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Independent spirit carries St. Paul's to 150th anniversary


The Rev. Richard Powell II in St. Paul Evangelical Church downtown. The church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend.

The Blade/Herral Long
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The downtown banners sum it up nicely: "150 years lifting high the cross."

St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Erie Street is celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary with a number of special events, including a dinner tonight at the Toledo Club and a worship service at 10 a.m. tomorrow conducted by Bishop Marcus Lohrmann of the Northwest Ohio Synod of the ELCA.

A "daughter church" of Salem Lutheran, just several blocks north on Erie Street, St. Paul's was founded after a rift among Salem's members over whether confessions should be said in private or to others, according to the Rev. Richard Powell II, St. Paul's pastor since 2002.

That debate over what constituted "strict Lutheranism" led to the creation of St. Paul's, which for many years catered to Toledo's German Lutheran community.

Mr. Powell said the church's rich history has been marked by a firm commitment to Lutheranism along with a spirit of independence.

A perfect example of that duality, he said, came in August, 1930, when St. Paul's hosted the national organizing convention of the American Lutheran Church, a precursor of the ELCA.

Although it served as host church for the organizing session, St. Paul's delegates chose not to join the new denomination. It wasn't until six months later, in February, 1931, that St. Paul's applied for membership in the ALC.

"St. Paul's has always had to wrestle with its ego, and I define ego - e-g-o - as 'edging God out,'" Mr. Powell said in an interview this week.

The church has been undergoing a "transformational process" that is part of the national denomination's ministry to its members.

Located across Erie Street from the Lucas County Courthouse, St. Paul's does not have the typical suburban neighborhood setting. Instead of homes and businesses, it is surrounded by jails and courthouses, law offices and restaurants.

The church runs a number of outreaches to the downtown community but most of its 600 members - Mr. Powell calls them "Partners in the Gospel" - live in the suburbs and commute to the downtown church to worship.

St. Paul's held its first service on Aug. 2, 1857, and was formally organized Sept. 1 of that year. The congregation bought a lot on Erie Street for $1,200 the next year and the first St. Paul Lutheran Church building was dedicated May 2, 1858.

The German Lutheran congregation continued to grow as members paid "pew rentals" of $2 to $10, depending on the desirability of their pew's location - a common practice at the time in Protestant churches. Even choir members had to pay for their pews, Mr. Powell said.

The Civil War put a temporary halt on further expansion, but in 1867 the cornerstone was laid on the current building. The church was dedicated in 1868 and its 155-foot steeple was added in 1876; exterior lighting of the steeple was added in 2005.

Toledo's demographics have changed drastically since St. Paul's founding, and population shifts continue to impact area churches and boundaries.

Mr. Powell pointed out that there are about 50 Lutheran congregations in the metropolitan Toledo area.

"The way I see it, there are too many branch offices. If there were 50 Ford dealers, would they all be doing well?"

St. Paul's has the comfort of a $5 million endowment, which provides interest income that covers much of its operating expenses, Mr. Powell said.

"It's not our lifeblood, but it makes it possible for us to do what the Lord is calling us to do," he said.

The church is focused on the goal of being "characteristically Christian, identifiably Lutheran, and distinctively St. Paul," he said.

While the average Sunday attendance has dropped to about 160, Mr. Powell said the level of enthusiasm has been on the rise.

"We are learning to brighten the corner where we are and enjoy our neighbors," he said. "I think we're in good shape for the shape we're in. We are a welcoming people. We cultivate a climate of hospitality."

Many of the members who left St. Paul's were uncomfortable over the transformational process, Mr. Powell said, adding that people generally are resistant to change. He compared it to the physical law of inertia: a body will continue on its current path unless disturbed by an outside force. That outside force is, by definition, "disturbing," Mr. Powell said.

The 61-year-old pastor, a graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, is trying to keep St. Paul's on the right track - not forgetting its past, but have a clear plan for where it is headed.

He has knocked on doors at downtown lofts and apartments and is using television and radio advertising to raise awareness of the historic downtown church.

Paula Hiett, chairman of the 150th anniversary committee, concurred with the pastor's assessment that the membership is excited about the future.

"My observation is that there is a great deal of enthusiasm at St. Paul's and a lot of support for the activities we have planned in honor of the anniversary," Ms. Hiett said.

In honor of the church's 150th anniversary, Bishop Marcus Lorhmann will preside at the 10 a.m. service tomorrow at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 428 North Erie St., with Mr. Powell and associate pastor Stephen Bull assisting. The service will be followed by a fellowship brunch in the social room.

Contact David Yonke at:

or 419-724-6154.

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