Schenectady

Schenectady’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church celebrates 150 years

Deaconess Jean Wildgrube, of Rexford, speaks about their 150th anniversary at Zion Lutheran Church in Schenectady
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Deaconess Jean Wildgrube, of Rexford, speaks about their 150th anniversary at Zion Lutheran Church in Schenectady

SCHENECTADY — Lynn Manning has fond memories of the cheeseburgers she and her friends used to purchase from Carrols during bible study breaks at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.

It was the early 1970s, just before McDonald’s would go on to revolutionize the fast-food industry, and the now-defunct hamburger stand was located next door to the church on Nott Terrace, which Manning joined in 1965.  

“You could go next door during the confirmation break and get a hamburger for 15 cents and a cheeseburger for 17 cents,” she recalled last week. 

In August, Manning will be one of dozens of former Zion Youth Group members from 1972 who will gather in Schenectady from across the country to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary and commemorate the church’s 150th year. 

An itinerary is still being developed, but the gathering of 65 speaks volumes about the impact the church has had on its members, said Manning, a Rexford resident who remains an active member to this day. 

“How many people have a group like that from 50 years ago, where we’re still — even though we’re all over the country — able to maintain connections?” she said. “It’s 150 years at Zion, and we’re 50 of those. This really is a wonderful place.”

Founded as the Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church on March 17, 1872 by a group of individuals belonging to the city’s German Methodist Church, the congregation quickly outgrew its original home in the former Congregational Church along Jay Street and moved to its current location at 153 Nott Terrace in 1888 after purchasing the property from Union College for $3,000. 

Since then, the church — which adopted its current name in 1941 — has been woven into Schenectady’s fabric, experiencing periods of challenge and prosperity as the city around it navigated its own rise and economic downturn brought on by the decline of General Electric and the American Locomotive Co. in the years following World War II. 

Zion Evangelical has remained a welcoming fellowship throughout it all, hosting bible studies, Sunday school classes and establishing a number of outreach programs to assist struggling community members over the years. The church has also undergone a number of renovations and expansions over the years.

Outreach efforts ramped up in the 1980s under the watchful eye of Rev. Paul F.G. Wildgrube, who became the church’s fourth senior pastor in 1976. He would serve until 2003. 

Under Wildgrube’s leadership, Zion Evangelical expanded its bible study and youth programs, created a music program and began bringing communion to congregates too ill to attend services. 

The church also added a preschool and began strengthening ties with other community organizations, like the City Mission of Schenectady, Schenectady Community Ministries and the Schenectady Day Nursery. 

“He just felt that we needed to be part of the community, that we can’t just be a ministry unto ourselves, but that the gospel needs to be outreach to other people. That love of Jesus needs to filter down into the community in words and in actions,” Wildgrube’s wife and church deaconess, Jean Wildgrube, said.

Wildgrube died in 2013. The church renamed its Friendship Room in his honor, where a timeline detailing the church’s 150-year history is currently on display. The church is also planning to commemorate the 150th anniversary by opening a time capsule that was buried in one of its flower garden 25 years ago. 

Today, Zion Evangelical continues to adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic. In a balcony that hosts the church’s choir and pipe organ sits various electrical equipment needed to livestream church services, an investment necessitated by the onset of the virus.  

The church has also partnered with its daughter ministries, Immanuel and Trinity Lutheran churches to develop ways to better serve the community. The two churches broke off from Zion Evangelical in the early 1900s. 

“The pandemic really brought us together,” Manning said. 

In the rear of the church sits a storage closet full of shelves stacked with canned food, clothing, toiletries and children’s books, that’s used as a base of operations for Schenectady Street Soldiers, a local nonprofit that distributes meals and other necessities to those in need.

The group approached the church two years ago seeking permission to use its parking lot for its weekly food drives and meal giveaways, which attract upwards of 170 individuals, a number that has increased as a result of the pandemic.  

The church not only allowed them to use the parking lot, but dedicated an entire room for storage, and church members donate supplies on a weekly basis.

Jean Wildgrube bakes around 10 dozen cookies for distribution every week.

“I’ve got a sign on the door, it says ‘home sweet home,’” said Nancy Furey, a volunteer with Schenectady Street Soldiers. “We couldn’t have grown as much as we have and couldn’t have helped as many people as we have been able to. To store all this — it’s incredible.”

Last July, the church installed a new senior pastor, Rev. Francis S.B. Rigobert, following a lengthy search exacerbated by the emergence of the pandemic. 

Rigobert said he hopes to continue the church’s long history of serving the community and touching the lives of church members, and to continue to deliver the gospel.

“Here I am obeying God’s call and I have never regretted it,” Rigobert said. “It has been a blessing.”

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

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