In November 1857, the Rev. G. Henry Vossler, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wilkes-Barre, rode on horseback to Pittston to conduct a Lutheran service in a schoolhouse for 50 residents, largely German immigrants.
Pittston — carved out of Pittston Twp. only four years earlier — was a bustling coal, rail and canal town of 3,700. Pittston was growing and, as the Rev. Vossler saw it, ripe for a new Lutheran Church. The reverend and the men of first church council — John Schmalz, John Kneppmann, Fred Swartz, J. Kammer, L. Luft, J. Bechtold, J. Fritz and A. Rupp — founded the church they called St. John’s Lutheran on Nov. 22, 1857.
This weekend, on Sunday, Nov. 12, the church is celebrating its 160th anniversary with a celebratory worship service at 1 p.m. and a post service dinner at Jenkins Twp. Hose Company.
For seven years after the church’s founding, services were held in that same schoolhouse in the hilltop section of Pittston, 20 years before the section was incorporated as Hughestown.
In May 1858, the church was accepted into the Pennsylvania Ministerium, a Lutheran umbrella organization founded in Philadelphia in the 1700s. In October 1861, St. John’s was officially incorporated. In 1863, under Pastor C. Oeffinger, the Pennsylvania Coal Company donated land on Wood Street for $1. A cornerstone for a church was laid in October and on Dec. 22, just in time for Christmas services, the new $2,000 church was dedicated.
When the new church opened some of the congregants from the Hughestown area broke away and formed St. Peter’s.
Groups formed among St. John’s women, including the Ladies Aid Society, or Frauen Verein, and the Sister League. The groups raised money for a new organ built in Germany and a parsonage.
The church opened a Sunday school in 1864 and a German language day school in 1872, with six teachers and 34 students whose parents paid $25 per month tuition. The school was moved to Race Street in West Pittston and closed in 1898.
In the early years of St. John’s, services were in German. English services began in 1895.
In 1913, St. John’s got in trouble with the Pennsylvania Ministerium, which blamed the St. John’s congregation when the pastor defected to the Catholic Church. St. John’s broke off with the Pennsylvania Ministerium and joined the Missouri Synod, which it is still affiliated with today.
In 1917, a new church — the current church building being used today — was built on the site of the old church, which was braced, put on rollers and moved out of the way. Church members supplied the labor for the move. Those who couldn’t help with the labor were asked to donate a day’s wage.
As described in the church’s 150th anniversary booklet, after a service in the old church, a procession was led to the new church. Builder D.A. Schwarts gave the keys the Rev. Edward Kraus, pastor. He opened the doors for the oldest parishioner, Andrew Munson, to enter first.
In the 1980s, women took leadership roles for the first time: Mary Margaret Bobbouine was the first female Sunday school superintendent; Laurelda Blockus and Betty Thomas were the first female council members.
The longest serving pastor was the Rev. Russell Kerns, who served from 1985 until his death in 2008. He was in his 90s in April 2008 when he collapsed outside the church on the way to service. He oversaw many improvements including air conditioning, a new heating system, roof, carpeting and remodeled kitchen. With money raised through a recycling project, he funded trips for the Sunday school kids to Disney World.
In 2011, the Rev. John Castellani was coaxed out of retirement in Ohio. He served until 2014, when he died suddenly.
Since the Rev. Castellani’s death, the parish has gone through a half dozen interim pastors. Today, the church faces problems typical of many parishes of different faiths — an aging congregation and dwindling finances.
Even so, there is hope and optimism. As Sharleen Palaima wrote in the church’s 160th anniversary booklet: “All in all St. John’s has richly received blessings from Almighty God, and has shared those blessings with others throughout her 160 years. Our hope and prayer as a congregation is that the future continues to be as outstanding as St. John’s present and past.”
Sources: Digital archives of the Pittston Gazette, St. John’s history written by Ferdinand Endres, Jesse Lipfert, Gary Blockus in 1982 and amended by Sharleen Palamia in 2007 and 2017.