Faith that when they left their homes and community of faith in the Hanover Province of Germany to make their way to America to a place called Ohio, God would guide and protect them. Little did they know that when they arrived they would be faced with densely forested, mosquito infested swampy land. But with faith and hard work the land was cleared and farms were settled.
Faith that their spiritual needs would be met was fulfilled in 1854 by Pastor August Knape. After leaving Germany in 1841 he journeyed to Indiana to serve as a pastor and in the early 1850’s was called to minister to German Lutheran immigrants in Northwestern Ohio. He had Faith that God would guide him as he organized services on the South Ridge in eastern Defiance County and the New Hanover settlement in western Henry County.
Pastor Knape continued to meet with other area families and developed the fledgling congregation, Bethlehem near Okolona, and for six years they met in members’ homes. They finally grew enough and took a leap of faith in 1860 to build their first church building about one-half mile north of the present edifice. Pastor Knape served until late 1866 and in 1868 Bethlehem congregation called its first resident pastor, Kaspar Strauss who had served the circuit with his father-in-law Pastor Knape.
With the influx of German immigrants to the area, the congregation grew and prospered under the faithful guidance and prayer of Pastor Strauss. An examination of the Confirmation rolls from prior to 1871 reveals names of families still active at Bethlehem including Haase, Helberg, Helmke, Lange, Meyer, Norden, Prigge, and Schroeder. The congregation moved south to its present frame building which was dedicated in 1870. In 1879 a bell was installed in the remodeled spire which could be heard for miles calling parishioners to worship. Bethlehem continued to grow with confirmation classes as large as 21 in 1874, 23 in 1880, and 30 in 1882.
A parsonage was built about one-fourth mile west of the church in 1886. The first remodel of the church took place in 1896. After 42 years of faithful service Pastor Strauss died and along with his wife is buried in Bethlehem Cemetery.
The congregation called Pastor Herman Kloeckner to replace Pastor Strauss. Pastor Kloeckner served for 27 years when he resigned in October 1935 due to ill-health. Pastor Kloeckner began his pastorate serving a congregation in Nebraska which was housed in a sod hut. A new pipe organ was imported and installed in the sanctuary during his service. The instrument had a “tracker action” meaning the organist controlled the pipes by opening and closing them when striking the keys.
The young people had to learn to speak three languages through this period of time: The low German dialect their parents and grandparents brought with them which was spoken at home; English at the required public school and also used for legal transactions; and high German for their German School (Summer School) lessons and catechism. German communion services were held during the year until the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.
Later in 1935 Pastor C.A. Steinert was called to serve as Bethlehem’s third resident pastor. He was faced with a major disruption during his first years of her service as an extensive renovation took place. The church was raised, a basement dug under the structure and the main floor was physically rotated 180 degrees so the entrance shifted from the west to the east to face the road. The sanctuary was completely remodeled at the time to include a center aisle with new pews and a new altar was purchased and installed at that time. Since the building couldn’t be used for services, Bethlehem met at Emmanual Lutheran Church in Napoleon. They were without a Pastor and Bethlehem was without a building so the congregations shared a building and Pastor Steinert.
The new remodel was dedicated on February 7, 1937. The celebration lasted all day with three services and four speakers. The morning service, in German, featured Pastor Kloeckner. The first afternoon speaker, Pastor George Haas from neighboring St. Paul’s, spoke in German, while the second, Dr. Leopold of the Seminary in Columbus spoke in English. The evening service featured Pastor Hentelmann, a missionary from New Guinea, who spoke in English.
Pastor Steinert served until March 1943 when he resigned to accept a call to Rocky River, Ohio. Bethlehem was then led by Pastor Edwin Kressin for two years when he resigned to accept a call to Theresa, Wisconsin.
Pastor Adam Graf accepted a call in August 1945 and served until 1948 when he moved on to Ossineke, Michigan. In five years Bethlehem was faced with calling its third pastor. They chose to select a familiar face and called Pastor Steinert to return to Bethlehem. He was installed in December 1948 and the congregation continued to grow during this time. In 1949 a new parsonage was built next to the church and Pastor and his wife moved into the house in January 1950 after the dedication.
Pastor’s wife, Ruth, who had been a missionary to India, was an integral part of the congregation’s life. She taught the Bible history portion of Summer School and was the choir director for many years. Many of her students can remember her presenting Biblical stories using a flannel graph. She also had crafts and coloring books to keep the younger classes busy while she was teaching other older students.
Another renovation was overseen by Pastor Steinert when a new entrance with an expanded lobby area and an office was erected in 1970. A carport with a new concrete drive completed the new addition. Also in 1970 the 100th Anniversary of the present building, along with the new addition was celebrated. Pastor Steinert retired in May 1974 and along with Mrs. Steinert is buried in Bethlehem Cemetery.
Pastor Robert Linsz took his place in the line of Bethlehem pastors in July 1974. Newly graduated from Trinity Seminary, he requested we call him Pastor Bob which was quite a change. He also introduced a children’s sermon during the service. Another merger and renaming the synod to The American Lutheran Church, plus the ratification of Bethlehem’s fourth constitution, took place during Pastor Bob’s pastorate. He left in May 1978 to accept a call as assistant pastor in Celina, Ohio.
Another first call pastor, Michael Main, was installed in September 1978. After about forty years of service and a rebinding, the black hymnal (rebound in brown) was retired and the Congregation adopted THE LUTHERAN BOOK OF WORSHIP. The congregation learned the music and words of the new liturgical settings and soon found they weren’t so bad and found favorite parts of each. Pastor Myke resigned in August 1984 to accept a call to a three point parish in Hixton, Wisconsin.
Later that year Pastor Mark Daniels, newly graduated from Trinity Seminary in Columbus, assumed the pastorate. Discussion began on another major building program during this time. However, before the plans were completely finalized and construction begun, Pastor Mark left in September 1990 to develop a mission congregation near Batavia, Ohio.
Six months later, Pastor Rob Carlson became Bethlehem’s tenth resident pastor. The existing building was expanded with two wings on either side of the building with an expanded basement under both wings. A new modern kitchen was added on the lower level while the upper levels included an expanded lobby, inside elevator, restrooms, a new Pastor’s office, a meeting area and expanded worship area with padded chairs instead of pews. The 1936 renovation cost $14,000 while the 1991 project was completed at $485,000 which was paid off in good time through fundraisers and the generous giving of the members.
During this time Summer School Classes were held at Bethlehem on the Ridge. The dedication for that most recent renovation happened in April 1992. Finally Sunday School classes no longer had to be held in the parsonage with the expanded space.
More contemporary music and worship were introduced which evolved into once a monthly 8 a.m. traditional worship and 10 a.m. contemporary worship which included song leaders and keyboard, piano and later guitar accompaniment. After a committee studied the direction of Bethlehem, a Mission Statement was formulated and hangs on a banner in the south wing. Also, an experience week was introduced in Summer School. Members of the congregation assisted as students, dressed in historical costumes, learned about life during the time of Christ.
Another merger affected Bethlehem as The American Lutheran Church joined with other Lutheran denominations to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This necessitated another new constitution and the existing Bethlehem constitution was blended with the recommended Synod document. Bethlehem became a member of the Northwestern Ohio Synod of the ELCA after years of being a member of the Michigan District of the American Lutheran Church.
Pastor Rob was a collector of all things Christmas and invited the congregation to view his collection in the decorated parsonage. That’s where members learned about feather Christmas trees which were made by his wife Diana. He left in November 1996 to become pastor at a congregation in Madison, Wisconsin.
Pastor Rob Vereb was installed ten months later in September 1997. A major accomplishment during his service was the purchase of a new organ. Finding organists to play the old tracker organ was becoming more difficult. After much research the present Rogers electronic organ was selected which utilizes some of the existing pipes of the old instrument. A new type of experience called ASK, which met on Saturday evening, was tried with contemporary bands and outside speakers.
In December 1997 Project Noel was launched which began as an extension of several clothing drives and giveaways. Families from the Tinora and Napoleon school districts with special needs and prospects of a bleak Christmas for the children were helped with clothing, food, toys, necessities and Christian gifts. With faith that funds will come in and a lot of hard work by a dedicated group, this project continues to the present. Pastor Vereb left to take a pastorate in Michigan in March 2001.
With the shortage of pastors, sixteen months later the vacancy was filled with Lee Rupert who came back to Northwest Ohio from West Virginia and was installed in July 2002. After a year of meetings and consultation with Dr. Marion Plant of Defiance College and youth and family directors in the area, guidelines were written and brought to the congregation to create the position of Youth Director. The Congregation approved the guidelines to create the position along with a Youth Ministry Team. The Council hired a member of the congregation, Kristy Helberg, to fill the position.
Nathan Tuff began as interim pastor in October 2012. A new mission and vision statement for Bethlehem was adopted during his time. Pastor Nate left in May 2014 to serve as Associate Pastor at Olivet Lutheran in Sylvania. Pastor Keith Hunsinger served as interim for the summer of 2014, before Bethlehem called Terry Courter as its next pastor. Pastor Terry was a recent graduate of Trinity Seminary and began at Bethlehem in September 2014.
After much discussion through the years, the parking lot was paved and striped. A new swing play area for young children was built and the renovation of the school house was completed. To accommodate more and more people who go to the lake on weekends, a mid-week evening worship service was begun during the summer.
So far the focus has been on pastors and improvements, but what defines Bethlehem is the people of Bethlehem who have worshiped and continue to worship here and are the reason Bethlehem still exists. All the leaders, the committee members, Sunday School teachers, youth group advisors, Ladies group members, dart ball teams, organists and song leaders, choir members, people who give generously of their time, talents and funds are the real center of the congregation. Their commitment to missions and youth provide the central focus of this congregation.
Bethlehem was founded by a missionary sent from Germany and missions continue as a high priority. The tradition of Mission Festival began many years ago and is celebrated to this day. Even though there is only a morning service now, it is held outside in the beauty of God’s creation. Initially collection money was sent to foreign missions especially those affecting daughter of the congregation, Lillian Lange Mayer’s mission efforts in India. Lately more local mission efforts by former pastors and area mission churches have also been supported.
Education also marks the mission of Bethlehem. Sunday School has always been an important part of Sunday services. German School where students learned the Small Catechism and Bible stories evolved into Summer School taught in English. The six to eight weeks has been condensed into all day classes in three weeks. During the school year the sixth, seventh and eighth graders continue their education to affirm their baptism and become full members of the church.
But education isn’t the only way Bethlehem emphasizes youth. The Birthday Party for Jesus and Easter Egg hunt have evolved into Kidz Club which meets monthly. Also a week of Vacation Bible School in the summer is held for the younger children of the church and community.
Junior Lutherans for elementary age youngsters meet once a month. Not only do they meet to have fun but also do service projects as packaging candy for families of Project Noel and singing to the residents of the Lutheran Home.
Another new youth group was formed several years ago with Junior High Luther League to serve the needs of that age group. They also meet and do lots of fun activities like going to the lake. One fund raiser that everyone enjoys is the Valentine’s Day candlelight dinner with diners seated, waited on and served by the youth group.
Luther League (Lutheran Youth Organization) focuses on high school youth. Under the direction of Youth Director Kristy, they meet weekly to discuss concerns of the teenager. It’s not all serious business as they do lots of fun things as well as service projects. Attending the triennial national convention of LYO is a goal of many of these students. The high schoolers have been doing this for many years. But having fun and listening to great Christian bands and entertainment isn’t the sole focus of the week. Bible study and service projects are also a huge part of the week, including recently helping with the ongoing cleanup from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
So here in this place over 150 years ago God nurtured the seeds of Faith among German immigrants in Northwest Ohio on the Defiance-Henry county line. Those seeds of Faith are still growing here. Those seeds were watered and tended by the many faithful pastors who have served Bethlehem.
God continues to nurture that Faith. He lives among the people who Worship and Praise Him here in the place, Bethlehem of Okolona.