When it first gathered, the faithful were few — six women, four men and a pastor. Members first organized on December 3, 1854, in the old Whiteside County Courthouse. After meeting there and at another site for several months, these brave souls built their own structure on the corner of Third Avenue and East Seventh Street in 1857. While the site has remained the same throughout history, the church replaced its structure two times, in 1892 and 1924. The 1924 structure is presently in use, as well an educational structure built in 1968.
The Reverend William Uhl was the church’s first pastor. Uhl was followed by the Reverend Christian Thummel. The history of the church goes back to when the northern edge of Sterling was the area of Third Avenue and East Seventh Street, the location of the church’s first building. At that time it was called Market Street, not Third Avenue. The first church, known as the “little white church” was built in 1857 at a cost of $235.50. It was constructed in the middle of what is now the intersection of Third Avenue and East Seventh Street, when all the property to the north was farmland.
The second church was built on the same exact site. Two stones which were high on the walls of the second church were saved when it was torn down in 1968, and are on display on the current church grounds. They are engraved with the words “First English Evangelical Church of Sterling.” The name distinguished the church as having progressive, English-language worship services as opposed to the Swedish and German-speaking Lutheran churches that were common at the time.
In April of 1923 ground was broken for the current sanctuary. The cost of the new addition was $104,000. An education wing was built in 1967 as part of Illinois’ 150th anniversary as a state. The addition was built under the direction of the Reverend Luther H. Cooperrider, who served from 1962 until his death in 1973. The addition was later named for him. The last remaining portion of the brick church was torn down in 1968.
Twenty pastors have served at St. John’s; three of the pastors were associate pastors. For nearly seven years, from 1993-2000, Pastors Steven and Deborah Ohrtman served together at St. John’s. Ten sons/daughters of the congregation have attended seminary and have been ordained in the Lutheran Church. St. John’s Lutheran Church has also hosted seventeen intern seminary students. The Reverend Jacob Gawlik has served as the church’s pastor since August 1st, 2017. The number of pastors serving St. John’s during its first 168 years is relatively few and is a testimony to the stability of the congregation and church as a whole.
One characteristic of this apparent stability is the strong commitment to mission support within the congregation. In 1913 the St. John’s Council voted to support a missionary pastor for eight years at a cost of $750 per year. That amount would be the equivalent of $18,000 in 2014. The commitment of the St. John’s members has been apparent throughout its history and remains so today. The PADS Homeless Shelter in our community actually began in the basement of the church and was supported by local congregations. The members are strong supporters of the Good Neighbor Emergency Fund, the United Way Let’s Feed Our Children program, and the local food pantries. St. John’s has been a major sponsor of the National Night Out initiative and shares Vacation Bible School site sponsorship and organization with five other area churches. One of the vibrant ministries within the congregation is the Prayer Shawl group that meets monthly to knit and crochet prayer shawls for any person known to be experiencing a difficult time or loss. Baby Afghans are also crafted for infant baptisms within the church. The group also knits and crochets shawls in the primary colors of the ELCA — red, blue, yellow and green — and sends them to ELCA military service chaplains. Some of the shawls have found their way overseas and to the Pentagon. St. John’s was acknowledged at the 2012 Northern Illinois Synod Assembly for its generosity to World Hunger. Congregation members have been strong supporters of the Rocky Boy Indian Mission with donations of warm outerwear at Christmas. The congregation is also very generous in its support of Lutheran World Relief (LWR) in the collection and donation of items for baby care kits, health care kits, and school bags and supplies. Groups of St. John’s members have donated their time and talents to such causes as Katrina relief and relief efforts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as well as other sites through the ELCA Disaster Response initiative.
Undoubtedly one of the most significant unifying events in the 160 years on this site was the fire that engulfed the sanctuary, basement and exterior of the church on February 2, 1984. The fire took place a few days after the installation of the Reverend Charles E. Steinke. Pastor Steinke delivered his first sermon to the congregation on Sunday, February 5th in Room 7 of the educational building with an overflow crowd seated in the corridor and kitchenette. Soon after, the congregation began worshiping in the Fellowship Hall in the basement and continued in that space until they returned to the restored sanctuary on November 4, 1984.
One of the premier events sponsored for the community by St. John’s is the Christmas Eve Barn Service that is held at the farm of Howard and Kay Janssen on County Line Road, Rock Falls. Worship is held in the barn on the property and is complete with farm animals and bales of hay as seats. The event began in 2007; the attendance has steadily grown through the years and averages nearly 300.
St. John’s is proud to share a tri-church initiative with the other two ELCA Lutheran Churches in the Rock River Valley. Events, worship and community projects are a collaborative effort with St. Paul Lutheran, Sterling, and Immanuel Lutheran, Rock Falls. In March of 2013, the members of the three churches came together to plan and execute a community support event for LSSI, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. LSSI is an active and vital service organization throughout our community and the State of Illinois, offering children’s community services, behavioral health services, senior services, housing for seniors and disabled persons, and prisoner and family ministries.
During 2014, its 160th Anniversary year, the members of St. John’s sponsored additional special offerings to benefit charities outside of the congregation, offered quarterly service projects, planned special events for its members and offered weekly blessings for various groups within and outside the congregation. The church feels strongly that its presence within our community will continue to thrive into future generations.
Like most congregations in America today, St. John’s attendance has declined over the years, and even though our membership numbers around 800, our weekly attendance averages approximately 160. We are not especially culturally diverse in our membership but make every effort to welcome all people into our church home. It is through our actions in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ that we strive to live out our purpose and guiding principles as defined in the Constitution of our church.
We look forward with great joy and anticipation to what God may bring in the future! There is strong commitment to remain in our present location as a beacon of light and hope, and as a partner congregation in the ELCA, striving to be the heart and hands of Jesus in our community and beyond.