FLATVILLE – Russell Buhr quotes a story by the late Jerry Meier, who was about 3 years old when he accompanied his parents to the dedication service of the new Immanuel Lutheran Church building in Flatville.
It was January 1915. They lived about 6 miles from church. They had to travel by horse and buggy. And it was cold. Twenty-below-zero cold.
The frozen family made it OK, but it wasn’t a pleasant trip.
The story underscores the importance the German population and other residents of that area gave to attending worship service. They wouldn’t let a little thing like below-zero weather deter them.
That resolve has remained steadfast. Just like the church building that was dedicated that day.
The church is dubbed "the cathedral in the cornfield" because its soaring steeple can be seen for miles around the horizontal expanse of the area. A service marking the 100th anniversary of the dedication will be held Sunday, Jan. 18 with a worship service at 10:15 a.m. followed by a meal and a program.
The Rev. James Lehmann, the current pastor, said among those participating will be former pastor the Rev. Russell Mueller, Herbert Hafermann, who grew up in the area, and Marlene Zenker, whose husband was pastor of the church in the 1970s.
The building is actually the third one built by the congregation, which was begun in 1874 by the East Fresians or Ostfrieslanders who came to this country from near the North Sea in Germany between Holland and the Weser River. But the first two buildings proved to be too small for the burgeoning congregation, which Buhr, chairman of the church’s historical committee, said averaged about 600, with an average of about 300 in Sunday school, in the 1940s-1960s. (The church membership list was about 1,000.)
"At one time the majority were farm families," Buhr said. "There are still quite a few farmers (in the congregation). And there’s people who come several miles away, who come from Rantoul, Tolono or Royal because they grew up in the church."
The first Ostfrieslanders came to Champaign County from Golden, Ill., in the 1860s. Those early settlers did what no one around wanted to do — drain the swampy land of the region using ox-drawn scrapers and creating channels as drainage ditches until it became some of the richest farmland in Illinois. The drainage didn’t happen overnight. The area from Flatville to Thomasboro was a solid lake during the rainy season and an unwanted "skating rink" during the winter.
In his history of Champaign County written in 1969, Richard L. Morgan wrote, "The indomitable German Lutherans gradually converted a morass into some of the finest farming land anywhere."
The deeply religious German immigrants first held worship services in Maple Grove School, 2 miles west and ¼ mile south of Flatville. Two years later, the first congregational meeting was held, and the first church building was built on the site of the present church.
The second church building was built in 1887, and while large enough to hold all the worshippers in winter, it was too small for summer when more people could make it to church, Buhr said.
For the Jan. 18 service, the church is calling back as many former pastors as possible. One of them is the Rev. Russell Mueller, who served from 1962-1969.
Mueller, who now lives in Paso Robles, Calif., was the first pastor to officiate over English-speaking-only services.
Until that time there were both German-speaking and English-speaking services.
"When I came there I implied that I didn’t speak German at all (even though he did) because I wasn’t good at it," Mueller said from his California home.
"It was quite evident that the church had to change.
"It went quite smooth. There was no hard feelings at all."
Like many of those early Flatville-area settlers, the 83-year-old Mueller came from Golden.
"The Golden and the Flatville Germans, there’s a lot of interrelationships there," he said.
Interested in the communication field, Mueller convinced the owners of the then-fledgling WRTL radio station of Rantoul to begin broadcasting Immanuel Lutheran services.
"A number of months before they were beginning, they were still building the building and the tower, and I went by to talk to them and suggest the possibility. We broadcast right after they began," Mueller said.
At the time, Immanuel Lutheran had only one worship service. The only time the church could get on the air was early, so it went to two services — at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. The 8 a.m. service was broadcast live. Services now are broadcast by WPXN, Paxton.
Mueller was also one of the area ministers who presented sermonettes at the end of the broadcast day on a Champaign television station.
The Rev. Ernest E. Moehl was Immanuel Lutheran’s longest-serving pastor. He served for 43 years, retiring in September 1938 and moving to Champaign. He was pastor when the new church was built.
Lehmann has served the congregation since 1996. In 2005, the Rev. Barb Busboom became a part-time visitation pastor, a position the congregation made a permanent one the following year. In 2014, the Rev. Cindy Bisser became associate pastor at the church.
"We serve the congregation joyfully," Lehmann said. "We feel the congregation is a strong congregation. It has always been very involved in global missions."
The mission festival has been held every year since 1874.
The church has made numerous building changes over the years, ranging from redecorating to the addition of a Sunday school wing and adding a drive-under canopy and elevator in 2010.
It was that year that the church had a fire in the sacristy area.
"It was right before we were going to redecorate, so we did a total redecorate, put in brand new pews and everything new," Buhr said.
The Sunday school building was constructed in 1954. Buhr, who is 62, was 3 when he started in the brand new Sunday school building.
There have been three parsonages. The first one built in 1875 was 32 feet long and 16 feet wide with 12-foot ceilings. That same year the congregation decided to build the pastor a barn big enough to hold a cow and a horse.
Parsonage No. 2 was built in 1898 with five rooms downstairs and four upstairs at a cost of $1,801.
The third parsonage was built at the same time the new Sunday school building was erected in 1954, replacing the second parsonage, which was sold at auction and moved about 3 miles east and 2 miles north of Flatville. To accommodate the part-time assistant pastor, another parsonage was built in 1965. Later it was not needed and became known as the "mission house." It is used by a quilting group, which has made several hundred quilts each year for Lutheran World Relief.