On a shirt-sleeve Sunday in December, worshippers climb the steps of the tall church in the lowlands of Lincoln.
Friedens Evangelical Lutheran gleams in the sun.
The onion dome of its steeple matches the sky, blue as a robin’s egg; above it, a wooden cross stretches to the heavens, beckoning the faithful.
The church’s annual German worship service is about to begin, calling back the early 20th century days of corner grocers and summer kitchens and newcomers in modest clapboard houses, folding their children into the messy melting pot of America.
Today, “Silent Night” becomes “Stille Nacht” and “O, Christmas Tree” turns into “O Tannenbaum” and the Lord’s Prayer begins with our Vater unser im Himmel.
And the people — from near and far — happily fill the pews.
Many will come for the nostalgia. To honor parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who grew up in this enclave of Germans from Russia a few blocks south of downtown Lincoln.
Some will come because their German teacher told them to. Or because they love the language. Or feel drawn by tradition.
“It’s the ancestral connection,” Kathy Tichota explains. “I just feel that presence of my family from the past.”
On this day, Tichota and her family put on their masks and pick up their bulletins, pages filled with the words to Christmas carols printed in two languages.
The tall guest preacher with the Bavarian name recites the opening litany.
“Im Namen Gottes, des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes,” says the Right Rev. Michael Melchizedek.
Bud Christenson, the church’s white-haired pastor with the Norwegian surname, repeats the words: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
For the next hour, under the painted tin ceiling, the day disappears, and the past is resurrected in a cadence carried from the Volga River to Ellis Island to the Heartland. The hard vowels and the hint of the familiar. Bitten and danke. Und and geboren.
In the early years, the burgeoning Friedens congregation worshipped in German. The men on one side in their suspenders and Sunday suits, the women on the other in their stockings and scarves.
Friedens held fast to the customs of its founders — the laboring men who carried the church’s pillars from the railyard down the road in 1907; the women who baked and sang — while working hard to fit into a new land.
An English service at 10 each Sunday, followed by a German service at 11.
In 1965, the last Sunday service in German disappeared from the church at Sixth and D, but the congregation wasn’t ready to let go.
So year after year, on the cusp of Christmas, they gather. Church members and former church members, language lovers and language learners.
College students, like Paul Masin from Ponca, who sits in the back row with a trio of friends, listening to the readings, singing the carols. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman was sent by his German language professor, Frau Jensen.
“It was interesting,” he said. “I didn’t really understand a lot of it.”
Neither did Donna Chapin, who came to the service for the first time with her husband, Jack.
“But it’s a joy to know this is happening because I don’t want to forget my German heritage, for better or worse.”
* * *
It takes a village to ready the church.
Friedens is a small village now; 50 to 60 worshippers on a good Sunday.
In its first decades, as emigrants flooded Lincoln, great crowds came to praise God here each Sunday, walking from their nearby homes, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the sanctuary and balcony.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were at least six Lincoln churches filled with Germans from Russia, said Pam Wurst, retired reference librarian at the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. Four in the South Russian Bottoms, where Friedens sits, two in the North Bottoms, near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Germans who landed in America from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s spread across the Midwest, the Great Plains and spilled into the West Coast.
They had spent generations in Russia courtesy of Catherine the Great, a princess with German blood.
There they had their own villages and land and churches. They kept their language.
In the late 1800s, Catherine’s grandson took back her promises. They would have to pay taxes. The men would have to serve in the Russian Army. The children would have to go to Russian school, learn the language. Their churches were threatened.
“Most German men don’t like to be told what to do,” Wurst said. “So they started settling their families over here.”
The railroad paid the way for many, depositing them in towns across Nebraska, from Sutton to Scottsbluff. In Lincoln, an early immigrant and grocer named H.J. Amen sponsored villagers to settle here.
And the population grew. By 1914, every third baby born in Lincoln had German-Russian parents.
And those Germans in the bottom lands went to church.
Friedens could claim 450 members by its 20th anniversary in 1927.
“There were hundreds of kids for Sunday school down in that basement,” said lifelong member Karen Scribner.
Scribner is busy in her kitchen the day before the special Sunday service. The retired teacher has already filled a Tupperware with delicate spritz cookies. Now she tops her cherry kuchen with rival — flour, butter and sugar — the spiral-bound German cookbook that belonged to her parents open on the table.
Her parents and their parents before them — “hardworking people who swept their sidewalks” — were devoted to the church and the community that it sheltered.
“I carry that with me,” she said. “I like to keep Friedens going.”
She gets the word out each December, emailing German teachers and newspapers, radio stations and past visitors to remind them to save the date.
Her brother will livestream the German service for shut-ins.
A team of church ladies will fill the big coffee pot and line a table with foil-wrapped chocolates, cookies and tins of pfeffernusse.
Irene Newhouse and her daughter Abby will bake German pastries, too. Honig cookies topped with sprinkles. And powder-sugared Kipferl that melt like snow on your tongue.
The mother came to Lincoln as a babe-in-arms with her parents and grandparents in 1952; Germans living in Hungary until the government threw them out.
The three generations lived together.
“Grandma stayed home with me while my parents worked,” she said. “She learned English by watching soap operas.”
But they spoke German at home, too, and the church was their bedrock.
This yearly German worship service is a link to what she still holds dear.
“It’s just very moving. When people sing those German hymns, you can see tears come to their eyes.”
This year, mother and daughter, dressed in red, wait at the entrance to greet their guests.
* * *
The tall minister tells the story of the virgin birth and the prince of peace.
The white-haired pastor echoes back.
The congregation sings.
A verse in German.
Freue dich, Welt, dein Konig naht …
A verse in English.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come …
Back and forth, back and forth, a refrain from the early years.
In those first decades, Friedens pastors were all required to speak German and to minister in two languages, preaching from a pulpit perched high on the wall.
The first World War had hastened the assimilation of all Germans in Nebraska. Germantown became Garland, Berlin became Otoe. The Nebraska Legislature passed a law forbidding the teaching of any subject in a language other than English.
And then came Hitler and World War II.
“Most churches went strictly to English,” Wurst said. “They didn’t want to be known as German.”
But the Friedens Germans were a stubborn lot.
Most of them.
“My parents went to the English service and went home,” said Kathie Svoboda, whose grandfather supervised the building of the church. “They considered themselves thoroughly American.”
The daughter, now 92, stayed behind and sang in the German choir. Studied German in college. Felt the sentimental pull.
For decades, the children sang “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve and trundled out into the cold December air, clutching brown paper sacks weighed down by an apple and orange, peanuts and colorful Christmas candy.
The paper sacks have been replaced by holiday gift bags passed out on the Sunday before Christmas. An orange or an apple. A Milky Way. Airheads and Tootsie Rolls. Sometimes there are peanuts in the shell, a throwback.
“That’s tricky these days with peanut allergies,” Scribner said.
Friedens is the last of the German Russian churches in the South Bottoms.
It’s a church that survived a fire. That mourned members who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
A church that sent dozens of young men with German blood off to fight for the United States in World War II and held funerals for those who never came home, ringing the steeple bell once for each year they stood on this earth.
Of the peace. That’s what Friedens means in German.
They try to live that promise.
As its numbers dwindled and the Volga Germans fanned out across the city and disappeared into its fabric, Friedens opened its doors to smaller congregations in need of a home.
For nearly four years now, the members of Cristo Jesus la resurreccion y la vida have met in the church basement on Sunday nights for Spanish-language services. And a Karen congregation gathers on Saturdays.
They will be there as usual on the last Saturday of December — Christmas Day. Sharing a meal and traditions from their homeland of Burma, where they were persecuted as ethnic minorities and fled to find freedom.
A congregation balancing two worlds. Two languages.
“The Karen people are new to this country, as were the people who started Friedens,” Scribner said. “It means a lot to us to be welcoming them to this country, as we were welcomed.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
Photos: Inside Lincoln's beautiful houses of worship
Mount Zion Baptist Church
Holy Thursday 4.1
St. Joseph Catholic Church
First Christian Church
First Presbyterian Church
Friedens Evangelical Lutheran
St. Luke United Methodist
Saint Paul United Methodist
North American Martyrs
St. John the Apostle
First United Methodist Church
St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center
Compline at First-Plymouth
Tifereth Israel Synagogue
St. Joseph Catholic
St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center
Saint Paul United Methodist
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org.