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Developer transforms church into place of business

Pastor Sheri Routh stands in front of the pulpit at Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church recently. (AP photos by Patrick Flood, The Reporter)

By Heather Stanek
The Reporter, Fond du Lac

FOND DU LAC (AP) — Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church has kept pace with the times since its congregation formed in 1922.

So for the congregation, the latest venture is just another step, one that offers opportunity for the religious community and local businesses.

The Commonwealth Companies of Fond du Lac bought the church at 40 E. Division St. and plans to redevelop it into a restaurant. The project also calls for affordable, six-unit townhomes at the nearby corner, said company president Louie Lange III.

Commonwealth plans to demolish the fellowship hall and a house east of the church to provide more room for parking. The developer also will maintain the sanctuary’s historic features but add a glass ceiling about 14 feet above the floor to hold heat and cool air closer to the ground. Lange said the ceiling will help manage heating and cooling costs and control noise while preserving the church’s elaborate ceiling and stained-glass windows.

The townhomes are expected to be constructed by April or May, with the restaurant completed by June.

The downtown church has served Lutheran parishioners since 1929, according to information provided by Norm Thielman, historian and church member. Before and after the church was constructed, the congregation grew and shifted with the needs at the time.

Thielman said the church community began in 1897, when eight residents met to discuss forming a congregation. Since they were German-speaking Lutherans, they called it Immanuel German Lutheran Congregation.

Membership declined in the late teens and early 1920s, most likely because of the growing use of English, especially in services at Trinity Lutheran Church, another congregation in Fond du Lac, Thielman said.

The view from the pulpit at Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church in Fond du Lac showcases the church's historic architecture. The Commonwealth Companies of Fond du Lac bought the church at 40 E. Division St. and plans to redevelop it.

With finances tightening, both congregations embraced a merger. They joined in 1922 under the name Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church. Thielman said the hyphen represents their unity. German and English services were offered.

Although the Great Depression struck while the church was under construction, members trudged through, recruited more members, and the church survived tough economic times, according to its history. The 13th-century English Gothic church cost $116,000 to build.

Immanuel-Trinity, with its stained-glass windows, handcrafted woodwork and weathered limestone, served the congregation well, but challenges arose.

Thielman said the congregation needed additional parking, but there was nowhere to expand.
Handicapped parishioners needed better access to the building and fellowship hall. The church needed to add elevators to meet code. Because of the church’s historic nature, it probably would have cost more to renovate than to build a new church, Thielman said.

In a 2002 survey of parishioners, 55 percent opted to move or rebuild, while 45 percent wanted to remodel the existing church.

The congregation built its new home at 20 Wisconsin American Drive in 2005. The 11.25-acre parcel cost $562,000, but the building project was estimated at $2.2 million, according to church records.
It’s a work in progress, and members continue to raise money to build the sanctuary. They worship in the church gym in the meantime, said Church Council President Dale Hansen.

The downtown building was put up for sale in January 2009.

Several artifacts from the historic church — the baptismal fount, communion rail, lectern, altar, pastor’s chair, ceiling lights, organ and some pews — have been set aside to place in the new chapel and sanctuary when they are constructed, Hansen said.

The congregation has raised about $1 million, Hansen said.

Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church said its official goodbye to the old church on June 12. Hansen, like other parishioners, saw it as an opportunity to reflect on the church’s lengthy history and have a sense of closure. He said his German grandparents helped found the church. He and members of his family married there.

“It was very tough, very tough,” he said. “There’s a lot of heritage here.”

Senior Pastor David Pavesic said it “was like a funeral for a building.”

“We’re not ditching the past,” he said. “We’re moving into the future.”

Pastor Shari Routh said she will miss the beautiful sanctuary.

“I know there’s a lot of grief in saying goodbye to the downtown location,” she said.

Hansen and Routh said they are excited and pleased with Commonwealth’s plans for the former church, since the company has shown respect for the church’s history and integrity.

“It will find new life in a different way,” said Pavesic.

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