Mother-daughter congregations reunite, taking bold steps for the future

Brian Roebke photo
After worshipping in the building on Turner Street in Wrightstown for 110 years, St. John Lutheran Church (WELS) is selling the building with plans to build a new school/church structure on Plum Road.

St. John Lutheran Church in Wrightstown (WELS) and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Greenleaf (WELS) are taking bold steps with the future in mind. St. Paul is closing its ministry at the same time as St. John is combining its church and school sites onto a single campus on Highway D (Plum Road). Until the new site is built, St. John will be worshiping at St. Paul facility in Greenleaf.
Pastor Dave Ruddat, pastor at St. Paul in Greenleaf and Immanuel Lutheran in Shirley, spoke of the history between St. John and St. Paul.
“Both congregations don’t just have a shared confession of beliefs, we also have a history together,” he said.
Back in 1909, when members of St. John who lived in the Greenleaf area felt that the distance to Wrightstown was just too far and that the Greenleaf area also needed a church, they made the bold steps to form a daughter congregation here. The bold steps continue, as Pastor Ruddat detailed a recent decision made at a St. Paul’s voters meeting: “When the members heard that there might possibly be a buyer for St. John and that they might need a place to worship, we voted unanimously to offer St. John all our property to them for free for as long as they needed it, with the understanding that they could sell it later to fund their ministry. Mother-daughter congregations united again! What an interesting end for one congregation and a memorable transition for another!”
St. John in Wrightstown has taken some bold steps of its own regarding its property and mission. Pastor Mike Gehl explains: “Although the church’s mission will forever be to share Jesus with its members and with the community, the current facilities, in many ways, aren’t ideal for carrying out 21st century ministry.”
Two years ago, St. John sold its 75-year-old school building, located at the intersection of Clay and Turner streets, to the village of Wrightstown for a storm water pond. The village is allowing the school to continue to hold classes at that location until the new facility is built, when the village will determine the future of the building. And most recently, a Minnesota musician and businessman, Walter Croll, is in the process of purchasing the historic 110-year-old church building to be used for music lessons and recitals. Two remaining parcels, the church parsonage and an empty lot, will be offered for sale later.
Bold steps also lie ahead for St. John. Decades-old plans to build new facilities have finally been put into action. Pastor Gehl explains: “Phase 1 is to build brand-new preschool through 8th grade classrooms, administrative offices, a gymnasium, and a commons area. A future Phase 2 will be the church gathering and worship spaces. The commons will be used exclusively for worship until the sanctuary is built. The ambitious target is to occupy the building sometime during the 2022-23 school year, Lord willing.”
Excel Engineering of Fond du Lac is assisting the congregation as architect and Catalyst Construction of Milwaukee has been selected as the builder.
September is going to be a busy time for both congregations. St. Paul members will be transferring membership to St. John, Immanuel, or other congregations, as well as deciding what to do with remaining assets.
“It’s a sad and exciting time,” Pastor Gehl explains, “and it’s happening a lot faster than I think anyone anticipated, putting our faith to the test. But it’s amazing what God’s people can and will do when they love their Savior and his kingdom!”
Pastor Ruddat echoes the sentiment: “It’s a hard thing sometimes to do what’s best for Christ’s kingdom, but these bold steps are taken in faith that Jesus will provide … and he will!”
Special worship services are planned on Sept. 26, both at St. Paul (10 a.m.) and at St. John (9 a.m.). On Oct. 3, St. John will begin worshiping at the Greenleaf location, offering two Sunday morning services. A Thursday evening service will be added in mid-October.
St. John Lutheran history
Sometime in the year 1869 the Reverend E.G. Reim came to Wrightstown from Green Bay to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments to Lutheran people reported to be living in this area. According to God’s promise, his labors were successful. So much so, in fact, that a congregation was organized that same year. The organizing members chose to name the newly-formed congregation after St. John, the disciple and apostle of love, indicating that the love of god as shown to John and proclaimed by him was to be the guiding principle of its members for all time. This chosen name is always worthy of study and remembrance.
The First Constitution of the “Evangliche Lutherische St. Johannes Gemeinde” was signed by 47 heads of families on May 4, 1869.
The first church was dedicated Christmas Day 1869 and served the congregation’s needs until 1911.
The plans for the new church were drawn by Mr. W. Delong of Appleton and the cornerstone was laid on May 28, 1911.
On Feb. 11, 1912, the new house of worship was dedicated to the service of the triune God. The morning service started in the old church building with a hymn and speech. Then all congregants walked to the new church where hymns were sung in German by the congregation and choir. This building was built for approximately $18,000 and was fully paid for in the short space of three years. With some money still left in the treasury, they decided to also build a new parsonage. This structure was dedicated Nov. 22, 1914, and was paid for just two years later.
In 1982, a committee formed to investigate the cost of building a new church and to get cost estimates on needed repairs. In April 1983, the congregation established a church building or repair fund. The committee continued to advertise for proposals to construct a new building or to repair the existing building and in September, members voted to renovate the historic landmark. The church building study committee expanded to become the church building committee, with authority to supervise the work.
Work immediately began on the church heating system and later the roof was repaired and brick tuck pointed.
In 1984, the state approved plans for the front of the church and a contractor was hired.
Although it was voted to proceed with an addition at the rear of the church in September of 1984, the actual construction did not begin until the spring of 1985. It was decided that the contractor would construct only the shell with the interior work done by congregation members.
Years of planning, discussing, decision making, meetings, and work on church renovation ended with the Day of Rededication on Sept. 21, 1986.
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church has many historic features: the gothic style altar and pulpit along with the statues on the altar; two large stained (art glass) windows depicting Jesus with his sheep and knocking at the door; inserts of the windows depicting religious symbols like the Lily, a Christian symbol for the Resurrection and the Fleur De Lis which is a lily and a common Christian symbol for the Trinity; the painted pressed-tin ceiling as part of the original church; and the large round stained-glass window viewed from outside.
In 2002, a two-year study began to assess the ministry and facility needs of the church and school and a building committee was established in January 2005.
After concluding the renovation the existing school was too expensive and the church building was essentially solid, the committee offered the congregation two options: 1) Build a school addition attached to the current church, or 2) Build a new church and school on a new site. In March of 2008, the congregation voted for the second option to be accomplished in stages and authorized the purchase of 21 acres of farmland on Plum Road. In January of the following year the land purchase was completed for $450,000.
In August of 2016, a Long-Range Planning Committee was established to once again analyze the various ministries carried out at St. John, and to make recommendations to the congregation.
Early in 2018, St. John resolved that the long list of needs at both the church and school necessitated the construction of a new church, classrooms for the Lutheran elementary school and Sunday school and office and related ancillary spaces — all in Phase I — with a gymnasium and additional classrooms in Phase II. Appropriate committees were then established to carry out this resolution.
The Long-Range Planning Committee adopted B.O.L.D S.T.E.P.S as the building project theme. Building On a Legacy Devoted to God and His Word, Sharing the Word, Trusting God for this result, Encouraging each other, Praying for success, and Supporting with our time and resources.
St. Paul Lutheran history
On Feb. 28, 1909, 19 members of St. John’s in Wrightstown and also other Greenleaf locals, resolved to launch a congregation in Greenleaf. St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran church is a congregation of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), reaching out with the pure living Word of God.
Walter Croll
A Minnesota musician and businessman, Walter Croll, is purchasing the current church building in Wrightstown.
A multi-instrumental string player, singer, composer, and teacher, his instruments of choice are the viola and guitar, but he plays banjo, dobro, mandolin, lap steel and bass as well. “Jazz, blues, folk, and classical are among the many styles I employ in my compositions, and I most enjoy playing in small ensemble settings,” he said on his website.
He teaches in River Falls and performs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul and western Wisconsin region.
“My performances are designed to provide quality music in smaller venues such as wineries, house concerts, restaurants, breweries, coffee houses and churches,” he said. “I play covers drawn from a wide variety of genres, including jazz, folk, rock, classical, and pop.”
His original music echoes these traditions as well, and he can create a custom set list and some stylish arrangements for weddings, parties, or corporate events. Performances can be tailored for solo, duo, trio, and quartet configurations.
He loves to pass on his knowledge and experience just as much as he loves to learn from others by teaching.