Salem Lutheran Church 

Stillwater, OK

Salem Lutheran Church 

Stillwater, OK

Through Trial and Triumph

The Legacy of Salem Lutheran Church
They came from Russia

At the end of the nineteenth century, on the invitation of the United States government, Oklahoma was settled by legions of frustrated adventurers, farmers and bankers, teachers and traders as well as the poverty-stricken. They came on foot, on horseback, in buggies and buckboards. They came from everywhere. Some failed while others persevered.

Among those that persevered were the patriarchs of Salem Lutheran Church. They were German-Russians from Imperial Russia looking with restless eyes for a new start on the Oklahoma prairie with the promise of freedom. Salem’s legacy was built by a series of powerful human events and this brief history will be told over several installments.

Salem stands on the shoulders of these hardy souls long gone. It was during their many hardships that they leaned on the strength of their faith, for it was Martin Luther who said, “Here I stand, I can do no other”. Yet they were grateful for what little they had. They gave thanks for the year that closed and for the year to come. They asked the Lord for patience, that they may love others as themselves, and their Creator in heaven beyond all.

In 1763, the Seven Years War culminated with the devastation of Europe. In response to an invitation from Catherine the Great, thousands of impoverished Germans migrated to Russia in an area lying west of present day Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. She was a German princess who married Czar Peter III. Peter had pursued a strongly pro-Prussian policy which made him an unpopular leader. After Peter lost power (and his life) in a palace coup in 1762, Catherine came to power as she embraced Orthodoxy and the Russian norms of the day. However, she also recognized that with the help of German nationals, Russia needed to develop economically. Her agents were sent throughout Europe to recruit settlers to found agricultural communities on the boundless Ukrainian steppes.

She guaranteed entitlements to all foreigners, including free exercise of religion, 30-years freedom from taxation, exemption from military service, interest-free loans for ten years, and self-government. In other words, they were locally autonomous.

It is fascinating that Catherine had a hand, even indirectly, in the establishment of the first Lutheran Church in Payne County. The rich DNA of present-day Salem Lutheran can be traced back to migrations of many families and one of these were the Friedemanns. Gustav Wilhelm Friedemann and his eventual wife, Auguste Buchholz, were born in the Lods district, a manufacturing center southwest of Warsaw. After their marriage in 1856, the young couple relocated hundreds of miles from central Poland to Perkore in the southern Ukraine.

Within one hundred years after Catherine the Great’s Manifesto of 1763, there were an estimated 1.75 million Germans living in Russia. Initially, pioneer life in Russia was full of hardship as the settlers tamed lands filled with forests and swamps. In time, the pioneer settlements became prosperous communities. Many were wheat farmers, their crops more abundant as the years passed, and the local economies grew. While life was good in many ways and their love for the area was intense, the German colonialists made no commitment to Russia.

The winds of change were beginning to blow over the capitals in Europe. Waves of liberal republicanism and nationalistic enthusiasm were beaten down, sometimes severely, by the ruling dynasties. Personal and political freedoms were suppressed. The Czars that followed Catherine kept a wary eye on foreigners and revoked the promises she made. By 1874, all males became eligible for induction into military service including German colonials. This reform created much unrest among the German nationals as they had no illusion about the military and saw this enforced conscription as a form of compulsory Russification. Every Russian wanted change in different ways and the Czars sat on uneasy thrones. Non-Russian, non-Orthodox faiths, Protestant and well as Jews, faced persecution. The Germans recognized trouble ahead in Mother Russia.

Meanwhile, all of Europe was aware that American land for open for settlement. With the Homestead Act of 1862, the United States government initiated a plan to settle and cultivate the great western plains. This included the Unassigned Lands, generally the western one-half of present day Oklahoma. The Germans knew of Mennonite successes and survival in Kansas, which appealed to them. Their main concern were personal freedoms, but they were receptive to the American gesture given their love of production agriculture. They knew that in reverence, one plows in faith, sows in hope, and reaps in charity.

These were the general conditions prevailing in Russia when the first of the Friedemann sons, Robert and his wife Lydia, decided they would be the first to seek a new and better life in America just as Gustav and Auguste had done 33 years earlier when they left Poland for the Russian Ukraine. Since the Friedemann clan was anxious to get to the United States, they encouraged Robert and Lydia to participate in the 1889 land run in the Oklahoma territory. Robert and his wife assumed Russia identities as Robert spoke Russian and dressed himself as a peasant. He became employed in the business of carrying firewood into Germany. Lydia obtained the passport of a young Russian woman. She hid in the bush on the Polish Russian and German border until the local guard reversed his patrol. Then she ran across to the German side.

After several delays, the couple finally docked at the port of Baltimore on July 21, 1889, three months after the land run. With the rest of their rubles converted to U.S. dollars, the Friedemanns moved on to Halstead KS, a stronghold of the Mennonites that served as a staging point for many of the migrating Germans. At the invitation of Lydia’s half-brother Edward Bieberdorf, they packed their baby and few belongings into a covered wagon and set forth to Payne County in 1891. They at first shared a one-room log cabin with the Bieberdorfs and their first purchase was a horse. The next year, the Robert Friedemann bought 160 acres for a dollar per acre. And so it was to be the means to beginning a new life and putting down new roots. The other Friedemanns were sure to follow.

Back in the Russian Ukraine, the local peasants laughed at the crazy Germans who went to America to strike it rich. They remarked that Oklahoma was full of savage Indians and outlaws firing guns in the streets. And the Germans were, they insisted, stupid, heretics, and worst of all, Lutheran. Little did they know that the decaying Romanov dynasty would shortly bring revolution down on its own house. Indeed, the old Russian proverb, “To be Russian is to suffer.” would have a whole new meaning.
The Payne County Early Years

During their first years in Payne County, the Robert Friedemanns found that history was repeating itself. At the end of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great held out the promise of starting a new life on the Ukrainian Steppes and the Germans accepted with the understanding that their heritage and faith would not be denied them. Now they were starting all over again at the end of the nineteenth century on the Oklahoma frontier. As in Russia, their nearest neighbors were usually other German speaking couples and families intent on structuring their lives as they had done in the generations past, around the Lutheran Church. This is especially true when people find themselves anxious in their surrounding and turn to a higher power that is stronger than they are.

In 1892, Gustav and Auguste Friedemann sold all of their holdings for enough to finance the move to the United States. Routine flights out of Russia could be arranged for a price since the custom of bribery prevailed in the country.  Gustav had no trouble bribing Russian officials in exchange for exit documents. Still, his extended family had to wait almost a year in the Province of Posen Germany because, as custom practice, sailing departures were finalized only after passenger manifests were filled and every compartment occupied.
Adolf Gustav Friedemann and Frieda Louise Kierkegaard at their wedding.
After their arrival in Galveston in late 1893, the contingent moved on to Oklahoma City, a village described as “nothing but tents”. In December 1893, for the sum of ten dollars, Gustav purchased a relinquishment of a 160-acre claim in Payne County.

The first thing a homesteader needed was shelter and most began with a sod house. When the farmer broke sod, his purpose was two-fold. He could plant foodstuffs for his livestock and family, and then out of the ribbon of sod one could build a home on the high ground. Their experiences were not without sacrifice as Oklahoma was a bitter experience for the newcomers. The continental climate and extreme geography meant a barren and unforgiving land, deserted even by birds in the summer. In August, it was 115 in the shade and more than one settler remarked that, if they had the money, they would have bought a ticket to go back.

Although the German Evangelical Lutheran Church was not formally organized until 1894, services were held in various homes and one-room schoolhouses beginning in 1892. Indeed, early records note that baptisms were performed in 1892 for infants born in 1890 and 1891. Unfortunately, keeping a regular pastor to serve their needs would plague the Marena Church throughout its existence. Between ministerial visits, members conducted services as sermon and liturgy readers.

By 1897, the Marena congregation finally planned a building site for a church and purchased 160 acres for $275 west of Stillwater. Eighty acres was resold to help finance the purchase. Once the church, now named Friedens Kirche (Peace Church) was built, the congregation worked diligently to provide for the spiritual needs of the German Lutheran community and every member would do their part. For example, at a meeting in 1901, they voted to require that each member be present at all meetings in order to vote. Lacking an excuse such as sickness meant a 25-cent fine paid into the treasury to regain voting status.
A weather-worn Friedens Kirche (Peace Church).
To help pay for the church’s expenses, the church land was rented back for pasture or cropland to one or more of the membership. This rental income, $35 in the early years, increased to $50 in 1907 which helped finance the mortgage on a parsonage. 

By this time, the congregation was affiliated with the Ohio Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Fifty dollars per year was a typical salary for a rural pastor in those days. In the absence of a pastor, Gustav Friedemann, patriarch of the family, was frequently paid for his services as reader and Sunday School leader.

And so it went, the Peace Congregation could not keep a pastor for long despite the parsonage it built. The association with the Ohio Synod was brief as most synods found it difficult to support German-speaking parishes so far from the home office.
During the first sixteen years, the congregation was served by eight pastors representing different synods. Stillwater also had a German-speaking Lutheran congregation and as the automobile became the popular means of transportation, the possibility of the two congregations merging grew more likely. In addition, the two congregations shared pastors sent by the various missions.

Around 1910, in an estate by a man named of Probst, 80 acres was to be given to the first English-speaking Lutheran congregation to be organized in Stillwater. With the assistance of Dr. G.K. Wiencke, a traveling minister and mission secretary for the German Evangelical Lutheran church, Nebraska Synod, a charter was written. And in December 1911, a certificate of incorporation from the state of Oklahoma shows registration of the Evangelical Lutheran Friedens (Salem) Church.

Resulting from their association with the Nebraska Synod, the communicants were considered a mission congregation, and their pastor were trained in the European tradition. This meant services in German despite the membership becoming more fluent in English. The 80-acre parcel willed to the church was purchased by Robert Friedemann and the proceeds were used to purchase property containing the former Baptist Church located at Ninth Avenue and Duncan Street.

Other than the church itself, the Duncan Street corner was barren, but it contained a deep lot in back, certainly large enough to support a parsonage. Members were anxious to for this kind of option in order to attract a longer serving pastor. Fortunately, they were able to finance a two-bedroom home with a stable with some of the proceeds from the Probst estate. However, the church was lost to a fire and another rebuilt in 1923. The new building had a belfry with a bell and steeple a privilege denied the membership back in Russia.

In the meantime, the original Peace congregation west of Stillwater was in decline. By 1914, Gustav and Auguste Friedemann had joined other early pioneers in the little cemetery near the church. The life of the Marena Church came to an end in 1921. The property was transferred to the Evangelical Synod of North America for management with the stipulation that any proceeds were to pay outstanding debts of the church. In 1929, the property was sold to Robert’s son, Paul Friedemann, Half of the proceeds were directed to missions and the balance to the Salem congregation in Stillwater.

The Marena church building was lost to the Lake Carl Blackwell drainage area in 1935, but the cemetery was preserved. It was deeded to Salem Lutheran Church and continues to be used for interment to this present day.
The Journey to Present Day.

During the early years in Stillwater, Salem conducted its services in German and English. Salem did not become an English language church until 1943. At that time, the Central States Synod made it clear that it would not be possible to fill the pulpit again unless English was spoken. After World War II and with the incorporation of English on Sunday mornings, more university families became members of the congregation.

As early as 1948, a new church site was considered with the Duck Street and Elm Avenue location in mind. In 1949, the congregation approved a $7,500 mortgage to purchase property at that location and authorized another $13,500 for the building program. At that time, the membership comprised of 157 baptized and 99 communicant individuals.
Reconstructed after the 1923 fire Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church 9th and Duncan, Stillwater
Besides the need of a larger, more modern facility, Salem wanted to better serve a growing university community since the National Lutheran Council asked the congregation to serve Lutheran students on the Oklahoma A&M campus. Due to the heavy financial burden that the congregation had taken on in purchasing the property, the building of the new church would have to wait. Several years would pass and the dedication of the new building took place in September 1956. The new church had a very distinctive “mid-century” design, a different appearance compared to many traditional Lutheran churches at that time. It is interesting to note that Donald Hollis, who was the architect, submitted a preliminary plan for a parabolic design that was pleasing to the congregation. However, the United Lutheran Church in America Board of Architecture rejected it. After a few minor changes in the drawings, the plan was approved. The construction contract was awarded to Hoke Construction.
Architects rendering for the first nave at 101 South Duck Street.
The building was made of red brick exterior and Haydite light-weight block. The seating capacity in the Nave was 150 with an overflow seating of 100 more in the fellowship hall. There were eight Sunday School rooms and the plan allowed for more as funds were available. The original interior consisted of the Nave ceiling painted in Caribbean blue coming down over the chancel and behind the large white cross. The sidewalls in the Nave were painted platinum, the pews made from Philippine mahogany, and the floor covered with golden brown carpet.

Salem continued to grow and by 1970, membership consisted of 322 baptized, 210 confirmed and 77 children. Sunday School capacity was only around 60. As a result, an educational unit was built and dedicated in 1972. In 1982, the old electric organ that had been employed since the 1940s was deemed unrepairable and needed replacement. A custom-built Steiner pipe organ designed specifically for the sanctuary was installed in the church balcony. Salem has been blessed by this 12 rank, 550 pipe musical instrument during our worship settings ever since. Expansion of the kitchen, parish hall, offices, and education areas were dedicated in 2000. In 2016, the sanctuary was beautified, new stained-glass windows added, and the parking lot was paved.
One additional event is worth a mention. As we all know, tornados are a very real possibility in Oklahoma and on May 15, 1990 around 7:50 pm, one such occurrence happened in Stillwater. Unfortunately, Salem was caught in the damage path. The church building suffered extensive water damage as the roof covering the main sanctuary and fellowship hall was completely ripped off and other sections effected by wind and water.

The collateral damage would have been worse had several church committees not been meeting on location that evening. When the sirens blew, all sought cover in the basement. When members came back up, they quickly worked to save what they could from further damage from the rain falling inside the building. With the help of a multitude of volunteers, much of the church’s contents were moved to a vacant Lutheran student chapel located on the western end of the OSU campus. The congregation carried on its regular worship at this location while the Elm Street church underwent extensive repair. With insurance compensation, and the generous financial support of Salem’s membership and external donors, a nearly $100,000 refurbishing project was accomplished and a rededication took five months later in November. Pastor Emlyn Ott remarked at the time, “The storm offered opportunities and blessings because it showed us the healing power of God’s grace manifested in the love of friends and members working together toward a common goal.” Once again, it was another example of the many trials and subsequent triumphs that Salem has faced over the years.

In summary, one has a deep admiration for those German pioneers who risked everything that they had known and loved, in exchange for a land they had never seen and knew nothing about. With an indomitable spirit, they carved out a new life with few resources, money or missionary funds. Salem is much more than a church building that exists today. Our foundation was built on the rich legacy of a deep faith continually challenged by grief, doubt or personal loss. Salem is a generous congregation that offers material and spiritual comfort to a world in desperate need of hope and love. One can only imagine the many prayers offered back in the day, looking up at the heavens under the canopy of the Oklahoma blue sky. Maybe one such appeal went something like this:

“Help us to plow deep and harrow fine. Bless our seed onto good earth, O Lord, and let it bear a hundredfold. We ask you enable and inspire our church members to use their spiritual gifts to serve each other and those around us. Make us strong, but humble; just, but kind; and every day, rain or shine, remind us to smile. We thank thee, for thine is the power and glory, forever more. Amen.”

May the abundant legacy of Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church inspire you to strengthen your daily faith, praising and serving God.

Acknowledgement goes to Jene Friedemann “Bread for the Third Generation” and a research paper by Lois Belden entitled “Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church: A Legacy of Imperial Russia”.

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