St. John's Lutheran Church History
Okabena, Minnesota

The story of the founding, growth and development of St. John's Lutheran church began in 1890, when the Ahrens, Atz, Mundt, Ruthenbeck and Sievert families settled in West Heron Lake Township.  These prairie settlers came from various sections of Illinois.  Being Lutheran their first priority was to find a church home, and they soon joined St. Paul's Church of Rost Township.  Although the distance from their homes to church probably averaged no more than 5 miles, with the road conditions and modes of travel it soon became apparent that they should try to establish a church in their own congregation and this was granted on February 25, 1895.  The families promptly began to hold services in the Okabena School.  Soon other families such as the Becker, Boettcher and Kuhnert families joined them.  Rev. C. F. Malkow, the Rost pastor, served as their minister.

At the church service of May 5, 1895 they formally organized with a constitution adopted and signed by thirteen farmer members.  The officers elected at that time were:  Elders: Christ Ahrens, F. C. Sievert and George Mundt.  Trustees were Fritz Ruthenbeck, Frank Atz and Fritz Sievert, Sr.  The charter members were:  Christ and Wilhelmina Ahrens and five children, Fred and Sophia Ahrens and Rose, Frank and Caroline Atz and four children, Fritz and Louise Becker and ten children, Tim and Johanna Boettcher and eight children, Herman and Emma Kuhnert, George and Lena Mundt and two children, Grandmother Mundt, Fritz Ruthenbeck and Maria and five children, Fritz Sievert and Sophia, his wife, and one child, F. C. and Minnie Sievert and one child, Christ Sievert.

Christian instruction for the children had its beginning when Pastor Malkow came from Rost two days each week during the first two school seasons of 1895-97.  After that for a number of years the congregation agreed to send the children to Rost for confirmation instruction.  A Sunday School was conducted in 1903 and 1904, taught by Fritz Ruthenbeck.  He used a German Bible History as texbook.  this Sunday School was supervised by a committee consisting of the teacher, Wm. Kessler, Fritz Becker, Frank Atz, and F. C. Sievert.

Fritz Ruthenbeck gave the congregation an acre of land 1 1/2 miles south of Okabena to be used for a church site and cemetery. A 24' x 32' frame church was built there.  It was dedicated on September 15, 1895.  The cost of the church was $900.00, two thirds of which was raised before construction.

A Christian Day School began in 1904.  Upon the recommendation of district President Pfitenhauer, Miss Anna Stoeckmann of Hamburg, Minnesota was employed as teacher.  The first term was 5 months with 25 children enrolled.  Her salary was $20.00 per month plus room and board.  She stayed with the Atz family.  The next three terms of school were taught by the Grabarkawitz sisters, daughters of Pastor Grabarkawitz of Good Thunder.  The sisters, Louise and Ida, lived with the Henry Ahrens and Frank Ahrens families.  The pupils of Ida in 1906 were:  Doris Sievert, Rose Ahrens, Charlie Valeskie,  Emma Sievert, August Baumgard, Harry Shank, Marie Bartz, Bertha Pomerenke, Charles Husson, Noel Loveland, John Hinkeldey, Emma Zacharias, Herman Schank and Bertha Ahrens.

1908 to 1911 were transition years.  Rev. Emil Ulbricht was the pastor, having come to the Rost from Cass Lake, MN.  By 1911 there were enough members and enough
financial support to become an independent congregation.  That year a call was made, and H. F. Soeldner, just graduated from the St. Louis Seminary, became the first resident pastor in Okabena.  Rev. Meyers of St. Paul's presided at the induction ceremonies.

Mr. Ed Milbrath presented the congregation with three lots in Okabena, and after Christmas in 1912, the church was moved into town. The next building erected was a parsonage, in 1913, at a cost of $1,970.10 and paid for the same year.  Before the parsonage was finished, Rev. Soeldner stayed with Mr. & Mrs. George Stephenson and at the George Mundt farm.

The third building was the present church erected in 1914.  The three lots in the rear of the church block were purchased in 1915 and served as a church park.

Rev. Soeldner served as pastor for 11 years and his pastorate was the churches finest period as far as church growth and development are concerned.  He preached his farewell sermon on July 22, 1923.

From 1919 to 1933, the German language was used alternately with English on Sundays, but was later replaced with all English services.  The 25th anniversary was celebrated with a special service in May, 1920.

Rev. Edward Trapp came to Okabena in 1923, serving the congregation for 14 years.  The last half of the church barn was sold in 1939.  It was used for a garage and later a new garage was built for the pastor.

The Sunday School was established in 1922.  Mrs. Theo Milbrath and Mrs. Herman Ahrens were two of the first teachers.

The Ladies Aid is the oldest organization in the congregation.  Twelve ladies were present on Sept. 17, 1913 at a preliminary meeting held at the parsonage.  Mrs. Edward Milbrath was elected president and Mrs. A. R. Becker as secretary.

Under the direction of Rev. Trapp the church choir developed into an outstanding musical group.  A young peoples organization has existed since 1916.  Rev. Trapp resigned in 1937.

Rev. George Schweikert came here in 1937 and served as pastor until 1957 when he received a call to East Grand Forks.

In 1943 approximately 100 German Bibles, Prayer Books, 6 Hymnals and religious tracts were gathered and given for distribution among the German prisoners of War interned in the U.S.

In September, 1951, the congregation voted to withdraw from the Missouri Synod.  In September, 1957, Rev. Rueben Ude accepted a call to the church and he remained as pastor until his death in 1970.  Pastor Clifford Kehne was called and served the congregation from 1970 to 1972. Pastor David Lau was then called and served until 1975 when Pastor Robert Wehrwein was called and he served the congregation until 1980. In 1974 a building program included a new Sunday School addition, entry and basement improvement and carpeting.  

The church joined the church of the Lutheran confession synod in 1976.  Arthur Ahrens has been active in the church choir for 58 years.  Two sons of the congregation have gone into the ministry; Lehnert Ruthenbeck and John Ude.

The church had several vacancy pastors from 1980 to 1983 until George Barthels was called as pastor.  He served the congregation until his retirement in 1989.  Pastor Vance Fossum was called and served from 1989-1998. 

The Church started a Christian Day School in the fall of 1995. It held grades Kindergarten to 8th grade. That first year there were 6 students and one teacher. Candace Ohlman was called to teach all grades. She taught for 5 years until 2000 when a part-time teacher was added and also pre-school. Phillip Strike was then called as Principal in 2000 and serves the school today. There were as many as 22 students attending at one time.  Jim Albrecht is currently serving as pastor.

(Okabena's history was provided courtesy of the Okabena Centennial Edition of
The Okabena Press, Jackson County History Books,
Jackson County Historical Museum and
Tri-County News.)