By Geoff Elterich
For over a century, the beautiful red brick church, with two spires has stood in the middle of Arch Street in the heart of New Britain. The remarkable presence of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is matched by its influence throughout the community.
Next year is the church’s 125th anniversary. Although much of the scenery around the church has changed, its commitment to its parishioners, the Arch Street community, and those most in need throughout New Britain has never been stronger.
According to its 100 Year Anniversary booklet, the church was founded in 1892 by German immigrants who wanted to maintain their cultural and religious roots while seeking out the economic opportunities available in the US, specifically the factories of “The Hardware City.” These immigrants held services at New Britain’s YMCA until they were able to open the newly constructed church on Arch Street in 1897.
The members of St. John’s Church were dedicated to helping the community early on. In 1893, the year New Britain General Hospital was incorporated and electric trolleys first began to operate, the Frauen Verein (Ladies Aid) became the first auxiliary group of the church. They provided relief to widows and orphans through visits and donations. In 1911, a Youth Group was formed. A Men’s Group began in 1915, and in that same year, the church started to sponsor a Boy Scouts and a Girl Scouts Troop, according to the anniversary booklet.
The Church’s dedication continues to this day. Beginning in 1993, a group of women known as the Quilters has met to produce quilts which they then distribute to local hospitals, state police, and the neo-natal center at UConn Medical Center. The Women of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) coordinate donations twice a year for several non-profits in the city, such as the Prudence Crandall Center. They have also donated “blankets of love” to the Friendship Service Center for children living in the Arch Street housing apartments, and provided towels and sweatshirts to homeless veterans in the city. Through the New Beginnings program, started in 2013, the church collects school uniforms for elementary school children in New Britain. They have collected enough uniforms for 110 children.
There are many people in need of vital services and supplies throughout New Britain, especially in the poverty-stricken Arch Street area. Anne Dietrich, who has worked as an Office Administrator for St. John’s for seven years and has been with the church her whole life, has witnessed firsthand the hardships faced by those in the community. She is proud of the work St. John’s does, and like many others who dedicate their lives to helping others, Anne believes charitable work benefits those giving it as much as those receiving it.
“It’s good to be in a place where you are needed,” said Dietrich.
St. John’s understands the needs of its community and does its best to meet them. According to Dietrich St. John’s collects non-perishable food items for local food pantries throughout the year. They also collect monthly hunger offerings to support the ELCA’s Hunger Appeal as well as the food pantries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Osgood Food Pantry, Salvation Army, and the Friendship Service Center.
St. John’s understands the community so well because they see themselves as an important part of it. Pastor Rod Rinell, who started as Interim Pastor last June and is in the process of becoming full time Pastor, said that because of the church’s immigrant roots, they know what it’s like to be an outsider dealing with the feeling of alienation and oftentimes, discrimination.
“The church was always a great way to deal with that feeling of isolation. Churches provide community; it’s an essential part of what we do,” said Rinell, “We are not just a part of the community, we want to create community. That is our fundamental outreach: helping people find grace and acceptance. Many are able to find a greater sense of functioning in the world because of our beliefs and practices.”
St. John’s dedication to providing support and comfort to those who need it is readily apparent. Their Youth Group exists as a support network for the younger generation, a generation which, as Pastor Rinell points out, “has more choices than ever before. In their careers, their relationships, everything. It can be overwhelming.”
While the church does consistent outreach to the youth, but the majority of their members are elderly. Pastor Rinell states, “We have a large elderly population in our congregation and they have their own issues. They can also feel isolated.” He does many home visits to help people feel connected and let them know people care about them. Rinell also does some hospital visits and wants to create a deeper connection with the two large hospitals in the city, considering their proximity to the church.
“The sick obviously need support, but the healthcare workers also need it,” Rinell said, “They are dealing with stress, coping with tragedy. People need hope. Caregivers need to feel like they matter, too, like they are a part of a bigger community.”
As the years have gone by, some of the church’s members have spread to surrounding towns such as Berlin and Bristol, and like many churches throughout the country, they are struggling to attain new members. However, despite the declining numbers, St. John’s dedication to its members and the community in which it resides has never wavered. They are committed to their church’s mission and to helping those in need.
St. John’s is also committed to their goal of creating a sense of community. On Arch Street, they are located in the heart of New Britain’s Latino population. Every week, a Latino congregation, La Primera Iglesia de Dios, uses their facilities. According to Pastor Rinell the church is always doing outreach because they want to feel more closely connected to those around them. In spite of its negative reputation, Pastor Rinell finds the people of Arch Street to be very friendly.
“I got a haircut recently, and whenever I walk down the street, everybody is so nice. People actually chat with each other!” said Rinell.
St. John’s is committed to the people they serve and their community as a whole. They are also committed to keeping their history alive. Every year, St. John’s holds a German-language Christmas mass to honor their roots. According to Dietrich the visiting Pastor who holds the service recently retired, so they are in search of a replacement. But for a church founded by poor immigrants, who rented out a spare room at the YMCA to hold services every Sunday for four years, before finally having a building of their own, it seems like just another obstacle to overcome.