Portions of this history were written by St. Matthew members for our 60th, 75th, 90th, 100th, and 120th anniversary booklets and Lemont’s Centennial Book. The remainder was compiled from research for St. Matthew’s 140th anniversary in 2014. Special thanks to Concordia Historical Institute in St. Louis, MO who provided background information and photographs of our earliest pastors, to the Lemont Area Historical Society, Lemont, IL for the research assistance, and to the members who provided background information told to them by their parents and grandparents. A large portion of the links will redirect you to Wikipedia for more details on historical events occurring parallel to St. Matthew’s history.
Native American Indians signed the Indian Boundary Treaty in 1816 which ceded a 20 mile strip of land to the U. S. which connected the waterway of Lake Michigan to the Illinois River (the future site of the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the future site of St. Matthew Lutheran Church). This small piece of land would be critical for linking the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi and Illinois rivers with the Great Lakes. Eventually trade by water would be possible to the Atlantic Ocean via the Erie Canal (1825) and later the Saint Lawrence Seaway (1959). Illinois became a state in 1818.
After the 1832 Black Hawk War, the U. S. worked to remove all Indians from Illinois. By 1833, the Treaty of Chicago required Indians to relocate to reservations west of the Mississippi River, and by 1835 most had left the region. Chicago’s population was just 350 people at that time. The first farmers arrived in what is now Lemont in 1833 and the quarrymen arrived just a few years later. The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. The population of Chicago from the 1840 census was over 4,000 people. By 1850, the population was listed as 30,000 people.
In 1860, Chicago’s population was over 100,000. Immigrants began to settle in Lemont in 1833 but St. Matthew would not be formally organized for another 40 years after the Civil War (1861-1865) ended. They fled famine and religious persecution occurring in Europe. They were also attracted by the natural beauty of this area, the rich soil, and the promise of work in the digging of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (built from 1836-1848) and later in the dolomite limestone quarries which peaked in the 1870s and declined rapidly by the end of the century due to competition from higher quality Indiana Bedford limestone and more readily available modern building materials. In addition, Lemont benefited from the 1850s Chicago and Alton line railroad and the 1890s Sante Fe line. The completion of the canal, the railroads, and dozens of newly formed quarries attracted waves of immigrants, and among these were many who brought with them their religious heritage. The German Lutheran immigrants of Lemont would eventually decide to formally establish a congregation due to the hard work of three visiting missionary pastors that served the community by gathering Lutheran Christians in and around Lemont, meeting in various homes where services were held, conducting baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials, and preaching to a faithful few who later would be the founders of St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Records of these early years exist only in bits and pieces, so it is possible that some records such as meeting minutes might have been destroyed in the church fire of 1918. We do know from one preserved record book that a new Chicago Lutheran assistant pastor began visiting the area in the fall of 1869. His name was Rev. Gustav A. Barth, an 1869 graduate from the St. Louis, MO Seminary. He came to America from Steeden, Germany in 1866 at the age of 22. He held the position of “Mission Assistant” at First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Chicago from August 29, 1869 until the fall of 1871. He was to assist that congregation in carrying out its mission outreach activities. It was the second oldest Lutheran church in Chicago, formed in 1854 when the city had approximately 60,000 residents.
(The oldest Lutheran church was First St. Paul, Chicago, where the Missouri Synod was first organized in 1847. Rev. Herman Querl served as an assistant pastor at First St. Paul, Chicago beginning on August 8, 1869.)
In the fall of 1869, mission work was begun among the German Lutherans in the Summit, Sag Bridge, and Lemont areas by Rev. Barth. The oldest surviving records of St. Matthew date back to December 31, 1869 with the first three recorded baptisms of twin babies born in Sag Bridge, Wilhelm and Christian Krueger, by Rev. Barth. St. Matthew’s records indicate that he officiated at least 31 baptisms during his two years of service. There are no records of him officiating any marriages, funerals, or confirmations for this group of Lutherans.
The second of three pastors that served Lemont as a preaching station starting in 1870 was Rev. Herman W. Querl. He was installed as pastor at Trinity Lutheran, Willow Springs (now Burr Ridge) on May 8, 1870 (a congregation formed in 1865) and served that congregation until the summer of 1874 before moving to Toledo, Ohio. Rev. Querl’s first recorded baptism in our records was in June of 1870. He went on to baptize at least 82 more people in Lemont during his four years of assistance. He also confirmed the first class of 15 confirmands in April of 1874. A total of 4 couples were married by Rev. Querl with the first marriage in 1871. Finally, he officiated 7 funerals during his service with the first one held in March of 1872.
Zion Lutheran Church in Summit was officially organized in 1871. Rev. Barth’s home church, First Immanuel, Chicago, became a refuge for those who were homeless due to the Great Chicago Fire which began on October 8, 1871. (First St. Paul, Chicago burned to the ground and later rebuilt.) That same year Rev. Barth accepted a call to Fort Dodge, Iowa and was ordained there on November 19, 1871. Rev. Querl served the newly formed Zion, Summit congregation during their pastoral vacancy as well as Lemont Lutherans which had yet to organize a formal church. Sag Bridge never ended up organizing a formal church. Its people were served by the surrounding Lutheran churches. Lemont’s faithful followers had yet to name their group, build a church, or call a permanent pastor from The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (established in 1847).
In 1872, the congregation of Zion, Summit and Lemont’s Lutherans joined Trinity, Willow Springs in a mission festival with other area churches. As the Lemont preaching station began to grow, the increasing attendance at the services held in homes encouraged and inspired those to organize as a congregation. One of the earliest surviving records of our congregation is a deed for the property (just the land, not any buildings) where the present church and parsonage now stand on the corner of Lemont Street and Illinois Street. It is dated May 20, 1872 and deeds the property to the “Trustees of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lemont, Cook County, Illinois”.
Rev. Martin Sondhaus was the third visiting pastor that served Lemont during this time with records showing his first baptism in June of 1872. He officiated 19 baptisms, 5 marriages, and 7 funerals by his departure in January of 1873.
In a meeting held March 16, 1873, and after lengthy discussion, the Lemont Lutherans debated whether or not to formally organize as a congregation and call a resident pastor. The matter was postponed until February of 1874. Later records indicate that the organization of our congregation took place in the Spring of 1874.