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updated: 7/13/2017 6:17 AM

Elgin's St. John's Lutheran School celebrates 150th anniversary

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  • Students pose for a class photo in 1920 in St. John's Lutheran School of Elgin. The school celebrated its 150th anniversary this year.

    Students pose for a class photo in 1920 in St. John's Lutheran School of Elgin. The school celebrated its 150th anniversary this year.
    Courtesy of St. John Lutheran School

  • St. John Lutheran School in Elgin celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. Ethan Zimmerman, 13, of Elgin places his handprint on an 150th anniversary banner with the help of parent volunteer Tracy Schatz.

    St. John Lutheran School in Elgin celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. Ethan Zimmerman, 13, of Elgin places his handprint on an 150th anniversary banner with the help of parent volunteer Tracy Schatz.
    Courtesy of St. John Lutheran School

  • Students put prayer ribbons on a fence to celebrate the 150th school year at St. John's Lutheran School in Elgin.

    Students put prayer ribbons on a fence to celebrate the 150th school year at St. John's Lutheran School in Elgin.
    Courtesy of St. John Lutheran School

 
By Dave Gathman
Daily Herald correspondent

When St. John's Lutheran School opened its doors for Elgin children, Johnson was president. Not Lyndon Johnson, but Andrew Johnson, because his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, had been assassinated just a year before.

The school's present-day 112 children spent the past school year celebrating its 150th anniversary, climaxing with special activities April 20, the actual anniversary date, and then a musical worship service led by St. John's singers and student musicians in May.

"We still have the original metal bell from the 1860s," said Linda Hoffmann, who has been the school secretary -- well, not for all 150 years, but for quite awhile.

"My first year as secretary, we had a new public-address system and it had a glitch," she recalled. "So for a day or two I was ringing that old bell" to announce lunchtime and the start and end of the class day.

Civil War era

Church pastor the Rev. Hannibal Frederich -- whose real first name is Clifford, but he goes by the moniker "Hannibal" because of his admiration for Mark Twain -- said Lutherans arriving in Elgin from Germany started the church they called St. John's right before the Civil War, in 1859. But they didn't start a school of their own until 1866.

"We had a church building at Spring and Division streets. They bought an old Baptist church," Frederich said. "Then they built a one-room schoolhouse. For years the pastor was the only teacher. Everybody from first through eighth grade was in the same room and they were taught in the German language," which was one reason the immigrants wanted to have a school of their own.

The school briefly closed in the 1870s and its building was sold. But, in 1876, a new pastor named Fruechtenicht again began teaching children on weekdays in the church sanctuary.

"There were 27 children at that point," Frederich said. "They kneeled in the sanctuary and used the pews as their desks."

As part of this year's look back, he had the middle schoolers kneel in the current sanctuary and place their Chromebooks on the pews behind them.

The school expanded and hired a professional teacher. In 1884, a historical record says there were 134 children -- so the church hired a second teacher.

Photos from circa 1900 show each child arriving at school with his or her lunch in a pail, and at least one child posing for a class photo who has no shoes to wear.

Modern times

The present school building, expanded and remodeled in 1956, is connected to a gym and kitchen in the nearby church building -- now at 115 N. Spring St. -- by a tunnel. This year's kids lined the tunnel with drawings and charts showing what was going on in the world during each period of the school's history.

Principal Steve Moeller said middle-school students created an oral history on video by interviewing about 20 former students and teachers about their memories of St. John's.

In October, students decorated 150 pumpkins. During the Christmas season, they set 150 candlelit luminarias in an area where heat from that underground tunnel melts the snow.

As part of the 150th day of school, students made handprints on banners and got to meet several exotic animals -- including a de-scented skunk -- brought in from Randall Oaks Zoo in West Dundee.

Frederich said the school reached its biggest enrollment -- about 300 children -- in the Baby Boom era of the 1950s and 1960s. "Some classes had 40 kids."

But current enrollment has dropped to 112, spread between preschool and eighth grade, and the pastor said that is "less than we'd like to be at."

"It's getting more difficult to attract students because, while families used to have seven children, now they have one or two," Frederich said. "And our congregation is aging."

He said about half the current children come from other Lutheran churches or from families who attend churches of other denominations.

"One family in the 2-year-old program lives in Algonquin. We get some kids from Streamwood and, of course, quite a few from Elgin and South Elgin."

After eighth-grade graduation, Hoffmann said, they disperse to many different high schools -- public schools in school districts U-46, 300 and 301, plus Westminster Christian School in Elgin, Harvest Christian Academy in Elgin and Faith Lutheran High in Crystal Lake.

When Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Elgin's west side closed its own school after the 2010-2011 school year because of declining enrollment, 15 of its 35 students switched over to St. John's, Moeller said.

The school has inspired long-standing dedication in some families. When Kim Bimler celebrated her 25th anniversary of teaching this school year, she noted that her mother, Kay Jacobson, taught at St. John's for her entire career. And Bimler's son graduated from St. John's.

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