Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Moving into Century #4

October 1, 2010 05:48 PM

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in West Camp has been served by 47 pastors, worshipped in six different church buildings, produced four seminarians, and seen at least one church fire. And this year, the synod’s oldest congregation—established in 1710—is celebrating its 300th birthday on October 17.

The church had an interesting beginning. People from the Palatinates area of Germany, known as Palatines, fled to England because of war in the early 18th century. Queen Anne decided to put this new throng of immigrants to use and sent them to New York in search of tar. She was looking for tar to patch ships and help keep the planks together. Unfortunately, upon arrival in New York, the Palatines quickly discovered that the tar in America would not work for its intended purpose: it didn’t hold up in salt water. The influx of thousands of Palatinate refugees increased New York’s population by 40%. To ease the strain, hundreds of them came up the Hudson River to West Camp and Saugerties. The Palatines were abandoned by the queen when the tar upstate didn’t work any better, but one refugee, Pastor Joshua Kocherthal, began serving as pastor to the Lutherans who settled there on the shores of the river. The first Palatine church was built of logs.

"The early immigrants really struggled to plant this church," says Pastor Paul Walley, who has served the congregation part-time for the past 15 years. "It was hard going. Today we inherit these churches. I feel a sense of indebtedness—I don’t worship our history, but I feel we’re richer because of their sacrifices in establishing this church."

Many members of St. Paul’s have family ties that go back over a century. Longtime member Nelson Burhans, 80, shares treasured memories of growing up at St. Paul’s when the church was the center of community activities: the Ladies Aid Society cooking all day for old-fashioned turkey dinners in the dirt-floor basement, kids playing "spiderwebs," dartboard teams, bowling teams, couples club, Luther League, a glowing Christmas pageant where he sang his first solo. He recalls a pastor who was paid in part with food, a pastor who kept a spittoon in the pulpit, and a church musician who played square dances on Saturday night and organ music on Sunday morning.

Another wave of immigrants from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania came in the 1950s, working on the nearby mushroom farms of member Herman Knaust. It was a historic time that filled the church as people came in droves. Nowadays, the congregation of St. Paul’s is reduced in size. There are few jobs in rural West Camp; the parish faces the common challenge of declining membership. Recognizing strength in numbers, the people of St. Paul’s have begun to work with the other northernmost congregations in the synod: Christ’s, Woodstock and Atonement, Saugerties. "Rather than seeing ourselves as isolated, we see what we can do together, what we can share," says Pr. Walley. The cluster of three congregations holds regular pulpit exchanges, joint worship services, and a joint Council retreat.

How does a tiny congregation make it through three centuries of ministry? "Sometimes people think ‘What’s the use? We’re too small,’" says Pr. Walley. "Well, we are small but we have a spirit of joy and thanksgiving. We’re not going to give up, we’re going to give back to God what he has given to us."




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