When Madison and its surrounding areas were being settled, many of these new communities were brought together by their places of worship so that the settlers — often immigrants — could gather together and celebrate their faith in their own language or tradition.
Now, more than 150 years later in some cases, there are few remaining buildings still standing from that bygone era. The handful that are still standing represent the dedication, determination and dreams of those who erected them.
One church building in particular, First Lutheran Church in Middleton, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and the modest white church still resides on its corner of Old Sauk and Pleasant View roads.
Other religious organizations in the area have congregations that exceed 150 years in age, but the original buildings that housed them eventually met some demise or another.
But four buildings in Madison and nearby Middleton stand out as spaces that defied the ravages of time and the wrecking ball to remain as artifacts of the area’s history.
First Lutheran Church
In its early days, First Lutheran was known as “the big white church on the hill”, but those who speak of it now know it as “the little white church on the hill.”
A lot has changed with the little church in 150 years and the dedication of a group of volunteers hope to keep positive changes coming.
Services began in the homes of congregation members in 1852. A small log church was constructed for services in 1854, but it wasn’t long before the congregation outgrew its original home.
The First Lutheran Evangelical Church was erected in 1866 by the 31 German families associated with the congregation — which was double the membership from the original 14 families.
Families each had to contribute $82 for the new church, said Mae Hartwig whose grandparents were some of the builders.
“Each family had to go to Madison and pick up supplies in order to build the church,” she said.
Services at First Lutheran were done in German from the time the congregation began until services stopped at the church in 1947.
Now the church is home to weddings, funerals, the occasional baptism and at least two services a year.
It’s the special events held at First Lutheran that, in part, keep the building funded and functional.
The church hosts seven or nine weddings a year, but used to host 23, said Ann Walser, a trustee and the church’s wedding coordinator.
“One year we had 30 something,” said Hartwig, a former trustee for more than 30 years.
The church doesn’t have heating or air conditioning and the wedding season is May through October.
Despite generous donations, grants and rental income, maintaining a historical building is not without its financial pitfalls.
The 150-year-old building is facing major repairs and the board of trustees have collected $75,000 of the $130,000 needed to complete all of the projects, said Alice Drake, a First Lutheran Board of Trustees member.
The church community is marking their anniversary with a service at the First Lutheran at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, followed by a sold-out buffet and music celebration at Kalscheur Park.
Grace Episcopal Church
In 1839, when a group of people came together to form the congregation that built Downtown’s Grace Episcopal Church, Madison was a much different place.
According to church reception desk volunteer Jane Henning, the population was 63 people.
The original church was a quaint brick chapel built in 1850 that was replaced by the current building in 1858, Henning said.
Unlike other churches of its time, however, Grace Episcopal was not founded by a particular group of immigrants.
“They weren’t connected with any particular country,” said Henning, who has been a church member since 1967 and an active volunteer in several capacities for many years. “We were diversified early on and we certainly are now.”
Henning said in 1858, when the Gothic-style sandstone church was erected, there were 80 families and 300 individuals in the congregation and today there are 231 families and 465 individuals.
The towering steeple was added in 1870 and the bells arrived in 1874, according to Henning.
In 1989, the congregation celebrated their 150th anniversary, which Henning helped to plan.
“Garrison Keillor came to town to do a benefit for the shelter and we ended with a church service with music that had been commissioned especially,” Henning said. “Our choir is absolutely magnificent, our organ is divine — it was grand.”
Gates of Heaven Synagogue
Madison’s small Jewish community in 1856 founded the Ahavat Achim (Brotherly Love) congregation that was later renamed Shaare Shomaim (Gates of Heaven), according to Steven Morrison, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison from 1984 to 2010.
“These first Jewish immigrants to Madison were part of what was known then as ‘German Reformers,’” Morrison said. Today it’s known as Reform Judaism, he said. Much like other congregations at the time, they began meeting in the homes of members before the synagogue was built in 1863.
There were 17 Jewish families living here when the synagogue was built, said Gates of Heaven Preservation Fund volunteer Judy Sidran.
The Victorian Romanesque building, originally located on the 200 block of West Washington Avenue, was designed by August Kutzbock who also designed the second capitol state building, Morrison said.
By the 1870s, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue fell into disuse and the facility’s few remaining members rented it out to several groups including the Unitarian Society and the Christian Science Church. According to Morrison, the congregation dissolved in 1922.
Gates of Heaven faced demolition in 1970 when the Fiore Coal and Oil Company — the building’s owner at the time — wanted to build a new office at the site. But citizens organized by Norton and Lois Stoler were able to successfully raise funds and place the building on the National Register of Historic Places, Morrison said
The city of Madison and volunteers received federal money to help with the $60,000 moving costs, Morrison said.
“The building was successfully moved by jacking it up on 96 aircraft wheels and rolling it one mile through Downtown Madison streets to James Madison Park,” he said.
Now the building is maintained in a group effort between the City of Madison and community volunteers, according to Ann Shea, spokeswoman for the parks division.
Holy Redeemer Catholic Church
Before Holy Redeemer was built, the congregation at St. Raphael’s was predominantly Irish and one-third German, so there was discontent within the church community about the language used.
“In the Catholic world, the mass and sacraments were celebrated in Latin at that time for 100 years more,” said Msgr. Kevin Holmes. “So, in that sense there was no language problem, but the sermon, of course, was in the language of the people.”
The German members of the congregation wanted to be able to hear the sermon, give confession and have their children educated in their own language, he said.
Holy Redeemer parish was founded in 1857 and they built a little brick church which housed the congregation until the stone church was erected in 1866 and completed in 1869. Holmes said there may have been a small frame church before the brick church was built.
German was the standard for Holy Redeemer until 1905 when the first English sermon was given and it is said that the Rev. Alois Zitterl wept at the milestone , according to Holmes.