EAU CLAIRE — You never really know what’s going to happen when you create an organization. Success or failure depends on the smallest things. That’s particularly true when what is being founded is a new church.
Enduring takes the right mix of people. Families must be able to get along at least enough to create a sense of belonging and community. Leadership, both clergy and laypeople, have to nurture those relationships. It’s a challenge, and not every congregation makes it.
Seven Eau Claire families were the beginning of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, located at 601 Fall St., which is celebrating its centennial this year. It’s hard to imagine they would have expected where their work would eventually lead.
“I would say we’re in excess of 400 [members],” said Paul Boetcher, one of the people helping organize the yearlong celebration with which the church is marking its 100th anniversary. A quick check shows that, if anything, he was a bit low. There are currently 481 members.
The actual anniversary will be marked Nov. 30, said Don Ginder, another of the celebration’s organizers. A look back shows how much has been accomplished in those years.
Our Redeemer sprang from another Eau Claire church, Epiphany Lutheran. It, Jean Ginder said, simply ran out of space. The congregation was big enough it needed one of two things: to expand the building or spin off a new church. When Epiphany leaders approached the synod about the latter, they received permission to create what became Our Redeemer.
The synod “told them to find an area on the north side that would be a good location that didn’t have a church,” Jean said. What they found was a space at Birch and Fall streets, where the church remains. The synod sent a new pastor, who Jean said went door to door to invite people to the new congregation.
Initial services took place in the house that was on the lot, but that didn’t last long. So they erected the first purpose-built church on the site.
“Once they were able to get the church up and running, they outgrew that, too,” Jean said. “There were so many kids they couldn’t handle them all, so they added on to the back side.”
An educational wing was added in 1955, dedicated along with the parsonage. And, within a remarkably short time frame, the church outgrew those spaces. The current building dates to its dedication in 1969. The sanctuary reflects that, with the angular geometry that was common for that period. But the roots remain, if you know where to look.
Take a series of stairs and doorways that clearly predate wheelchair accessibility requirements and you can find a reminder of what once was. A small chapel built as part of the earlier church remains intact. It’s not large. A sign says it’s the nursery now and a couple rocking chairs attest to that use. But it retains a small altar and the space is clearly from another era.
That combination of the old and the new isn’t unique to Our Redeemer, of course. Many institutions find ways to incorporate history when they need to expand their physical space. But the ties to those decades aren’t just structural. They’re in the people.
“I started going through the membership roster and trying to figure out how many people had been here all their lives,” Don said. He found more than 65 lifelong members over 40 years of age. “I never expected that many. I think the oldest member is 88, and she’s been here since she was born.”
The past several decades have seen many congregations in all faiths struggle with membership declines. Jean and Paul said Our Redeemer’s success in continuing to build is due to multiple factors. They credited the efforts to stay connected during the COVID pandemic with helping immensely.
Daily devotions were posted each weekday, allowing clergy to continue reaching the members. And Sunday services went online, hosted by the pastor and just a couple musicians for accompaniment.
“We actually had weekly church services even though we were not together,” Paul said. “That helped keep us together. It attracted a lot of other people as well.”
Rev. Jeff Carlson was credited with being able to connect to members young and old, a trait every pastor wants but not all possess. And that plays into what Paul said is a major strength for the congregation.
“It’s a very giving church,” he said.
Finding volunteers to help isn’t usually a challenge. When things need to get done, people step up to make sure they are taken care of. Those interactions, which are outside of formal services or groups, help reinforce the bonds that keep congregations strong.
As the 100th anniversary approached, Our Redeemer found itself in a couple events that linked past and present. No one thought about keeping the bell from the previous church on the site when it was demolished. Members were able to track it down, though, and it turned out they were able to reacquire it. There are plans for construction of a small belfry to house the bell, though it’s not up quite yet.
Then there’s the change that began about a decade ago. Epiphany Lutheran, the church from which Our Redeemer spun off, was faced with the challenge of declining membership and rising costs. The dual blow is tough for any congregation to recover from, and Epiphany couldn’t manage it.
“They continued to have financial problems,” Don said. “So they dissolved. All their members transferred.”
So in 2015, after nearly a century of separation, the two congregations came together again. There were always ties between the two, but unification brought the process full circle.
And this year, they’re celebrating together.