By Bill Richardson
Travel east out of Vincennes along Willow Street, and it doesn’t take long for the setting to change from urban to rural.
Continue on when Willow turns into South Decker Road and one will pass fields of corn, hay, melons, soybeans and potatoes, a farm market, and what appears to be a couple of old Studebakers, perhaps awaiting their turn to be refurbished. Take this road for about 5 miles, you’ll arrive at St. Peter Lutheran Church and Parish Center, located on the north side of the road.
What may look like just another rural church, isn’t. There is a long and fascinating history with St. Peter, which was recently celebrated. The congregation’s official charter date is listed as May 25, 1869 and on June 8, a 150th birthday party took place.
As Nathan Rastl, pastor of the church since October 1997 explains, the German farmers in that particular area of rural southern Knox County found it impractical to continue to make the trip into Vincennes to attend St. John Lutheran Church, which was 10 years older. So, 150 years ago they branched off on their own to form St. Peter.
“Transportation was such that people felt like they needed a church here, instead of going into town,” said Rastl, a native of Columbia City, Indiana, who served a congregation in Iowa for just more than nine years before landing at St. Peter. “Farmers, primarily, established this congregation. They were German immigrants, and everything was done in German.”
Early church expansion
Initially, according to Rastl, church services were held in homes of members of the congregation. The original building, a wood-framed church, was built in 1881. The congregation eventually outgrew that building, Rastl says, and construction on the current building commenced in 1966. It was dedicated in February 1967.
Indeed, German was the officially recognized language at the church, for a long, long time. Weekly services in German were halted for a time during World War I, according to Rastl, because Germany, after all, was an enemy. After the war, though, the services continued to be conducted in the German language. It wasn’t until 1927 that the congregation approved a motion to have minutes of meetings recorded in English. Church records were not switched over to English until 1940. As recently as 1931, services were conducted in English on the first three Sundays of each month, with the remaining services conducted in German.
St. Peter Lutheran School, for children in grades one through eight, was also a part of the history. The school started when the congregation was established in 1869, with the church’s pastor additionally serving as the teacher. The first professional teacher was brought on board in the 1890s.
Generally, the two-room school had classes for students in grades one through four in one room, while those in grades five through eight attended in another.
A new school, which now serves as the parish center, was built in the 1950s. It remained in operation on its own until 1997, at which point St. Peter Lutheran School combined with St. John Lutheran in Vincennes. That school was closed in 2002.
Generations of families
On an average Sunday, the congregation at St. Peter Lutheran numbers about 60. Many of those, Rastl says, are direct descendants of the about 25 families that formed the church a century-and-a-half ago.
“A lot of people in our congregation have been members for a long time,” said Rastl, who at going on 22 years is the longest-serving pastor in the church’s history. “We’ve had a very stable congregation population over the years. We don’t have a lot of turnover.”
All of that history played a big part in the June 8 celebration. Pastor Roy Schroeder, who was at St. Peter in the mid-1950s, returned to read the lesson. He’s now in his 90s, and lives in the Lansing, Michigan, area. The guest preacher was Dr. Lawrence Rast, president of the Concordia Theological Seminary, near Fort Wayne. In addition, other former pastors, as well as former teachers at the St. Peter Lutheran School, were invited to informally say a few words at the anniversary service.
Photographs and other mementos were collected and placed in a parish hall room for visitors to enjoy.
“I think that’ll be really neat for the people to see,” said Rastl. “There are a lot of photos and other memorabilia. They’ll be able to use those to go back in time, to see the history of the congregation.”
A catered meal was a highlight, with about 200 people in attendance.
“When we were planning it, one of the first things we decided was that we were going to have it catered,” Rastl said. “We didn’t want anyone to have to worry about cooking, and that type of thing. We wanted them to have time to visit, relax and enjoy the day.”
For children, an area was set up to host games and other activities, and an ice cream sundae bar was available.
While membership isn’t what it once was, Rastl remains optimistic about the future of St. Peter Lutheran. He notes that while most of the congregation remains farmers from the southern part of the county, there are a fair number of folks who venture out from Vincennes. The church has some members from the northern and other parts of Knox County, too.
Not that long ago, he notes, that the birth rate took care of populating the congregation.
“The congregation would grow, just by families having kids,” he said. “With families not having as many children, we don’t have that increase in numbers from the birth rate, so much as we used to. We need to be a little more intentional as far as letting people know we’re here, and inviting people to come.”
St. Peter Lutheran Church, he insists, will continue to serve its purpose, as it has done since 1869.
“The purpose of the church is to proclaim God’s word. That’s why we’re here,” he said. “That’s why the church was started and that’s why we continue. By the grace of God, we’re still here.”