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A downtown fixture
By Chris Young

Anchored firmly to a corner diagonally across from the Illinois State Capitol, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church is a downtown fixture that has resisted pressure to pull up roots and move.

"It's a challenge, but I think it's important that we are here," says the Rev. Thomas Radtke, who has been at Trinity since 1983, when he arrived to be associate pastor.

He became head pastor in 2007.

"This is a historic congregation, and there is a certain flavor that this church has," he says. "Could we preach our sermons out west or take our school out west? Sure."

But there's something about having a historic church provide a spiritual presence across from the seat of government.

It's something even the protesters that are bussed in to lobby at the Capitol understand.

Radtke says many - but not all - call out of courtesy to say they are having a march or some event going past the corner in the event some church function might be inadvertently disrupted.

"I don't think it's sacred ground, but...," he says.

The present church building was dedicated in 1889, not long after the capitol building was finished in 1888. 

The congregation got its start in 1841, meeting in the home of the Rev. Francis Springer.

That building is now owned by the National Park Service and is known as the Arnold House. It sits across Jackson Street from the Lincoln Home.

Springer already had been ministering to area Lutherans for two years and ran a school in his home. He called the new church he started in his home the Lutheran Church of Springfield.

For a decade, members met in various homes before purchasing a church building at Third and Washington streets that formerly housed First Presbyterian Church.

For $800, the congregation had a permanent home.

Over the next nine years, church members started to divide into English- and German-speaking congregations (a group of German-speaking Lutherans eventually formed Trinity).

At one point in the 1880s, two German Lutheran congregations both occupied churches on Washington Street.

The flow of German-speaking Lutherans into the area fueled church growth and the formation of Concordia Seminary in 1875 on ground formerly occupied by Illinois State University. It's now home to offices of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

During this period, the congregation occupied a church with three steeples. Church records are unclear if the Trinity name inspired the design or if the design inspired the name.

In any event, the unique building was home for 29 years, until the present structure was commissioned and built for $16,000.

St. Louis architect Charles Frederick May got the job. It was noted he was the pastor's son-in-law.

The present building underwent a major renovation in 1940. Wrap-around balconies were removed. The balconies provided limited seating and blocked the colorful stained-glass windows.

Detailed woodwork and carvings dominate the chancel and alter. The artwork is credited to Alois Lang of Grand Rapids, Mich. 

"It's probably the most valuable piece in the church," says church historian Stuart Fliege. "There aren't many people who do that anymore."

Surrounding the carving of Christ with outstretched arms are 10 symbols having to do with the crucifixion.

One shows a small bag with coins, representing the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for turning Jesus over to the Roman authorities.

"If you want to count them, they're there," Fliege says.

The Cassavant organ built into the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary was installed in 1972.

The Trinity Lutheran congregation was instrumental in the formation of Memorial Medical Center. 

The Springfield Hospital and Training School opened its doors in 1897.Although the church ended its affiliation with the hospital - originally established to be an infirmary for the Concordia Seminary - Radtke says it shows the vision of the congregation.

The church also maintains its school, presently located on MacArthur Boulevard. Trinity Lutheran School was established in 1860, long before the current church building made it to the drawing board.

"The school has impacted our congregation and the people of the community more than anything," Radtke says.

"There was a time when you didn't start a congregation without a school," he says. "They saw it as a mission."

Radtke says a lot of history and tradition remain, but times do change.A stone nameplate on the building's front once displayed the church's name chiseled in German. 

The stone was removed, turned around and the name recarved in English. Fliege says the German side now faces inward.

"To conduct our missions you don't even have to have one of these," says Radtke, spreading his arms to indicate the church building where he is standing.

"But it is to the glory of God and an aid to worship."


Story published Friday, March 4, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 2 )

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