Bethany Church Anniversary Commemoration 1941

Bethany Church Anniversary Commemoration 1941

Bethany Church Anniversary Commemoration 1941

Beautiful illustration. Please let me know if you know who the artist is.

History of the Bethany Lutheran Church

Julius Lukkarila

Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio is located on the south shore of Lake Erie about 60 miles east of Cleveland, Ohio. Its first known white settler, by the name of Thomas Hamilton, built a cabin at the mouth of Ashtabula River in 1801. The name "Ashtabula" is Indian and means "River of Fishes". Ashtabula Township was formed in 1808 and comprised of what is now known as Ashtabula, Plymouth, Kingsville, and Sheffield Townships.

In the early days, shipbuilding was the important industry and the potential of the Harbor was recognized by the Federal Government already in 1826 when it began its first dredging operations and allotted a grant of money for the improvements of the port. This enabled larger ships to enter, and commerce with other ports began. However, it was not until the discovery of iron ore fields in Michigan and Minnesota that Ashtabula Harbor really grew. Docks and railroads were built, and for a long time, Ashtabula Harbor was the leading iron ore port in the world. It still holds third place in this respect. The history of Ashtabula Harbor is most colorful in its many aspects of a growing lake port town. It was not a life for the weak, for drinking and fighting was the usual pastime. It took some time for the better elements of life to eliminate much of this rough and undesirable portion in the lives of the people and purpose of this article is to tell the part that the Church played in reshaping the lives of the Finnish people who had settled here.

The first Finns to appear in Ashtabula came here in 1872 to work in laying the tracks for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This group was headed by a man named Andrew Bloom. He also brought his twelve year old son, John Bloom, with him. Others mentioned are Joseph Porkola and Matt Kortesmaki. The cook for this group was a Liisa Kaukonen whose husband, Jacob, came here later. This "Gang" as these work groups were called, stayed to work on the Hanna docks. From this time on, the Finnish population grew rapidly. The first Finnish child born here was John Hakala in 1876. His parents were Kusti and Sanna Hakala. By 1884, there were many hundred Finnish people in the Harbor. The housing situation was very bad and totally inadequate. Families were crowded into small spaces and almost every family kept boarders. The lot of the women was hard. Raising families, feeding boarders, washing their clothing, was all they could look forward to. With the men, drinking was the chief diversion. As the men were paid by the gang bosses in the saloons, it was not to be wondered that many spent most of their money before going home with it. It is hard to visualize now, what life was under such circumstances with no uplifting influences to help overcome such conditions. Even though people remembered what religious training they had in the old country, their inability to speak the language of the new land precluded them from partaking in anyway with American church influences. No doubt, there was a longing for better things but the initiative to act was lacking. This had to come from the outside. In the year 1881 a Finnish pastor visited Ashtabula. He was Pastor Alfred E. Backman, enroute to his parishes in northern Michigan after making a visit to Finland. Pastor Backman was the first Finnish pastor to ever serve in this country having come here in 1876 to preach to the Finns in northern Michigan and Minnesota. He stayed in Ashtabula four days, confirmed two young people, preached, and served Holy Communion. The services were held upstairs of the Nettleton Bldg., later known as the Cheney Store. This visit awakened a desire in many people to have spiritual guidance and training such as they had in the old country. They did not have long to wait for just at this time, the Swedes had organized The Capernaum congregation (1882) and had requested of their Augustana Synod to send them a pastor who could speak Finnish also. It so happened that at the Augustana Seminary there was a student from Finland named J. J. Hoikka who spoke Swedish fluently. He agreed to come to Ashtabula for a summer vacation period. Services were held at the aforementioned Cheney store building. He was paid $25.00 per month by the Swedish congregation and a like amount by the Finnish group, which had not yet organized a congregation. C. J. Stenroos, who to this time had belonged to the Capernaum church, took up the leadership of the Finnish people. He collected the funds for the pastor’s salary and taught Sunday School in the Capernaum Church. His ability to use both languages made him very useful to the Finns in their relations with the Augustana Synod and the Capernaum Church. Another person who was very influential in the welfare of the Finnish people was Nils Johan Carlson, a Swedish foreman at the docks. He had learned to speak Finnish very well from the Finnish dock workers and was well known by them as "Finn Carlson". Carlson and Stenroos for many years worked hand in hand among their respective peoples to awaken their countrymen spiritually. Though Hoikka stayed only a few months on his first visit, he did return during the Christmas vacation of 1882 and on being ordained was asked to become pastor at Ashtabula. He, however, preferred to go to Astoria, Oregon instead. It is a matter of conjecture as to what would have been the result, had he come here, in relation to the spiritual life and organization among the Swedes and Finns, if Pastor Hoikka would have come to Ashtabula for it had been planned to form a single congregation of Swedes and Finns. When Pastor Hoikka declined to come here, the Augustana Synod sent, at the request of the Capernaum Church, Pastor Alex Malmstrom to Ashtabula to serve the Swedish congregation and to do mission work among the Finns. Pastor Malmstrom had been born in Finland, ordained in Hannover, Germany and served as a missionary in Africa. He arrived at Easter time in 1883 and preached to the Swedes but felt that due to his inability to speak Finnish well, and to other causes, that he could not serve adequately in Ashtabula. This, again, left the Capernaum Church without a pastor, as well as the Finns without any religious leadership.

In the summer of 1884, there appeared on the scene a man by the name of John Wilhelm Lähde. He had very recently left Sweden and on the advice of the Swedish pastor, Nelsenius, of Brocton, New York, came to serve the needs of the Swedish and Finnish people of Ashtabula Harbor. Lahde had studied in Finland and Germany and taught Latin and German at Orebross, Sweden. On the day of his arrival at the Harbor, he announced a service to be held in Finnish at the Asser Anson building on the corner of Bridge (now West Fifth) and Franklin Street. The attendance must have been good, for the collection amounted to $18.00 which was a sizeable amount in those days. At this gathering, Lahde made the suggestion that a Finnish congregation be formed and Stenroos made a list of all desiring to become members. Thus was born the first Finnish congregation, named Bethlehem, in the year 1884. The congregation was affiliated with the Augustana Synod. No records remain of this congregation except that it was carried on the books of the Augustana Synod through the year 1889. The Church records were given into the custody of Rev. Williamson in later years but were destroyed in a fire in 1910. In 1885 Lahde was ordained by the Augustana Synod and served simultaneously as pastor of the Capernaum and Bethlehem congregations. He also made trips to Burton, Ohio where he organized a Finnish congregation. This was affiliated with the Augustana Synod and their statistics mention this congregation for the years of 1884 and 1885. From the beginning of Pastor Lahde’s arrival, he had conducted some sort of a children’s school, where he taught religion and Finnish language. He also maintained a Sunday School for a short period. Lahde lived in a house owned by N. J. Carlson on Walnut Street but later on Franklin St. between what is now West Third and West Fifth St. Pastor Lahde was considered a gifted speaker but in the latter part of his stay in Ashtabula, was addicted to drinking. In the fall of 1885, Pastor Lahde moved to New York and was listed as a pastor for only a few more years in the statistics of the Augustana Synod for he took up a newspaper career and published the "Uusi Kotimaa" at New York Mills, Minnesota.

One of the most stalwart and dependable assistants to the pastor was Carl J. Stenroos. He was the pillar on which everything depended. Stenroos had been born in Finland in 1838, came to America in 1873 to Erie, Pa., and in 1875 to Ashtabula Harbor. His work was a very valuable asset in the religious and temperance work among the Finns. Stenroos lived to a ripe old age and contributed much to the benefit of the Finnish people in Ashtabula. After Pastor Lahde left, the religious work was carried on by August Edwards, a publisher of the Finnish newspaper "United States News". Since the Swedish congregation was without a pastor, August Edwards also preached to them as his mother tongue was Swedish. With the help of Stenroos, Edwards organized a Sunday School for children and continued this work up to 1890. Classes were held in the Asser Hall on Bridge Street, where also the church services were conducted.

During the summer of 1887, there appeared on the scene a preacher by name of Frans Erik Ohde. He had just been ordained by the Augustana Synod and offered himself to the Finns to serve as their pastor. He was accepted, but due to his eccentricities and drinking, remained only a short time. In 1888 Pastor Emil Panelius of the Finnish Seamen’s Mission visited here and preached. He made an attempt to get a permanent pastor but did not succeed. Pastor Hoikka visited Ashtabula Harbor for the third time in 1889 and spent a few weeks here. He was quite concerned about conditions here and on meeting a Finnish pastor, ordained by the Norwegian Synod, by name of William Williamson, had encouraged him to come to Ashtabula Harbor. Others had also been concerned, especially the pastor of the Congregational Church of Ashtabula by name of Davidson. He had arranged to have two seminarians named J. Lundell and Andrew Groop to spend a summer in Ashtabula. Their inability to speak Finnish hampered their work considerably. Therefore, Pastor Davidson took steps to get a pastor from Finland to serve here. He succeeded in this effort and on Sept. 11, 1889 a preacher arrived from Finland by name of Frans Karl Lehtinen.

As Lehtinen was not yet an ordained minister, he was ordained by the Congregational Mission Board and was the first Finnish pastor to be ordained into this Church in America. On his arrival of Ashtabula Harbor, Pastor Davidson took Frans Lehtinen to C. J. Stenroos and this was the beginning of a long period of friendship and work between these two men. Pastor Lehtinen began preaching to the Finns immediately, but, as his audience was primarily Lutheran some demurred a little to having a Congregational pastor preaching to them. However, no matter how much they studied his preaching, they could not find anything to conflict with their own Lutheran beliefs. Notwithstanding this, they still insisted on having a Lutheran pastor and since Pastor Williamson had appeared on the scene, many who were pleased with Williamson’s preaching, asked him to remain here. Pastor Lehtinen had found a most staunch supporter in C. J. Stenroos and had converted him into a true believer. With Stenroos and other followers, Pastor Lehtinen organized the Finnish Congregational Church on Jan. 7, 1891. In the meantime, Williamson had declined to remain here because he wanted to stay in Duluth, Minn. Therefore, to preserve the Lutheran conregation in Ashtabula Harbor, Pastor Hoikka had sent a message to Jacob Karhu to organize a Lutheran congregation here. January 6, 1890 was the date of this meeting and the Harbor Finnish Lutheran Congregation was formed. At this meeting, it was ordered that every Finn working on the docks would have 10 cents a week deducted from his pay from April 1st to December 1st and the married men 25 cents per month, if their wives lived here. It is interesting to note that the committee to draw up the Constitution and bylaws for the Congregation contained many of the names of those who about a year later organized the Bethany Church. The members of the first Board of Trustees were as follows: Chas. Rosenberg, president; Jacob Karhu, vicepresident; trustees: Matt Kamppinen, J. Johnson, Matt Hyyppa, Matt Myllykoski, Matt Hakundi, John Klemola, Matt Tuuri, J. Keto, J. Back and I. Havunen. Matt Mononen was the sexton and the treasurer was Gust Ollila. The Charter was issued in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 10, 1890. Pastor Williamson changed his mind and on April 6, 1890 arrived in Ashtabula to accept the call of the newly formed congregation. In the beginning, Pastor Williamson was well liked and drew large audiences. A desire grew to build a church and steps were taken to realize this desire. The church was completed in 1891 and was built under the direction of Jacob Karhu. All the property of the extinct Bethlehem congregation was turned over to this new one. Williamson was a fearless, outspoken minister and directed his most severe criticism and attack on the saloon life in the community. He was especially bitter about the celebration of weddings in the saloons whereby considerable sums of money were raised for the benefit of the newly-weds. He also insisted that before communion, each communicant was to be examined by him before taking communion. He was forced to deny communion to several whom he did not think fit. Williamson’s firm actions caused people to make closer examination of their lives and what was required of them to be good Christians. Others were offended and objected to Williamson’s highhanded measures, and also his very uncompromising stand for he was very critical of anyone who did not agree with him. On top of this so-called dissatisfaction with Pastor Williamson on the part of many, was the fact that he had not received very much schooling. This fault was played up by the editor of the Finnish newspaper by the name of Raphael Reinius. At his instigation, charges were preferred against Pastor Williamson and several meetings called to give him a hearing. The accusations were brought forth but in the light of Scriptures Pastor Williamson was proved right. The meeting was a most stormy one and divided the congregation in two. Those who were dissatisfied with Pastor Williamson withdrew and immediately planned on organizing a new congregation. A meeting was called at the Asser Hall on June 21, 1891. The same man who conducted the meeting of the earlier conregation, Chas. Rosenberg, presided at this meeting. The name of the congregation was given as Ashtabula Harbor New Independent Finnish Lutheran Evangelic Congregation. In 1922, this was changed officially to The Bethany Evangelic Lutheran Church. The Board of Trustees elected were as follows: president, Chas. Rosenberg; vice president, Raphael Reinius; treasurer, Andrew Kangas and trustees: Elias Kantola, A. Anson, Matt Myllykoski, Fred Eklund, Henry Makinen, and Matt Wiita. Steps were taken also to obtain a pastor from Finland. In 1891 Abel Kivioja accepted the call to serve this newly formed congregation and arrived with his wife during November of the same year. On his arrival, a new Board of Trustees was elected: president, Pastor Kivioja; vice president Raphael Reinius; treasurer, Andrew Kangas; trustees: H. Makinen, J. Porkola, J. Almi, I. Hietikko, M. Kananen, J. Siipola, Chas. Hukari, F. Lilja, M. Myllykoski, and M. Peura. Services were held, for a time, in Asser Hall but later at the Capernaum Church. In Sept. of 1892 a building committee was elected for the purpose of planning a church building. This consisted of the following: Pastor Kivioja, Gust Hakala, Jos. Siipola, Andrew Kangas, Frans Lilja, Matt Johnson, J. Ronberg, M. Kananen, M. Kamppinen, M. Ladvala, Chas Hukari, J. Wirtanen, Jacob Nyppeli, Matt Suonpera, Enoch Hamalainen, R. Reinius, Isaac Hietikko, and John Marsyla. Plans for the church were drawn by Matt Kananen, who was also builder. His pay was designated to be 20 cents per hour. Other help was to be paid $1.25 per day. Plastering was done by Jonas Edixon for 8c per square foot. The dedication day of the church was July 23, 1893. Guest speaker was Pastor W. K. Durchman of the Seamens Mission in New York. The pews were made by Henry Pankari for $2.00 per pew. Total cost of the church was $3257.00 and was paid for in five years. The church bell was purchased in 1895, costing $135.00. The first bell ringer was August Herttua. Waterlines into the church were installed in 1898. Lighting was by kerosene lamps until 1900, when electricity was obtained. With the increasing activity in the congregation, it became necessary to have more room, so it was decided to put in a basement which was completed in 1901 at a cost of $2500.00. In 1903 an altar picture was contracted for with a local painter by the name of Toivonen. His painting was not satisfactory and was not accepted, so he sold it to the Finnish National Church across the street. It was not until 1908 that the church actually got a new picture which is still there. It cost $116.00 and was painted by the Swedish artist August Klagstadt. During the entire stay of Pastor Kivioja, he lived in rented quarters on Bridge Street. His successor, Pastor Huotari lived on Pine Street (West 4th) and it was during his stay that the first parsonage was purchased at 28 Market St. (West 6th) for the sum of $1740. In 1921 this was sold and the present one was built for a cost of $8,000.00. The present pipe organ in the old church was purchased through the efforts of the Men’s Handicraft Club in 1918. This organization was formed in 1910 and probably is the first men’s group in our Synod. The organ cost about $1800.00 and has done yeomen service to the present day although in recent years it has developed obstinate streaks in which it refuses to perform.

Of the organizations within the church, the Sunday School is the oldest, having been started during the first year of the congregation’s existence. One of our oldest living members, Frans Holmstrom, began teaching in the Sunday School in 1895 and continued almost a half century. It is also interesting to note that at one time there were about 400 children in Sunday School. The 1918 minutes disclose that the membership consisted of 194 married men, 196 married women, 8 widowers, 24 widows, 38 single men, 43 maiden ladies, 301 male children, and 308 female children, for a total of 1112 with 381 having voting rights.

Summer school was first field in 1900 with seminarian Solomon Ilmonen teaching. School was generally held for two months during the summer. The second oldest organization was the Ladies Aid having been organzied by Mrs. Kivoja in 1892. The Young People’s Society was formed in 1903. As articles will be written on all the organizations working within the church, mention will be very limited in this sketch. The men’s handicraft club, mentioned previously as having been organized in 1910, had a life span of about 15 years before it ceased to function. At the present time, many of the old members still are active in the Finnish or Senior Brotherhood. In the early twenties, the language question began to be more acute and in 1923 the Bethany Sisters group was formed with English as the official language used. The men organized a brotherhood in 1928, also using the English language in their meetings. Of more recent date the Mother-Teacher Guild has functioned with the Sunday School and Summer School as their chief interest. It is interesting to note that the Bethany Church has had many firsts in Church work in our Synod, namely the first sisterhood, brotherhood, Mother-Teacher Guild, first to use the envelope system, first to use nominating ballots for election of officers, and now leads the way in a new outlook for a church building program. It should be also noted that the Ashtabula congregation has been the mother of all Ohio and Pennsylvania Suomi Synod congregations, Fairport, Conneaut, Erie, Monessen, Burton, New Castle, and Warren received their first spiritual services from the Ashtabula Harbor pastors. It is said that Pastor Huotari in around 1900, had about 30 preaching stations.

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