the street at 114 Eastchester Road was later purchased.
Through dedication, hard work, and the generosity of many members, the mortgage was completely paid off and a celebration was held to burn the mortgage on November 13, 1966. From 1952 to 1969, under the direction of Pastor George Heck, the congregation grew from 285 to 405 and the budget grew from $14,000 to $49,524.
Today, St. Luke’s still has members with German surnames who can trace back their family’s involvement in the church for five generations, but it also has members from a range of cultures and religious denominations. In addition, to members with North European origins from Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Norway and Sweden St. Luke’s includes Jamaicans, Tanzanians, Columbians, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Ukranians, Asians and more. The congregation has become as diverse as the New Rochelle community!
Pastor William Damrow, who came to St. Luke’s in 1989 is now the longest serving pastor. He empowers and values the people in the pews and is a far departure from early authoritarian Pastors. His arrival ushered in the use of lectors, acolytes and crucifers and involved more lay people in worship. Today the 18 member congregation council reflects the diversity of the congregation and includes representatives from the Norwegian congregation that joined St. Luke’s in 2002 when their church closed its doors.
The social scene at St Luke’s may not be as important to its members as in the past but it is valuable fellowship. Some current members still have fond memories of the Luther League and the plays and parties that were a focal part of their activities in the 1930’s. Some even met their spouses at St. Luke’s. The Bazaar was run with women in the kitchen cooking up a storm in clouds of steam and talking German. It has been replaced by the Holiday Boutique and now it is largely men who cook the hot dogs, pulled pork and chili of the Holiday Café and the spoken language is English.
The Women’s Sewing Circle that made quilts, and “cancer bandages” has disappeared, and there are no longer enough skilled carpenters and electricians to volunteer for the Property Committee. Instead St. Luke’s has partnered with HOPE Community Services, cooking meals each month for 150 people in need in our community, collecting school supplies and back packs in September, coats and toys in December. People quietly cook and deliver food for homebound members, give rides, visit, call and try to comfort others. Small groups like the book group, or the prayer group have helped people get to know each other better and make room to listen to each other. The Youth Group is actively engaged in serving our church, the community, and having fun. We are different from our founders but we are still mighty group of dedicated Christian witnesses who love to be part of a church that is far more than a beautiful building.
The German heritage of St. Luke’s is evident, as the church contains two 5-ft mosaic murals, that are dedicated to Catherine and Albert Mahstedt the Christian witnesses who started the church and shepherded its early development. These mosaics, depicting Moses with the 10 commandments and Jesus, were cut out of a wall in the former church building. Builders refused to move them in case they got damaged, so the men of the church community moved them by flatbed truck. Also moved were stained- glass windows of scenes from Jesus’ life that grace the walls and were designed in Germany with German language dedications. These are reminders of the determination, faith and generosity of these past members.