A Brief History of Saint Luke’s Lutheran Church
The history of Saint Luke’s revolves around the services of its faithful pastors and loyal congregation.
Saint Luke’s joined the New York Ministerium in 1853 and under its constitution became a Lutheran congregation. In 1859, Saint Luke’s adopted as its legal name The German Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Saint Luke’s.In 1861 more space was needed and the second floor of a larger house between 46th and 47th Streets on 8th Avenue was rented. In the spring of 1863, a vacant Baptist church on West 43rd Street was purchased and in June of that year, thirteen years after their formation, Saint Luke’s realized its dream of worshiping in its own building. In 1870, revisions to the constitution were enacted to deal with the increased workload caused by the church’s expansion. Pastor Drees took exception to a segment which provided for a layperson to chair the congregation and tendered his resignation in June of 1870.
In 1871 a call was extended to and accepted by Pastor William Buettner of Utica, New York. During his pastorate, the Ladies Aid Society was organized and remained an active organization for over 130 years. (The society was discontinued in 2002 after a decision by the women of Saint Luke’s not to have an exclusive women’s society in the future.) Pastor Buettner resigned in 1874.
In 1874, a call was extended to and accepted by Pastor William Busse of Poughkeepsie, New York. Again, the congregation had outgrown its church on 43rd Street, and plans for building a new church were under discussion. Sale of the building was authorized and a large Presbyterian church on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues was purchased for $45,000. The newly acquired church was dedicated in August of 1875. The building as it stood on the day of dedication cost $55,074 and the 43rd Street property sold for $18,590. Thus for a little over $36,000 a new church was obtained.
In 1880, Saint Luke’s resigned from the New York Ministerium and became an independent congregation without any synodical affiliation. The congregation remained independent until 1987 when it joined the newly established Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Saint Luke’s celebrated the 25th anniversary of Pastor Busse’s pastorate in October of 1899 with special services and a banquet. However, hardly had the joy of the occasion subsided, when in the early morning hours of November 13, 1899 the shocking news of Pastor Busse’s sudden death spread throughout the congregation. Pastor Busse was laid to rest on November 17, 1899.
In January of 1900, a call was extended to and accepted by Pastor William Koepchen of Meriden, Connecticut. Since the church had been used extensively for the past 25 years, with only minor maintenance, there was a need for renovation and repairs. Money was raised to take care of the essential repairs but there were no available dollars to redecorate the church, The Ladies Aid Society volunteered to re-carpet the church and furnish new altar coverings. In addition, the Ladies Aid and the Church Council each gave a stained glass window for the chancel and other members replaced some of the stained glass windows in the nave of the church.
In addition, the difficult problems of a changing community had to be addressed. The Times Square area was becoming the theatrical center of the city and wholesale and retail business were invading the area. It was apparent from its declining membership, that the church had to change its location and in July of 1921, the sale of the 42nd street property was authorized. Five lots were purchased at auction on West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, and construction began on our present structure. Final services were held at the 42nd Street Church on January 1, 1922, and from this date on ,while the new church was under construction, Sunday Services were held in rented space at the Selwyn Theater. The cornerstone of the new building was laid in October of 1922 and the church was dedicated in September of 1923. From its 42nd street location, Saint Luke’s brought the two stained glass windows which had flanked the altar and placed them on the east wall of the new building. At this time, the church also acquired the four foot hand carved wooden figure of Christ mounted on the altar as well as the stained glass window set that extends the width of the building just above the main entrance.
In the years that followed, the church had to contend with the materialism of the twenties and the severe depression of the thirties. Church attendance nationwide reached an all time low and Saint Luke’s did not escape this trend.Through all of these critical years, Pastor Koepchen gave faithfully and untiringly of his time and strength to the problems facing him and his church. It was a difficult period and in the spring of 1935 Albert Neibacher was hired as his assistant. A year later, Pastor Koepchen passed away on September 8, 1936.
A month after Pastor Koepchen’s death the congregation extended a call to Pastor Albert Neibacher who was ordained into the ministry and installed as Pastor of Saint Luke’s on November 15, 1936.In the fall of 1936, the Young People’s Guild was organized as a replacement for the Young People’s Society which had been inactive for some time. The new group was well received and had an initial membership of 50 young people who met regularly each Monday evening. In 1937, Children’s and Senior Choirs were introduced. The Children’s Choir was recruited from the Sunday School, and sang at regular intervals with the Senior Choir. The Senior Choir still participates in all of our services except for the summer months when they take a well deserved vacation. In 1938, children who were rarely seen after confirmation were organized into a society known as the Junior Christians of Saint Luke’s and met every Friday evening for a program of planned activities.The World’s Fair of 1939, brought large groups of visitors to the city and during six months in 1939, guests from 37 states registered their attendance at Saint Luke’s.
The war years brought hundreds of service men and women to New York and the Young Peoples Guild set up a program to help those who worshiped at our church during that time. Couples who met here and subsequently married still make return visits to Saint Luke’s.
On the occasion of the congregation’s 100th anniversary in 1950 a Reformation folio containing homilies by Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Creuziger, Jonas, and Major was purchased and presented to Saint Luke’s . Included in the folio is a brief homily in Martin Luthers own hand with the date of 1543. Pastor Neibacher continued his pastorate until retiring in 1974.
Pastor Dale Hansen, our sixth pastor, arrived from Wisconsin in the winter of 1975. He found the 46th Street area in disrepair, populated by prostitutes and drug dealers and in need of a major overhaul. These factors had a negative impact on the time people wanted to spend on the street and at Saint Luke’s.
The prostitute and drug problem was addressed by calling on the Guardian Angels who patrolled the street and helped provide the neighborhood with some security. Pastor Hansen worked with the 46th street restaurant owners, the mayor and city planners to design and implement a traffic and pedestrian friendly street. Both programs had a favorable impact on church attendance, and people were no longer afraid to be on 46th street.
Saint Luke’s Soup Kitchen opened in 1977 to meet the ever increasing needs of the street people and others lacking funds to purchase food.
In 1990, major renovation and restoration work was completed on the nave of the church, and a Walcker organ was installed. Over $300,000 was needed for both projects and the work was accomplished as the result of a major fund raising program. A generous bequest allowed for the complete renovation of the lounge and meeting room in 1999. After a long and fruitful ministry Pastor Hansen retired and was elected as Pastor Emeritus in 2000.
In the fall of 2000, Pastor Paul Schmiege, who at the time was pastor of Saint Anne’s Lutheran Church in London, England, was called and returned to the United States to become Saint Luke’s seventh pastor.
Winter and summer retreats were introduced in 2001 and continue to the present day. They have become an important time of renewal, worship, study, and fellowship, and have become anticipated events every winter and summer.
Pastor Schmiege was at Saint Luke’s on September 11, 2001 when word came of the attack on the World Trade Center. His immediate response was to open the church to anyone wanting a quiet moment and to offer his services at the 43rd and 47th Street firehouses where many members were lost. He spent days counseling and comforting those whose loved ones would never return.
In 2007, Saint Luke’s was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Also in 2007, a Columbarium for members and friends wishing to have their cremated remains interred within the church was dedicated and placed in the southwest area of the nave behind the pulpit.
The Saint Luke’s Soup Kitchen is still active today and serves over 150 hot meals twice a week. Funding for the kitchen comes from the United Way, City Harvest, and contributions from the local block association, community businesses, the congregation itself and other concerned individuals.
In addition, a Clothing Bank provides the opportunity each month for those in need to obtain good used clothing. Clothing for the bank is donated by many organizations and individuals both from within the city, and from congregations, schools, and churches from throughout the region.
Saint Luke’s has had an exciting 165 years of ministry in New York City. It remains a place of mission and purpose. Under God’s guidance, we pray for many more years of Christian service. Our common Mission Statement continues to guide and inspire us as we work together in service to God:
Saint Luke’s is:
A Community called together by Christ;
Celebrating the challenge of passionate faith; and
Seeking to inspire creative service.