PORT ARTHUR'S TRINITY LUTHERAN CHURCH NEARLY A CENTURY OLD
By W. T. Block
According to the census of 1900, the 950 citizens of newly-founded Port Arthur, Texas, were overwhelmingly native-born and Protestant. Perhaps 800 had been born elsewhere in the United States, whereas the remainder, many of whom were from the Scandinavian countries, were from Western Europe. Despite the town's small population as the new century began, at least six religious congregations had already been organized, although most of them had not built a sanctuary as of 1900.
As of l905, when Port Arthur's population had grown to about 4,000 persons, the seaport city had eight religious assemblies and seven sanctuaries already completed, as follows: Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, Christian, Northern Methodists, Southern Methodists, and a new sanctuary commonly dubbed by the press and the public alike as the "German Lutheran Church."
Today, it seems illogical that the earliest Lutherans there would attempt to organize with as limited a membership base as they then had. And in fact, the earliest plans to erect a church and call a pastor in the spring of 1899 were actually abandoned, but were quickly revived.
Hence, it was probably the language barrier, plus an inbred desire to worship according to the dictates of one's own conscience, which caused the initial charter membership to organize, and the new Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Congregation kept its church liturgy and church minutes in the German language for several years afterward.
By 1900, only 26 of 950 Port Arthurans had been born in Germany and probably half of those were of the Catholic faith. A handful of Scandinavians were also Lutheran, and it was also noted in the first census that some early Port Arthurians had German-born parentage. Following Spindletop's oil eruption in 1901, and the location of an oil industrial base of two major refineries at Port Arthur, a greater percentage of the new Lutherans attracted to the new industries were from the German communities of Central Texas, particularly from Lee, Fayette, and Washington Counties.
The first Lutheran services in Port Arthur were conducted by Pastor C. G. Kuppler of Lake Charles on January 8, 1899, with only twelve persons persent. The second services were held on March 19th, at which time a seminary student, Dan Poellot of St. Louis' Concordia College, arrived to guide the young congregation until it could organize and call a full-time pastor. On August 13, 1899, only one year after the City of Port Arthur's incorporation, Rev. H. C. Gaertner was installed as the first pastor of Evangelical Trinity Congregation, by then affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
On August 19, the Port Arthur "Herald" observed that the pastor's installation was conducted in the "old Masonic hall," and that Pastor Gaertner would thereafter "administer to the Beaumont Lutherans as well."
The following October 22nd, the pastor and three charter members, John H. Bernhardt, Herman O. Krohn, and A. H. Sasse, officially organized the church with its first board of elders and trustees. By the end of 1900, Messrs. E. H. and Fred Drunagel, C. W. Rode, H. Rebsch, and John Fett had been added to the list of voting members.
In August, 1900, the infant congregation resolved to build its first sanctuary, to be 36 feet in lenth and 22 feet wide, and in July, 1901, the new building was dedicated.
During the summer of 1901, the first Lutheran school, slightly smaller than the church, was completed on the adjacent lot. And only a few days after the fall term had begun, fate dealt the young church a dual financial blow so great that only the great mercy of Providence could be credited with the congregation's continuance and will to survive.
Pastor Gaertner served as the school's principal as well. According to the Port Arthur "Herald" of September 14, 1902, the school children had been greatly annoyed by 'yellow jackets' or wasps stinging them near a sidewalk. In an effort to end the menace and control the insects, the minister set fire to some grass near the sidewalk, which quickly waxed out of control and ignited the building while school was still in session. The flames spread rapidly to the main sanctuary as well, and within an hour, both buildings were reduced to cinders. The financial loss was about $3,000, and was only partially covered by a $600 insurance policy.
Apparently undaunted by the tragic experience, the membership decided to replace the loss with even larger buildings. The second church was 54 feet in length by 30 feet wide and was dedicated on March 15, 1903. It was soon followed by a second school building that was completed in 1904.
The souvenir edition of the Port Arthur "The Evening News" of May 13, 1905, shows an excellent photograph of the new buildings shortly after they were built and bears the following notation:
"The German Lutheran Church in Stilwell Heights, an addition to Port Arthur, was built in 1903 at a cost of $3,000, including the adjoining school building. In 1902 a church and school building on the site, belonging to the same denomination, was entirely destroyed by fire. Services are held every Sunday, usually in the German language. The school is in session nine months during the year, and both German and English are taught. Rev. H. C. Gaertner is pastor of the church and also principal of the school."
In the meantime, as Port Arthur grew and prospered, so did Trinity Lutheran congregation. The influx of new members came mostly from the German communities west of Houston, of whom many had emigrated to Port Arthur to become a part of the work force needed to man the expanding oil industry. As a result, by 1920 the facilities of the modest church and school plant were taxed to the rafters to accommodate the increased membership.
Pastor Gaertner stayed until 1915 and was replaced by Rev. F. W. Klindworth, who remained as pastor for two years. In 1918, the church called Pastor F. W. Siebelitz who served the congregation until 1935.
As early as March, 1919, the membership decided to build a larger sanctuary, and as a result purchased vacant property at the intersection of San Augustine and Fifth Streets. It was some two miles east of the previous site, in a largely undeveloped part of Port Arthur, which immediatgely prompted some persons to ask, "Why do they wish to locate way out there in the country?"
A building committee, consisting of Bernhardt, F. C. Gaertner, C. A. Domasck, and G. Domaschk, was elected in April, 1922, and a building bid of $50,000 for a new sanctuary was accepted. On April 6, 1924, the new, red-brick building was dedicated, and sixty-five years later, Trinity Lutheran congregation is still occupying the same quarters.
Only six months later, the church celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. In July, 1929, its new pipe organ was installed. As is always the case, church indebtedness was ever much easier to attain than it was to liquidate, and as of 1929, the new facilities represented an investment of $60,000.
The history of Trinity Lutheran School ran parallel with that of the church at large, employing at various times during its existence a number of principals and teachers who were much too numerous to mention here. The school always strived to provide a quality education to high school level for students at a minimal cost to the parents. Perhaps one of the saddest moments for the congregation came in May, 1987, when the school, its enrollment lagging to about forty students, was closed after 85 years of existence.
In 1935, Pastor C. W. Ladewig was called to replace Pastor Siebelitz, and the former remained as the membership's spiritual mentor until the arrival of Pastor Theodore Harms in 1948. During the latter's three-year tenure, the congregation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as a Lutheran church of the Missouri Synod and its twenty-fifth year in its present sanctuary.
In 1951, Pastor Victor Buvinghausen replaced Rev. Harms and remained until Pastor Martin Ramming arrived in 1964. In 1978 Pastor Paul Bohot became the eighth pastor to serve the Port Arthur congregation. In Jan., 1986, he was succeeded by Pastor Timothy Dinger, who is the current spiritual shepherd of Trinity Lutheran Church.
As the church approaches its centennial anniverary, Trinity congregation has occasionally lost some membership to the other two major Lutheran bodies of the 'Golden Triangle,' American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church of North America (now united), as new churches of those synods were organized in the vicinity. In addition, Trinity has served as the mission "mother church' for, and very often has shared its membership with, four other Missouri Synod parishes in South Jefferson County, namely, St. Mark's, Good Shepherd, St. Paul's of Groves, and Holy Cross of Nederland. As of 1988, the congregation consists of 431 communicant members and 532 baptized members.
The writer would wager that there is one factor about Trinity Lutheran Church's history that will always remain unique among the Port Arthur churches. It is the only congregation whose early church records and minutes must be translated into English from the original German.