Early History
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CHAPTER I

THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD IN JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS

by W. T. Block

Based on the number of immigrant Germans from Brandenberg-Prussia residing in Jefferson County, Texas, in 1860, one might have believed that at least one Lutheran church would have been organized in the county at a very early date. Since nearly all of the German immigrants of that year were from Prussia, one could readily assume that most of them were brought up in the Lutheran faith as well. Six Prussian families resided at Sabine Pass prior to the Civil War. About eleven Prussian families lived at Beaumont, and at least ten German families lived along the Neches River banks near Port Neches (there was no Port Arthur prior to 1895). However, no Lutheran church resulted from any of those earliest German settlements in Jefferson County prior to 1897.1

Between 1895 and 1897, the cities of Port Arthur and Nederland were founded on about 50,000 acres of open, prairie land owned by the Kansas City Southern Railroad Company. Port Arthur was surveyed and settled in 1895, and by 1900, had a population of 950, of whom 26 "had been born in Germany." Another handful of Port Arthur Lutherans were from the Scandinavian countries, and others recorded in the 1900 census had German-born parentage. It was, however, the oil discovery at Spindletop on January 10, 1901, and the building of oil refineries at Beaumont and Port Arthur in 1902 which triggered a sizeable influx of Lutherans to Jefferson County, a few of them coming from Europe, but the greater number arriving from the Texas German counties -- Lee, Fayette, Washington, Comal, Lavaca -- where a large population of German Lutherans flourished.2

Lutheran services first reached Jefferson County through the auspices of the Home Mission Board of the Southern District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. On March 7, 1897, Pastor C. G. Kuppler of Lake Charles, Louisiana, preached to fifteen persons assembled in the county courthouse in Beaumont. For more than a year, he conducted services in Beaumont once each month, meeting in such places as the Women's Christian Temperance Union building and in the Presbyterian Church. By 1899, Pastor Kuppler received much assistance from a seminary student, Dan Poellot of Saint Louis' Concordia College. By July 1, 1899, Pastor Kuppler could report to the Southern District of Missouri Synod that there were sixty Lutheran souls and twenty communicant members in the Beaumont congregation that was soon to become Saint John's Lutheran Church.3

It was, however, Port Arthur's Trinity Lutheran Church which became the "mother church" of Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Nederland, and it is to the history of the former that the history of Holy Cross Lutheran is so closely affiliated. On January 8, 1899, Pastor Kuppler of Lake Charles conducted the first Lutheran service in Port Arthur before an audience of twelve persons. On March 19, 1899, Seminarian Dan Poellet held the second Lutheran service there when Port Arthur's population was only about 700 people. It is also of interest to note that both Pastor Kuppler and Student Poellet had to catch the west-bound train out of Lake Charles at 3 o'clock A. M. on Sunday mornings, such early arousal from peaceful slumber being referred to by each nodding pastor as his "having to crucify the old Adam." On August 13, 1899, Rev. H. C. Gaertner was installed as Port Arthur's first Lutheran pastor of a congregation of eighteen persons. The church bore the name of the "Evangelical Trinity Congregation" in its German-language minutes, but otherwise it was known locally in the community as the "German Lutheran Church." One article observed that Pastor Gaertner's installation occurred in the "old Masonic Hall," and thereafter Pastor Gaertner would "administer to the Beaumont Lutherans as well."4

On October 22, 1899, the pastor and three charter members, John H. Bernhardt, Herman O. Krohn, and A. H. Sasse, officially organized the Trinity congregation, and in 1900, five other voting members were added to the list. In July, 1901, the first sanctuary in Stilwell Heights was dedicated. A short time later, the first Trinity Lutheran School was built and begun on the adjacent lot. Early in September, 1902, while Pastor Gaertner was burning some wasp nests, both the new church and the school caught fire and burned to the ground, a $3,000 loss which was only partially covered by a $600 insurance policy.5

The Trinity Lutheran Church was quickly rebuilt, at which time the size of the sanctuary was doubled to thirty by fifty-four feet. A new school building was added in 1904. In 1905 a Port Arthur editor published a photograph of the new buildings with the following notations:6

. . . The German Lutheran Church in Stilwell Heights.....was built in 1903 at a cost of $3,000, including the adjacent school building. In 1902, a church and school building on the same site, belonging to that congregation was entirely destroyed by fire. Services are held every Sunday, usually in the German language. The school is in session nine months of the year and both German and English are taught. Rev. H. C. Gaertner is pastor of the church and principal of the school.....

Trinity Lutheran Church kept its church minutes in the German language until 1910. Pastor Gaertner remained until 1915, and in 1924, while Pastor F. W. Siebelitz served the congregation, the Trinity Lutheran Church built its present sanctuary, costing $60,000, at Fifth and San Augustine Streets, at that time thought to be "way out in the country." In the course of nearly a century of progress, Trinity Lutheran has served as the mission "mother" church of four South Jefferson County, Missouri Synod churches, including St. Mark's Lutheran Church of Port Arthur, St. Paul's Lutheran Church of Groves, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Port Arthur (now defunct). The fourth congregation was Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Nederland.

From its earliest days, some early German and Dutch residents of Nederland, who earlier had been Lutheran, finally united with the local Methodist Church when it appeared that no Lutheran church would ever be organized in Nederland. However, several Nederland families preferred to belong and attend Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Arthur rather than convert to a different denomination locally. Some of Midcounty's early Lutheran families included H. B. Kieschnick, F. A. Wiegmann, William Wiegmann, Ed Hughes, Thurman E. Smith, W. T. Block, John Ermel, Herbert Schaefer, Mrs. H. M. Gribnau, W. G. Leary, W. G. Martin, and others. Early in 1957, Pastor Victor Buvinghausen of Trinity Lutheran Church recognized that there were probably enough Midcounty Lutherans to support the building of a mission church in either Nederland or Port Neches. And that fact was attested to by Vicar J. C. Henning of Trinity, who spent several days during the spring of 1957 visiting the homes of the Midcounty Lutherans. The voting membership of Trinity Church soon agreed to sponsor a mission church in Nederland, and late in July, 1957, Candidate John B. Schmid arrived in Nederland to become the first pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church.

  1. W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas From Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland: Nederland Publg. Co., 1976), p. 96.

  2. W. T. Block, "Port Arthur's Trinity Lutheran Church Nearly A Century Old," printed in W. T. Block, Frontier Tales of the Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (Nederland: 1988), p. 351.

  3. Typescript, "The History of Saint John's Lutheran Church inBeaumont," unpub. MSS, pp. 1-7; also W.T. Block, "The History and Progress of The Lutheran Churches in the Golden Triangle, 1897-1988," appearing as Appendix B in Walter Sutton and Sallie Sheppard, Ph. D.s, Texas in the Twenty-First Century (Beaumont: 1988), pp.

  4. (Port Arthur) Herald, August 19, 1899.

  5. (Port Arthur) Herald, September 14, 1902.

  6. (Port Arthur) The Evening News, Souvenir Edition, May 13, 1905.

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