AUBURN -- Six-and-a-half miles off the paved highway, down a gravel road -- past the homesteads of some of Nemaha County’s earliest founders -- sits St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church or The Old Stone Church, as most people call it.

Founded seven months before Nebraska’s statehood, the church celebrates its 150th anniversary Sunday. The Rev. Megan Morrow, assistant to the bishop of the Nebraska Synod ELCA, will officiate the 10:30 a.m. service.

Seated in the pews will be Marvin Caspers, publicity chairman and St. John member for all of his 84 years. He was baptized, confirmed in 1945, and married Blanche in 1958 -- all in St. John. Their two children also were baptized and confirmed here. Son Mark is a fourth-generation member.

Caspers’ great grandfather was one of 13 German immigrants who founded the Lutheran church back in 1866.

Caspers loves the little church.

He handled publicity for the church’s 100th, 125th and now 150th celebrations, but makes no commitment for the 175th.

It's here, where the only sounds to be heard are the songs of cicadas and birds flying overhead, Caspers invites a visitor to tug on the fat thick rope that rings the church’s 1,521-pound bell in the steeple 83 feet overhead.

“Kids get a kick out of it,” he said.

More than a half century ago, funders relished their chance to pull the bell, those who hadn’t contributed were asked to pay $1 for the opportunity.

“They figured it was ‘pay now or pay later,’” Caspers quipped.

Time and technology have taken a toll on St. John -- not on the buildings -- but on the congregation. The number of small family farms around Auburn, Benton Township, Johnson and Brownville is shrinking. The town of Sebing, which once served as the church’s postal address is long gone.

Nationwide, church membership is in decline, according to both the Pew Research Center and Barna Group, which track religious trends and issues. Both cite a continuing trend of more people identifying as religiously unaffiliated or "post Christian."

Hit hardest are small rural churches, the research finds. Many have closed. Others, like St. John, slowly slide toward that pivotal point: Do we have enough members to continue? Can we afford to keep the church running?

Questions that early settlers probably never pondered.

Church, back then, was essential. It was community.

In the 1800s, this corner of Nemaha County once held five Lutheran churches.

St. John was the first and served as a “mother church” to 10 other area churches.

Within 35 years of its opening, the Stone Church could no longer hold all of its congregation. And in 1903, a new wooden church, with seating for 300, was erected just steps away.

Today, official membership stands at about 90 people -- but on any given Sunday only 30 to 35 people come to worship, Marvin Caspers said. That’s about half of the number from 1991 when St. John celebrated its 125th anniversary.

The minister, the Rev. William Shaner, travels from Lincoln to officiate services at St. John and St. Matthew’s in Johnson.

There is no full-time pastor and no need for a parsonage, which was demolished years ago.

Caspers fears St. John Evangelical Lutheran’s days as an active congregation may be numbered.

But its historical significance demands preservation, which is why Caspers spearheaded the creation of the Stone Church Preservation Foundation in 2009.

In 1978, the Stone Church was placed on the National Historic Register.

In the nomination letter, Nebraska architectural historian Daniel Kidd wrote:

“The St. John’s Lutheran Church Complex is significant to Nemaha County and southeastern Nebraska as being an unusual assemblage of three buildings and a cemetery associated with a religious congregation -- unusual in the compactness of the arrangement and in its concordant setting in the midst of a farming area still worked by descendants of those families who settled the land and founded the church.

“Historical significance is augmented by the setting, for the complex has strong associations with the tide of German immigrants that composed 33 percent of Nebraska’s settlers; and the development of the complex reflects the comfortable security that Germans in Nebraska quickly attained. As a complex the buildings also reflect changing trends in Midwestern and American architecture.”

In spring 1856, 13 German immigrants left Illinois and headed west in search of good timberland and farmland.

Historical accounts tell of the group setting up camp just 4 miles south of present-day Auburn. In the morning, they discovered their oxen had wandered off.

“In search for the wayward creatures, the pioneers discovered a section of good timberland along the shores of Muddy Creek in southeast Nebraska Territory," a Lincoln newspaper wrote in 1991. “It was here they would settle.”

Less than a year after their arrival, the young wife of a settler named Thomas Caspers died. She was the first to be buried in what later became the church cemetery.

In 1866, the settlers formally established St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Services were held in private homes. 

That fall, Thomas Caspers deeded 10 acres of his land to the church “for a sum of $23.40.” Two acres were set aside for the cemetery.

To build the church, members each gave a note pledging $50, at 10 percent until paid off -- as they did not have the money to contribute.

Fellow immigrant and church member Christian Schwan designed the new church, using limestone brought in by wagon.

Schwan declared he would build a church “that would last a century.”

People began referring to St. John as “the Stone Church” -- a moniker that has held for 150 years.

The rectangular structure has two outcroppings, a vestibule at the front, and, in the back, about the size of a small shed, was the pastor’s apartment. (A parsonage would not be built for another nine years.)

The cornerstone was laid on Aug. 16, 1867. Just over one year later, on Sept. 27, 1868, the church was dedicated. It is said R.W. Furnas, who would become Nebraska’s third governor five years later, attended the event.

The following article about St. John parishioners was published in Furnas’ newspaper, The Nebraska Advertiser, in 1874:

“This class of citizens (the Germans) have, by industry, economy and intelligent farming, acquired for themselves a degree of prosperity and independence unequaled, perhaps by any other class of our people," it said. "They have good farms, good houses, plenty of stock, good schools, church buildings and everything that should mark a progressive, intelligent and thrifty people.”

That same year, a bell tower capped by a steeple was added to the Stone Church. The story of the bell is among the congregation’s favorite. It is said the Rev. Leonard Feistner “was obsessed with a desire for a bell.”

A native of Prussia, Feistner asked former German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia for help believing surely the Kaiser would have compassion for a fellow countryman and donate a cannon for the cause. After all, the Kaiser was well known for his “generous impulses,” and was sure to be in good spirits since completing a successful war against the French, according to a 1991 column in the Omaha World-Herald.

To the surprise of the congregation, the Kaiser not only granted the wish, but sent two pieces of French artillery captured in the Battle of Sedan. The artillery was shipped to a West Troy (New York) foundry where it was molded into a bell.

The 1,521-pound bell, minus the clapper and fixtures, was shipped to the church via barge and wagon. According to Marvin Caspers, it was believed to be the largest bell in Nebraska at that time.

More than 1,000 people attended the ringing ceremony in November 1874.

A new organ and school house came in 1896 -- the school being an abandoned Methodist church which was moved to the site.

When the school burned down in 1902, it was not replaced with a new school but a new church, as the Old Stone Church was no longer large enough to hold the growing congregation.

In 1903, the new wooden church was built in the very spot that once housed the original school.

The Stone Church became the new schoolhouse.

Little has changed in the interior of St. John Church since its opening in 1903. The life-sized statue of Jesus sits in a small elaborate shrine. The pulpit and marble baptismal font are original, as are the three identical tiered brass chandeliers with glass prism fringe. Once illuminated by gas, the chandeliers are now electric -- the brass piping remaining intact.

When the church was founded, worship services were conducted in German.

But in the early 1930s, with World War II on the horizon and American sentiment toward Germany souring, church members asked minister Robert Kunzendorf to offer services in English.

The reverend vehemently objected. Debate was so heated that Kunzendorf left the church and St. John was without a minister -- and regular worship services -- for nearly one year.

When the Rev. Gustav Wiencke Sr. arrived in 1933, he agreed to hold services in English and German on alternating Sundays. Later, German services were limited to the fifth Sunday of the month, and after a time German was spoken only at Good Friday services, Marvin Caspers recalled.

“When Rev. Wiencke retired in 1949, that was the end of the German services,” Caspers said.

Since then, the church has undergone two renovations. In 1949, three rows of pews were replaced with just two, thus ending the long time separation of genders.

In 1951, the Stone Church was transformed into a fellowship hall, complete with a kitchen, Sunday school and restrooms. Later, air conditioning was installed in the stone structure. The wooden church remains without air conditioning.

It was during preparations for the church’s centennial in 1966, that members discovered an old weather vane of a swan in the church attic. At the celebration, the weather vane was placed atop the Stone Church in honor of its architect Christian Schwan.

Sundays’ sesquicentennial will be void of many state dignitaries -- much to Marvin Caspers’ dismay.

But 420 past and present parishioners -- some from as far away as Texas and California -- have made the journey to worship at and celebrate the Old Stone Church.

As for the 175th anniversary -- Caspers will be there, if only in spirit.

He and Blanche will be buried in the St. John cemetery -- forever part of the Old Stone Church’s history.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.