Winnebago County, Illinois
Histories of Winnebago County Churches
[---from "Past and Present of City of Rockford and Winnebago County Illinois", Charles A Church and H.H. Waldo, 1905]
Court Street Methodist
Court Street Methodist Church was organized January 1, 1852. Its first house of worship on North Court Street was dedicated in November, 1854, at a cost of $7,000. The first pastor was Rev. Chatfield. His successors have been Revs. W.F. Stewart, Luman A. Sanford, Wm. P. Gray, James R. Goodrich, Wm. E. Daniels, T.B. Taylor, J.H. Vincent, F.P. Cleveland, T.C. Clendenning, L. Meredith, W. Aug. Smith, C.E. Mandeville, T.P. Marsh, T.R. Strobridge, P.H. Swift, W.A. Phillips, W.O. Shepard, Fred H. Sheets, Robert H. Pooley, and Frank D. Sheets. The present house of worship parsonage was dedicated in May, 1887. The site for the parsonage was purchase from the Horsman estate in 1884, and the house was completed in October of the same year. The total value of the church property is $65,000. The membership reported to the annual conference in October, 1904, was 957.
St. James Catholic
Information concerning the early history of St. James Catholic Church is very meager. The records are said to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. Mass was celebrated in the homes of Catholic settlers in Rockford by priest located at New Dublin and Freeport previous to 1850. Father Gueguen said mass and baptized children in 1840. The permanent organization dates from 1850. After purchasing lots Father Hapston was appointed priest of the parish in 1851, by Bishop Van de Velle. He was the first resident pastor, and built the first church in 1852. Father Hampston died while in charge of the parish, and is buried under the present church. The present St. James Church was begun in 1866, and dedicated the following year under the pastorate of Rev. J.S. O’Neill. The pastors of St. James Church have been as follows: Revs. John Hampston, George Hamilton, William Lambert, J. Bulger, John P. Donellan, J.S. O’Neil, Joseph McMahon, T.J. Butler, and James J. Flaherty. Father Flaherty has been in charge of the parish twenty years, and is thus the oldest pastor in the city in continuous service. He started the parochial school in 1886, and in 1891 completed the present brick structure at a cost of $17,000. The deanery was erected in 1878 by Dean Butler and cost $8,000. St. James Church was expended $68,000 in church property. The present membership in about 1,300
The Presbyterians of early Rockford worshipped with the Congregationalists for several years. After holding services in various places the little company of Presbyterians was formally organized July 8, 1854. Rev. Hugh A. Brown was the first stated supply, and served until January 1, 1858, when Rev. John M. Faris was called. Rev. Faris’ pastorate continued until October, 1862. His successors have been Revs. Faunt Leroy Senour, J.S. Grimes, A.J. Leyenberger (now shortened to Berger), James Cruickshanks, J.K. Fowler, J.R. Sutherland, George Harkness, B.E. S. Ely. The latter has now been upon the field eleven years. In September following the organization, the congregation worshiped in the old Unitarian church, on the northeast corner of Elm and Church Streets, and in 1855 the Unitarian property was purchased. The society used it for a time on the old site, and then removed it to the Northeast corner of State and Winnebago Streets, where the church continued to worship until December 20, 1868, when it took possession of its present house of worship. In 1904 the churched purchased the property on the corner of North Main and North Streets, owned by Dr. Rohr, and is now erecting a handsome house of worship, which will probably be dedicated in February, 1906. The society also owns a parsonage and upon the completion of the new church will have property worth $60,000. Its membership in round numbers in 600.
The First Lutheran Church was organized January 15, 1854, with seventy-seven communicants and thirty-two children. The first house of worship was built on the corner of North First Street and Lafayette Avenue. The dedication occurred November 23, 1856, and the sermon was preached by Dr. Hasselquist. This building is still standing and forms a part of Mrs. J. Friedman’s double house. The first pastor was called in 1856, and his pastorate continued until 1860. In that year the church withdrew from the synod of northern Illinois and joined the Augustana synod. The present church was built in 1883, at a cost of about $60,000. It is the largest auditorium in the city, with a seating capacity of 2,500. The church owns Luther Hall, a parochial school on Kishwaukee Street, and another on Fourteenth Avenue. It also owns a parsonage on South Third Street. The pastors of the church have been Revs. Andreen, A.W. Dahlsten, G. peters, L.A. Johnston, E.C. Jessup, assistant; Joel Haaf, J.F. Seedoff. In January, 1904, the church celebrated the golden jubilee of its organization. The communicant membership is 1540, the largest of any Swedish Lutheran Church in America. The total membership, including children, is 2,250. The church owns property to the value of $85,000.
Westminster Presbyterian Church was organized January 3, 1856, with 22 members, many of whom had taken letters from the First Congregational Church. It was first called the Second Presbyterian Church, and the name was subsequently changed to Westminster. Rev. Morrison Huggins was the first pastor, who served until 1859. The first place of worship was the historic courthouse on North First Street. In the summer of 185 a chapel was completed on the ground mow occupied by the lecture room. This chapel soon proved too small, and public worship was conducted in the Metropolitan hall, pending the erection of the present church, which was dedicated in 1858. The following have served the church as pastors or stated supplies: Revs. Morrison Huggins, L.H. Johnson, Charles Mattoon, Charles A. Williams, W.S. Curtis, J.H. Ritchie, T.S. Scott, S.L. Conde, W.M. Campbell, W.T. Wilcox, and John Henry Boose. The present pastor has been on the field for three years, coming directly from McCormick Seminary. The value of the church property is $25,000. Its membership is 325. A parsonage was erected in the summer of 1905 on the lot adjoining the church on the north, at a cost of about $3,700.
Winnebago Street Methodist
Winnebago Street Methodist Church has its origin in a Sunday-school, which was started May 20, and which held its sessions in a grove on the river bank. The church was organized March 4, 1864, at the home of Israel Sovereign. The roll of members numbered twenty-eight. Ground was broken for a church August 8, 1864, and the corner stone was laid August 24. The address was made by the Rev. Thomas M. Eddy, author of a work in two volumes, The Patriotism of Illinois. The cost of the church was $8,000, and was dedicated February 12, 1865, by Dr. Eddy. The parsonage was built in 1867, at a cost of $1,250. The following named pastors have served the church: Revs. Robert Bentley, Wm. D. Skelton, Henry L. Martin, John M. Caldwell, F.A. Reed, R.S. Cantine, Wm. S. Harrington, W.H. Smith, J.M. Clendenning, Wm. H. Haight, Henry Lea, J.W. Richards, F.F. Farmiloe, M.L. Norris, and F. B. Hardin. A fine brick structure was erected in 1904, and was dedicated Sunday, November 27th. The church has property worth $25,000. The membership is about 300.
State Street Baptist
The State Street Baptist Church was formally organized in the vestry of Westminster Presbyterian Church, August 17, 1858. Three of the original members are now living in the city: Mrs. Jane Hazlett, Catherine Hazlett, Mrs. J.P. Largent. Revs. Edward C. Mitchell was called to the pastorate August 31st. The first organist was Prof. D. N. Hood. A chapel was erected at the juncture of Market, State, and North Fifth Streets, which is still standing. This chapel was dedicated February 2, 1860. The organization was first call the Second Baptist Church, but on choice of a permanent location, the name was changed October 26, 1858, to State Street Baptist Church. The present house of worship was dedicated November 18, 1868. The cost was $34,000. Dr. Mitchell’s successors in the pastorate have been: Revs. Spencer Holt, Henry C. Mabie, E.K. Chandler, A.R. Medbury, C.R. Lathrop, J.T. Burhoe, R.F.Y. Pierce, Langley B. Sears, J.T. Burhoe, R.R. Perkins. Rev. J.T. Burhoe’s first pastorate was the longest in the history of the church. It began in September, 1883, and closed in February, 1892. Rev. Burhoe died March 14, 1905, and his funeral was the occasion of an unusual demonstration of sorrow which was felt by all classes of people. His two pastorates thus cover a little more than fourteen years. In March a call was extended to Rev. Roy Perkins, PH., D., and he entered upon his full pastoral duties in July. The present membership is about 440. The value of its property is $29,000.
The Swedish Methodist Church was organized January 30, 1861, at the home of P.A. Peterson, on Charles Street, with twelve members. The society purchased the old Westminster chapel for $600, and removed it to First Avenue. The present brick edifice was erected in 1877, and was dedicated by Rev. C.E .Mandeville. The parsonage was built in 1888. The following pastors have served the society: Revs. V. Whitting, Albert Erickson, Peter Newberg, August Westergren, Oscar Shorgren, Olof Gunderson, John Lind, A.Y. Westergren, S.B. Newman, John Weagren, S.D. Sorleine, Herman Lindskog, N.G. Nelson, J.M. Objerhold, A. Kahlin, A. Dahlberg, M. Hess, O.F. Lindstrom, Richard Cederberg, N.M. Liljegren, N.A. Sorneson, and P.M. Alfvin. The value of the church property is $12,500. There are 200 members in full connection besides probationers, P.A. Peterson is the only charter member of the society now living. He resides in the same house in which the church organized, and is over eighty years of age. The church is out of debt, and the Sunday-school has a membership of about 250.
Church of the Christian Union
The Church of the Christian Union had its origin in the expulsion of Dr. Kerr from the pastorate of the First Baptist Church. He had become a convert to a more liberal faith, and he and forty-eight sympathizers were obliged to seek other affiliations. In September, 1870, a religious society was organized by the engagement of Rev. Dr. Kerr as preacher, and the election of temporary executive and finance committees. Public preaching services were immediately begun in Brown’s hall. On Sunday, October 8, he executive committee presented a report which offered a plan of Christian fellowship. All persons who desired to form a church upon this basis were requested to send in their names on the succeeding Sabbath. The church was formally organized Wednesday, October 26, 1870. The meeting was held in Haskell’s hall. Duncan Fergusen presided, and James S. Ticknor was secretary. The executive committee again presented its basis of church fellowship, which was read and unanimously adopted. The names received in reply to the public notice of October 9th were called, and 104 persons responded. These constituted the charter members of the church. It was resolved that “those who have responded to the call of their names, as accepting the basis of Christian fellowship which has now been adopted, shall constitute the membership of the church, together with those not personally present, whose names have been received on their subscribing to this basis of fellowship.” A plan was adopted for the order of the church. On Motion of Melancthon Starr, it was unanimously resolved to call Dr. Thomas Kerr, at a salary of $2,000 a year. H.N. Starr was elected clerk of the church, and Duncan Fergusen, treasurer. The first board of trustees was composed of David G. Sears, William Peters, Seymour Bronson, J.F. Lander, and C.I. Horsman. Regular Sunday services were first held in Brown’s hall. Upon the completion of the new courthouse, public worship was conducted for a time in the circuit court room, and later in the opera house. After eighteen years of successful work the church decided to erect its own house of worship. The corner-stone was laid September 17, 1888. Addresses were made by Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Dr. H.W. Thomas and Dr. Kerr. Mrs. John H. Sheratt read an original poem. Congratulatory letters were sent by distinguished representatives of liberal Christianity. After thirty years of faithful service Dr. Kerr tendered his resignation in the autumn of 1900. He continued as pastor emeritus until his death, January 3, 1904. Dr. Kerr was succeeded by Rev. Robert C. Bryant, who began his duties in the autumn of 1901. Mr. Bryant came to Rockford from Lisbon, New Hampshire. He studied two years at Union Theological Seminary, and one year at Auburn Seminary, a Presbyterian school. The membership of the church is about 350.
Swedish Evangelical Mission
The Swedish Evangelical Mission Society was organized June 1, 1875. Its faith is hat of the Swedish Mission Covenant and its form of government is congregational. The church has a large brick structure, known as Mission Tabernacle, on Kishwaukee Street, with a seating capacity of 1,100. There is a membership of about 500. The Sunday school is the largest in Winnebago County, with over 700 members. The church owns property worth $12,500. The pastors have been Revs. Palmquist Lindell, John Gustafson, Wenstrand, Alfred Karlen, F.M. Johnson, who served eleven years, S.W. Sunberg, who served seven years, and O.P. Peterson, who came in the spring of 1905.
Centennial Methodist Episcopal
This society was formed by the union of the old First and Third Street Methodist Episcopal Churches on May 19, 1876, during the pastorate of Rev. Hooper Crews, a man of God whose memory is as ointment poured forth. The board of trustees elected May 19th was Hon. William Brown, George Troxell, Clark Miller, Harmon B. Soper, John Budlong, Joseph Rodd, Thomas G. Lawler, Reuben Sovereign and John C. Gregory. It was agreed that a new and suitable church building should be erected as soon as possible, which task was consummated during the pastorate of Rev. G.R. Vanhorne. The building which now stands at South Second and Oak Streets, was completed in 1883 and dedicated by Dr. (now Bishop) Fowler, Sunday, September 9, 1883. This church building occupies one of the most beautiful sites in the city and, together with the parsonage, is valued at $50,000. The pastors appointed to this church since its organization have been: 1877-78 Hooper Crews; 1878-81, William A. Spencer; 1881-84, Garret R. Vanhorne; 1884-87, William Aug. Smith; 1887-90, Martin E. Cady; 1890-91, Fred Porter, and J.R. Hamilton; 1891-93, J.S. Bell; 1893-96, John N. Hall; 1896-1901, W.W. Painter; 1901-02, John Thompson; 1902-1905, Harlow V. Holt. Rev. F.W. Barnum was assigned by the conference of 1905. The church membership now numbers 620 people, with a Sunday school enrollment of 450.
Evangelical Lutheran (German)
A German Lutheran congregation was organized in the ‘70’s by Rev. F.N. Richman, of Elgin, with the name of Emmanuel Lutheran. This church is now extinct. About 1882 dissensions arose and a number withdrew and organized the Evangelical Lutheran St. Paul’s Church, U.A.C., which means the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580. Services were conducted by supplies until 1888, when Rev. L. Dorn was called. The present faithful pastor is Rev. Otto Gruner. He has been in charge since 1895, and the church is in a prosperous condition. There are about 450 members. The church is erecting a new house of worship on Horsman Street.
Epworth M.E. Church was organized as the Ninth Street Church in the spring of 1876, by Rev. G.L. Wiley, who was then pastor of the First Church. The society was designed to be a feeder for the First Church, and began with fifteen charter members. The Swedish Methodist Church building was purchased for $300, and removed to Ninth Street, at a cost of $300. The first year the society was under the care of the First Church. The second year the pastor was sent by conference, and since that time the church has maintained an independent existence. In 1891 the old church was sold for $75, and a new edifice erected on the old site. The new church was later removed to its present location at the corner of Parmele Street and Fourteenth Avenue, and the name changed to Epworth Church. The pastors have been Revs. G.L. Wiley, Joseph Odgers, W.A. Spencer, W.H. Bartlett, A.J. Brill, E.J. Rose, Joseph Wardell, H.L. Martin, F.R. Hall, J.L. Gardner, J.W. Irish, J.L. Chase, Frank Milne, Charles Wentworth, C.F. Kleihauer, C.A. Briggs. The membership is about 75.
St. Mary’s Catholic
St. Mary’s Church was organized in 1885 by the Rev. E.A. Murphy who subsequently died in September, 1903. The parish was originally part of St. James’ Church. The corner-stone was laid in the summer of 1885, with an imposing ceremony, in which a large number of priest from Chicago officiated. The following priests have succeeded Rev. Murphy: Rev. M.E. McLaughlin, now deceased; and Rev. P.A. McMann. The following priests have served as assistant: Revs. John Dorsey, Green , A. Carr, Stephen Woulfe, S.P. Byrne, James. A. Solon, John P. Harrington, Paul Burke. The church has a membership of about 2,500, and the parish is one of the most important in the diocese. The church had property worth not less than $70,000.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church
This church was organized as a Swedish congregation in the general synod July 20, 1882, with eighty-five members. A lot was purchased on the corner of Third Avenue and Sixth Street. The church was dedicated October 14, 1883. The general synod pastors have been: C. Anderson, 1882-84; C. Hansen, 1884-88; C. Ross, 1888-90. The church withdrew from the general synod and entered Augustana Synod in 1890. While yet a Swedish congregation it employed the following Augustana pastors: A.P. Fors, 1890-91; G. Juhlin, 1892-95. On the 22nd of April, 1895, a bold step was taken; the mother tongue was abandoned and the language of the land adopted. Those unable to understand the latter quietly withdrew and others soon began to take their places. As an English-speaking congregation it has employed the following laymen and pastors: Mr. Edwin Stenholm, 1895; Mr. C.A. Wendell, 1895-97; Rev. Oscar Nelson, 1897-00; Rev. O.M. Anderson, 1900-01; Rev. C.O. Solberg, 1901-03; Prof. C.J. Sodergren, 1903 (summer months); Rev. C.A. Wendell since January 1, 1904. The change of language has proven wise and timely, and the work has been highly successful.
Grace M.E. Church was organized in the autumn of 1891 to meet the needs of a growing population on the west side of Kent’s Creek. There were thirty-nine charter members. Some of these came from other churches, but the society was not an offshot from any other body. The church was organized under the administration of Presiding Elder Haight. The first pastor was Rev. Frank D. Sheets, who served five years. His successors have been Revs. Frank McNamer, J.B. Robinson, T.E. Ream, E.K.D. Hester, and T.R. Strobridge.
This church was organized several years ago and has maintained regular services. Its present place of meeting is Mendelssohn Hall. A reading room is maintained in the Lathrop block, on North Church Street. The membership is gaining steadily.
African Methodist Episcopal
The African Methodist Church was the outgrowth of a Sunday school held for some years in the First Congregational Church. It was organized in 1891, with only seven members. The church owns property on the corner of Elm and Winnebago Streets, worth $6,000. The little society has been burdened for many years with a mortgage, which has been assumed, pro rata, by the stronger churches of the city. The church has been served by the following pastors: Revs. F.B. Jones, J.C. Anderson, Richmond Taylor, Lewis Dixon, Sandy McDowell, P.P. Taylor, S.B. Moore, and C.H. Tomas. Mr. Moore came upon the field in October, 1900, and has faithfully labored for the uplifting of his people. The church has a membership of forty-five. The congregation, however, is much larger.
Swedish Free Church
The Swedish Free Church, on Fourth Avenue, has a membership of 325, a gain of 100 percent in three years. The value of the church property is $6,000. Besides this a lot, worth 2,700 has been purchased on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street, on which a church is now in process of construction.
The Trinity English Lutheran Church is one of the latest additions to the long list of Rockford churches. The society was organized by Rev. W.H. Manss, March 10, 1895, with forty members. Services were held in the Y.M.C.A. building and later in the brick building owned by the old Christian church. In 1895, the society purchased this property for $3,400. The growth of the membership was rapid and soon outgrew the edifice, which was torn down to make room for a more commodious structure. This house of worship was dedicated December 16, 1900. Rev. Manss was succeeded by Rev. H.M. Bannen, to who the church is indebted for its unusual growth. He is an eloquent preacher and an indefatigable worker, and his magnetic personality has been the inspiration of his people. In the spring of 1894, while the pastor was in Palestine, the church purchased the Trowbridge Homestead, on Lafayette Avenue, for a parsonage. The church now has a membership of over 600.
The present Central Christian Church is the result of an heroic effort to succeed an older society which had disbanded. It was organized November 20, 1898, with twenty-three members, after holding a series of revival meetings. In 1899 Rev. D.R. Lucas, national chaplain of the G.A.R., was called to the pastorate and meetings were held in the Y.M.C.A. hall. In August, 1900, Rev. O.F. Jordan, the present pastor, began his labors. The society dedicated its first house of worship April 14, 1901. This was the property of South Church Street originally owned by the old Unitarian Society, but which had passed into other hands. The church has one hundred and sixty members.
The Swedish Baptist Church owns a brick house of worship on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street valued at $16,000. The church affiliates with the Rock River Baptist Association, and in June last reported a membership to that body of 254.
Zion Lutheran Church is one of the largest and most prosperous Swedish churches in Rockford. It is located on Sixth Street.
Salvation Army and Volunteers
The Salvation Army and the Volunteers of America have covered the local field with varying degrees of success for some years.
207 Houses of Worship
--by George Depew, from Sinnissippi Saga, Nelson, C. Hal, 1968
Like all of history, the story of the growth of churches in Winnebago County is the story of people. It is the saga of pioneers and foreign immigrants and their descendants over a span of more than 134 years who were willing to devote long hours to making a living for their families, and were eager to devote more hours to the building of churches to worship. Their work turned Rockford into a great industrial city. Their desire to worship God in settings benefiting the Creator soon filled Rockford with beautiful church structures. The spark that compels men to build churches and to gather periodically for worship rode into the Rock River Valley on horseback and in wagons. The passing on of religious fervor from generation to generation has resulted in a remarkably steady growth of religious congregations in Winnebago County--a number that has multiplied from a single church in the county in 1837 to 207 in 1967.
During the 134 years since Winnebago County was settled, the Baptists have built 30 churches, the Lutherans 25, and the Roman Catholics 15. This could lead to a conclusion that the Baptists are the strongest denomination in the county. This is not the case. According to a complete religious survey made in the late 1950’s, nearly 25 percent of residents attend Lutheran churches; about 20 percent are Catholics, and--although strong in comparison to other denominations,--only 8 percent adhere to the Baptist faith. The reasons for this discrepancy in the number of churches and the number of adherents to a particular faith is, of course, due to the size of the church congregations.
Some individual Lutheran and Catholic churches in the county today number their members in the thousands. While some Baptist churches have hundreds of members, many prefer to keep memberships small, and to start new churches rather than to expand the existing churches into great multiplexes, with specialized staffs.
One can be misled by attaching too much significance to denominational labels. While the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran denominations have remained largely unchanged since the Reformation, this is not true of some of the newer denominations.
Unitarians and Universalists, who are counted among some of the earliest settlers of Winnebago County, practiced religion considerably more conservative and evangelical than is the case today.
Winnebago County’s history reflects two great movements that contributed to the proliferation of churches: the immigration of foreigners to work in the factories of the “new country”, and the religious “awakenings” or revivals that swept the country during the last two centuries.
The Swedish immigration that began in the 1850’s had the greatest impact on Winnebago County. Coming from a country where Lutheranism is the state religion, they mainly founded Lutheran churches. But the Swedes also started Methodist, Baptist, Covenant, and Evangelical free churches and a Salvation Army corps.
While nationality and language barriers largely have disappeared in congregations today, those that grew out of the bitterness of the Civil War still persist.
Winnebago County’s churches are largely segregated along lines of color to this day.
The majority of the county’s Negroes are Baptists, and their churches are affiliated with one or the other of the great National Baptist Groups.
Religious revival movements are behind the great variety of denominational names appearing in Winnebago County churches. The “holiness” groups, like the Free Methodists and the Salvation Army, and the “pre-millennialists,” the Adventists, appeared in the county as early as the 1860’s.
Christian Scientist began to meet around the turn of the century, and the Mormons soon afterwards. Another holiness denomination, the Nazarenes, made their appearance here in the 1920’s; and the last great religious movement, the Pentecostal churches that trace their beginnings to the West Coast at the turn of the century, first made their appearance in Winnebago County in the 1930’s, when the First Assembly of God Church was formed.
Rock River Valley was the birthplace of two religious denominations.
One of these was a now-defunct sect called the Beekmanites, who believed that a Byron, Illinois woman was Christ reincarnated.
The other is the Church of God (Abrahamic Faith), with headquarters in Oregon, Illinois.
Even though churches that started in more recent years are enjoying vigorous growth, their memberships are comparatively small beside the current memberships of churches founded by the first settlers of Winnebago County. These were the Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptist, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Episcopalians.
History of religion in Winnebago County parallels the beginnings of religion in Illinois. Missionaries were among the region’s first pioneers. In 1673, the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette traveled with Louis Joliet, who was looking for a short route to the Mississippi River. Two years later he established the first Catholic mission in Illinois at the great Kaskaskia Indian village in what is now LaSalle County.
About the same time, Jesuit priests from the mission at Green Bay, Wis., visited the Fox Indians living on the Fox River in Northern Illinois. Much of Northern Illinois remained comparatively unknown and almost entirely unoccupied by the white man until the end of the Black Hawk Indian troubles in 1832.
The southern part of the state was settled first. The first Baptist church was established n 1796 at New Design, in what is now Monroe County; the first Presbyterians settled in Randolph County. The first Congregational church was established in 1809 near Newton, across the line from Vincennes, Ind.
An historian had this to say about these early churches: “The early preachers were ignorant men, who were accounted eloquent according to the strength of their voices. The set the style of all public speakers. Nevertheless, these first preachers were of incalculable benefit to the country. They inculcated justice and morality.”
Churches developed in Northern Illinois along with the communities first at the two “ends” of Northern Illinois--Chicago and Galena. But they developed only a short time before June, 1835, when the first religious service was held at the tiny village soon to be called Rockford, named for the solid rock ford of the Rock River here.
This service was held in the log home of Germanicus Kent, and every person in the village attended, a total of 11 people. Rev. Aratus Kent, a brother of Germanicus and a Congregational preacher from Galena, led the service.
The first permanent religious group in Winnebago County was the First Methodist Episcopal Church (the name of the Methodist church in those days) Sunday school class, which was organized in September, 1836. The First Congregational Church is credited with erecting the first house of worship in the county in 1838. This was a small clapboard building at the corner of Church and Green Streets. The church itself had been organized a year before.
The First Baptist Church was the county’s third religious group; it was organized on Dec. 22, 1838. At that time it was one of only two Baptist churches in all of Northern Illinois west of Chicago; the other one was at Belvidere.
Charles A. Church, early historian of Rockford and Winnebago County, had high praise for the New England Puritan stock from which the settlers of this area had sprung.
He wrote: “Industry, thrift, and a high sense of personal honor are prominent traits in the typical son of New England. It is said that what the Puritans gave the worlds was not thought, but action. They bore aloft the standard of righteousness before a lawless generation, and planted in the New World seeds of patients, practical, and self-denying morality. The institutions of an enlightened civilization have proceeded from the Christian Church, through the sacrifices of the noble men and women of the past. The early colleges of the land, with few exceptions, were the offspring of the church.”
Such an institution was the Rockford Female Seminary, founded in 1850, and later renamed Rockford College. The women’s college was an outgrowth of a convention of Congregational and Presbyterian clergymen of Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin who met in 1844. They decided to found two institutions of learning, one for men and one for women.
It was deemed unwise to located them at the same place; the men’s college was established in Beloit and the women’s at Rockford.
Rev. Aratus Kent, the same minister who preached the first sermon in Rockford, was the first president of the female seminary’s board of trustees, and Anna P. Sill became the guiding light that eventually made it a leading institution of higher education.
The marriage of religion and education didn’t rub off on everyone who attended, however. It is recorded that two of the four daughters of Stephen Mack, the earliest white settler in the county, were sent to the seminary. Their mother was an Indian woman, Hononegah, the daughter of an Indian chief.
It was hoped they would learn was of the white man at the seminary. But he education they received there didn’t take; and they followed their people to a new reservation in Minnesota.
During the period of almost three decades, from the founding of the held dozen or so communities of Winnebago County that flourished and competed with each other for roads, railroads, factories, and the county seat until the Civil War, a total of 34 churches were started.
The Methodists were the most active church-starters in those days. The enterprising followers of John Wesley founded 15 churches in 24 years. Besides First Methodist Episcopal in Rockford, these included congregations at Roscoe in 1836, at New Milford and Winnebago in 1839, at Durand in 1840, at Harlem and Shirland in 1847, the Court Street M.E. Church in 1853, and congregations at Pecatonica in 1853, Cherry Valley in 1854, and Rockton in 1855. The Third Street M.E. Church was formed in 1858, and after the great Swedish influx the Swedish M.E. Church, now the Bethany Methodist Church, was founded in 1861.
An interesting story is told about Pehr August Peterson, who is connected with the history of the Swedish M.E. Church and became known throughout the country as the “Rockford Furniture King.”
It was said that as a boy he was deeply religious, and he would walk barefooted from his home in Cherry Valley to Rockford to attend church, carrying his shoes to save leather.
These two traits, dating from his childhood, reverence for the church and thrift, remained guiding influences in the life of this young Swedish immigrant who died in 1927 a multi-millionaire, after having been president of nine companies and with a financial interest in more than 50 firms.
During the pre-Civil War years, eight Congregational churches were organized in the county. These were the First Congregational Church in Rockford, the well-known “Old Stone” Congregational Church at Rockton in 1838, and churches at Seward in 1841, at Roscoe in 1843, at Winnebago in 1846 and at Pecatonica in 1854. Second Congregational Church was organized in 1849 by members of First Congregational, and occupied Rockford’s first church building at Green and Church Streets that had been vacated by First church when it built a new edifice at South First and Walnut Streets, the present site of the Rockford police station.
An interesting story is told about the once familiar ringing of church bells--not so common anymore. It seems that in earlier days pastors of some churches owned the bells in their churches and would take the bells along when they left for another town.
This is what happened to First Congregational’s bell and by 1846 when the new church was going up, the congregation was pretty anxious to hear the old familiar sound.
C.A. Church in his “History of Rockford and Winnebago County” recounts that a 640-pound bell bought in New York was brought to Rockford by team and delivered to a warehouse. “So anxious were the people to hear a bell in Rockford that a platform was extemporized, so that it rang loud and clear and attracted all the parishioners before it was taken to the church.”
Another incident recorded in connection with the Congregational church is that at the first meeting of the Rock River Congregational Association it was unanimously voted that “all persons, before uniting with the church, should sign a pledge of total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks as a beverage.”
Also, the mid-nineteenth Congregationalist practiced excommunication of backsliders. Second Congregational Church history records that in April, 1852, the prudential committee reported on a certain case “that in the absence of all evidence of here repentance for her sin, notwithstanding repeated labors with her, and the extension of her suspension, the committee recommend that she be excommunicated.”
The first building the Methodists constructed in Rockford was completed in 1848 for $7,000 on the site of the present Centennial Methodist Church. This church received its name after the merger in 1876 of the First and Third Street M.E. churches.
The South Second Street site of the First M.E. Church was a part of Rockford then called the “Barrens” was a hunting ground for men and boys.
The altar of this church was built from walnut boards that Samuel Gregory has set aside for his funeral. But he discovered that he didn’t need them when Rockford’s first undertaker arrive with a complete supply of caskets.
Another unusual episode in the county’s church history concerns the Willow Creek Presbyterian Church founded in 1844 at Argyle, a large Scotch immigrant community that straddle the Winnebago and Boone County line. The church grew to have more than 400 members in a few years, and was said to be one of the largest and wealthiest rural churches in Illinois.
Daniel G. Harvey in his “Argyle Settlement in History and Story” gives an enlightening description of this church, which also reveals the reserved character of its people:
“It had walnut pews with doors to them so when all the family got in they latched the door and shut out intruders.
On an elevated platform was an enclosed box pulpit also with doors, so that when the preacher got inside he was secure against all inquisitive eyes and could take a pinch of snuff or curl his hair or adjust his white necktie without anyone being the wiser of it.”
Two other major Presbyterian churches were born in the 1850’s, a decade that was to see more new churches started in the county than in any ten-year period for a hundred years. In the 1850’s an unprecedented total of 46 churches came into existence. Before Rockford had any Presbyterian churches, the members of this faith had aligned themselves with the Congregationalists. But a conviction grew among those who were distinctly Presbyterian that they need separate churches, even though a spirit of fraternity prevailed at the time of separation.
First Presbyterian Church was organized in July, 1854, in the courthouse, which was the setting for the services of many early churches of various faiths. Two years later, in 1856, twenty-two members left First Congregational Church to form Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Westminster congregation built its first church in 1858 on South Second Street at the present site of Loreen Hall.
Liberal religion got off to a poor start in Winnebago County. One Unitarian and three Universalist fellowships were started in the 1840’s and 1850’s. All finally died out, the Unitarian church continuing into the 1890’s. It was not until the Church of the Christian Union was organized in 1870 that the “free thinkers” found themselves with a strong congregation.
The first Unitarian church in Rockford was organized in 1843, and was called in C.A. Church’s history “evangelical in spirit.” Ephraim Wyman, Thatcher Blake and Richard Montague were trustees. Services were held in the courthouse until the members bought the abandoned building of First Baptist Church. A new building was dedicated in 1855 at the corner of Chestnut and Church Streets. A Universalist group also was started on the east side in 1841. In those day s the citizens of Rockford regarded any church as promoting the general welfare of the village and subscribed money, materials and labor to the church even though they were not members.
A Universalist church was built in 1854 in Cherry Valley, but the membership weakened and it was abandoned after a few years.
A Universalist society was organized in 1859 in Pecatonica, which after a church was built in 1862 had 80 members. But membership had dropped to half by 1877 and the church no longer exits.
Life of a pastor in the early days of Rockford was captured in the diary of Rev. Augustus H. Conant, who became pastor of the Unitarians in Rockford in 1857. While a pastor in Geneva in 1842 he wrote in his diary for January 7 of that year: “Read Neander; horse died; mended a pump; read Bushnell; read the Methodist Discipline; helped my wife to wash; worked on a sermon, made benches for the school; finished sermon; made soap.”
The Unitarian church’s financial reverses began during Conant’s pastorate and he resigned in 1861 and went to the front as a chaplain in the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. At his dead in battle a solder in the ranks paid him this tribute: “…Never while I live can I forget him as I saw him on the field with his red flag suspended on a ramrod, marching fearlessly to the relief of the suffering. When we said ‘Chaplain you must rest or you will die,’ he always replied, ‘I cannot rest, boys, while you suffer; if I die I will die helping you.’”
Although the Baptists are extremely active church builders now, members of that faith founded only three churches in the three decades before the Civil War.
Organized in 1838, the First Baptist congregation built a stone church at Church and Mulberry Street in 1850, after building temporarily at another location in 1840. The new church cost $6,000 and was then the finest church in the community. It stood until 1918, when it was razed.
A Baptist congregation was formed at Rockton in 1852. The State Street Baptist Church came into existence in 1858, after it was reported that women were afraid to cross the dark enclosed State Street Bridge in the evening to attend First Baptist and wanted a church on the east side of the river.
The State Street congregation built a chapel at Market, State and North 5th Streets in 1859, and erected their second building in 1868 at East State and Third Streets. It was an east side landmark until it was razed in 1949.
Probably the most remarkable man associated with First Baptist Church was Elder Jacob Knapp, who moved to Rockford in 1848 and lived here for 25 years. He claimed to have preached 16,000 sermons, baptized 4,000; and was the means of making 100,000 converts at his revivals, of whom 200 later became ministers.
Rockford was an early center for Spiritualism. Dr. George Haskell, who came to Rockford in 1838 from Southern Illinois to flee the pro-slavery sentiment to which he was strongly opposed, left the First Baptist Church in 1853 when he had become converted to spiritualism. The next year he began to publish the monthly “Spirit Advocate.” Twenty-three issues were published before it was merged with the “Orient” and became the “Orient and Advocate,” headquartered in Waukegan.
Members of another communion, the Episcopalians, met in the courthouse and in homes in the 1840’s when the county was part of a mission field. Emmanuel Episcopal Church was organized in 1849, and its first church was built for $1,900 on the corner of Church and North Streets.
Roman Catholicism was a comparative latecomer in Winnebago County, which had been established by Protestants. But once the Catholic faithful moved into the area in numbers, Catholic churches were established rapidly. Today Catholics rank No. 2 in numbers in the county, outranked only by Lutherans.
The Northern Illinois wilderness was successfully under the jurisdictions of the Catholic Diocese of Quebec, the Diocese of Kentucky, the Diocese of St. Louis, the Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., and finally in 1843 under the Diocese of Chicago. The Diocese of Rockford was formed in 1908. Catholic priests were active in the area first around Galena. They included the well-known Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who entrenched Catholicism up and down the Mississippi River.
A few years after Winnebago County communities had become a mission of the Freeport parish, Father John Hampston moved to Rockford to establish St. James parish in 1851. The first piece of property bought for a church and rectory was a house at the corner of North Second and Prairie Streets. It cost the diocese $150. This house was used for Masses until St. James Church was built in 1867.
The Christian church, whose members also were called Disciples of Christ and Campbellites in those days, was organized in Rockford in 1856 and held meetings in the courthouse. They soon built a church on North First Street, on the present site of Trinity Lutheran Church. The church was reorganized in 1898, when it took the name Central Christian Church, and is now located at 306 N. Court Street.
Even though much publicity has been given to “ecumenism” in recent years, cooperation between churches of different denominations has been going on since their beginnings here. The Ladies Foreign Missionary Society was organized in Rockford in 1838, and in that year made its first appropriation to a girls school in Dindegal, India. Episcopalians, Baptists, and Unitarians were among its early members.
The Rev. Henry M. Goodwin, D.D., one of the First Congregational’s most distinguished pastors, serving from 1850 to 1872, invited a Unitarian minister to take part in a revival meeting he was conducting about 1860, which incense some of the members.
Lectures by famous touring speakers were the thing to do in the middle of the 19th century, and Rockford’s churches, especially the First Baptist Church, were the scene of some of them. Well-known lecturers included Horace Mann, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Ward Beecher.
The last great communion to make its appearance in the country before the Civil War was Lutheranism. First Swedish Lutheran Church was founded in 1854, following the influx of Swedish immigrants, who arrived in great numbers after the first railroad from Chicago opened. The church dedicated its first building at North First and Lafayette Streets in 1856. Its present church was built in 1883 at a cost of $60,000, and had the largest auditorium in the city at that time, with seating for 1,800.
First Lutheran Church grew to be the largest Swedish Lutheran Congregation in the United States. A Swedish Lutheran congregation also was established in Pecatonica in 1857.
In the 40-year span of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century, 26 new churches were built in the county, and nine new denominations made their appearance.
Among the most flourishing churches today which were founded in this period were the Mission Tabernacle, which through a series of name changes is today the First Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Swedish Christian Free Church, now First Evangelical Free Church.
A Covenant church forerunner was organized in 1875, and built its first church on 5th Avenue between Kishwaukee and 4t Streets. The church at Kishwaukee and Third Streets, which seats 1,200 and is now owned by a Baptist Church, was its second home built in 1888-89. Sunday school classed in this church were conducted in Swedish as late as 1924. The congregation founded and operated Rockford’s first religious radio station--KRLU--in 1923.
A spectacular church split after the Civil War gave birth to the Church of the Christian Union, which after a recent name change today is known simply as The Unitarian Church. The church was founded by Dr. Thomas Kerr, a physician turned clergyman, and 48 members of First Baptist Church.
Dr. Kerr, who displayed the American flag over his pulpit for the first time in Rockford during the Civil War, was expelled as pastor of the First Baptist because his sermons were not considered evangelical enough and he was charge with not preaching Baptist doctrine. The Church of the Christian Union built its first church in 1888.
The Lutherans continued their spectacular growth after the Civil War, and by 1900 had founded four new churches in the county, including the first English Lutheran church. The three new ones that served East Rockford Swedish immigrants and their descendants were Emmanuel, founded in 1882, Zion founded in 1883, and Trinity Lutheran in 1895.
8/Emmanuel dedicated its first building in 1883 at its present site at 6th Street and 3rd Avenue, and Zion in the same year built the sanctuary that it still occupies two blocks south at 6th Street and 5th Avenue. As spoken Swedish gradually died out on Rockford’s east side, Emmanuel was the first Lutheran church in that area to adopt all English services; this was in 1895. Zion adopted worship services in English too, but also continues to have regular weekly Swedish services.
Emmanuel’s move to English services, no doubt, was prompted by the establishment of Trinity Lutheran Church in 1895. It was the first English speaking church of the former United Lutheran synod in the city, and today is the largest Protestant church in the county, with 3,700 members.
Rev. H.M. Bannen, its pastor from 1896 to 1954, and the Rev. O. Garfield Beckstrand, who became assistant pastor in 1919 and later pastor, are credited with its phenomenal growth.
Two German Lutheran congregations were organized in the county about the same time--St. Paul’s in Rockford in 1872 and one in Pecatonica in 1874. The full names of St Paul Church at its formation was “German St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.” The congregation occupied two other church buildings before building its present sanctuary at Horseman and Locust Streets in 1906. The congregation was the original Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod church in the city, and is one of two of that denomination that operate Lutheran parochial schools.
About the same time the new Swedish Lutheran churches were being built on 6th Street, a religious sect called the Beekmanites moved to a farm southwest of Rockford, and soon gave the county nationwide notoriety.
In 1877 the wife of Rev. J.C. Beekman, a pastor of the Congregational church at Byron, in neighboring Ogle County, became possessed of religious vagaries. One of these was that Christ at his second coming had become reincarnated in Mrs. Beekman. She died in 1883 and even though she failed to rise from the dead on the third day, here followers’ faith was not shaken.
One of here followers was George Jacob Schweinfurth, a former Methodist minister from Michigan who had been converted by Mrs. Beekman.
The followers transferred the “membership” to Schweinfurth.
The “Church of the Redeemed” or “The Church Triumphant,” as the sect was called, moved into Winnebago County in 1882, and by 1887 there were 300 followers. There were churches as far away as Kansas City and Buena Vista, Colo.
Schweinfurth came under fire on immorality charges about 1890 and renounced the cult altogether in 1900. His following disintegrated and he died in obscurity 10 years later.
The latter half of the 1800’s was a time of steady growth for the original churches built in the county, and those “pioneer” denominations were active in establishing new churches.
South Rockford Methodist Episcopal, now Winnebago Street Methodist Church, was organized in 1864; Epworth Methodist, now Broadway Methodist, in 1876; and Grace Methodist, in 1891.
Two Presbyterian congregations were organized in the village of Winnebago, including Middle Creek Presbyterian in 1861 and another one in 1868.
Two new denominations also made their appearance in that village to the west of Rockford in those years. The Free Methodist Church of Winnebago was started in 1865, and the Adventists organized a church in 1872. The original membership of 43 in the latter church declined steadily and the church is no longer in existence.
However, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church organized in Rockford in 19106 prospered, and today owns a large church and parochial school on North Alpine Road.
One additional major Baptist church was started in the late 1800’s. This was the Swedish Baptist Church organized in 1880. The church, now Temple Baptist Church, occupied the building at 8th Street and 5th Avenue most of its life. Cherry Valley gained a Baptist congregation , the Free Will Baptist Church, in 1874.
While one new Congregational church was born at New Milford in 1877, members of this denomination concerned themselves with building up their existing churches from the Civil War to 1900. First Congregational church, Rockford, built its $60,000 pure Gothic style church at Kishwaukee and Third Streets in 1870. This building is a Masonic cathedral today. Second Congregational Church dedicated its present sanctuary in 1892.
In 1888 the Church of the Christian Union’s new home was erected at North Main and Mulberry Streets. Emmanuel Episcopal Church built Fairfield Memorial Parish House in 1892; it served as their church for over 60 years until the present church was constructed in 1957-1958.
Court Street Methodist Church’s present sanctuary, dedicated in 1887, features 14th Century French architecture.
The county’s three St. Mary Catholic parishes were established before 1900--one at Durand in 1862, the one at Pecatonica in 1872 and Rockford’s St. Mary Church in 1885.
The St. Mary parish here then comprised all of Rockford west of the river. St. Mary parochial school was opened in 1885.
The city’s first Negro church, Allen Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church, was started in 1891. Its present building at 206 S. Winnebago Street was built in 1912.
Rockford’s first Jewish congregation, Ohave Sholon Synagogue, was formed in 1898. The synagogue at 728 First Ave. was bought in 1908; it formerly was a Christian church.
The county’s first Christian Science society was organized in 1899, after Mrs. Margaret Calkins reportedly was healed from tuberculosis after other means of treatment had failed.
The church met in the Mendelssohn Club until it built its present church with classic Geek architecture on North Main Street in 1910. The church maintains a public reading room at 324 N. Main St. In 1919 a second Christian Science congregation was organized on the east side, but this was merged with the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1939.
Rockford’s West Side Salvation Army Corps was established in 1888, less than 25 years after the Salvationists were founded in the slums of England by William Booth in 1865. The east side corps’ present building was constructed in 1921, and the east side corps’ building in the late 1940’s.
Not alone did the appearance of the Salvation Army, with its emphasis on Christian service to the downtrodden, signal the religious community’s growing social awareness.
The Young Men’s Christian Association in 1891, the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1891 and St. Anthony Hospital by Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in 1899.
But the emphasis in the years just before the turn of the century was largely on evangelism.
C.A. Church in his “History of Winnebago County” recalls: “One of the most notable events in the religious history of Rockford was the union evangelistic services conducted by Rev. B. Fay Mills, which began Oct. 21, 1891, and closed Nov. 2. So widespread was the tide of religious feeling that on one day the saloon keepers closed their places of business as a tribute to Mr. Mills.”
The historian also commented about the moral climate in 1900, revealing a situation strikingly similar to today’s. Said Church at that time: “The Sabbath has lost much of its former sanctity. Parental authority has become a lost art, or a lost virtue; and there has been widespread insubordination to constituted authority; and the mad chase for wealth has established false standards of worth and weakened the morak fiber of the people…If this republic is to endure, there must be a speedy return to the homely virtues and high ideals of the Fathers.”
In the next 40-year span of Winnebago County church history--from the turn of the century to World War II--the churches prospered as Rockford became a leading industrial center. The number of new churches nearly doubled in that period, and by 1942 there was 113 churches in the county.
The first few years of the 20th century were important ones for the Catholics of the county. The Diocese of Rockford was created by Pope Pius X in 1908, and Most Rev. Peter J. Muldoon became its first bishop. His first concern was for the foreign born Catholics, who made up a large part of the city’s growing population. Father Anthony Marchesano was called from Italy to set up St. Anthony parish in 1909 for the Italian population. SS. Peter & Paul Church was built in 1911 for the Lithuanian Catholics, and the next year St. Stanislaus Kosta parish was established for the Poles.
Other Catholic parishes founded in the first years of the new diocese’s life were St. Peter’s at South Beloit in 1909 and St. Rita’s at Cherry Valley in 1914 to be followed by St. Patrick’s in West Rockford in 1910, St. Peter’s parish for North Rockford in 1921, and St. Edward’s in 1929. Most of these parished care for the spiritual need of many thousands of Catholics each. St. Anthony parish has nearly 8,000 members. St. James parish also had nearly that many until the creation of Cathedral parish in 1964.
Bishop Muldoon also was concerned about education. The diocese’s high school program in Rockford dates from 1910.
It took major steps forward when St. Thomas High School for boys and Bishop Muldoon High School for girls were built in 1929 by Edward F. Hoban, the diocese’s bishop, after Bishop Muldoon died.
St. Elizabeth Social Center was opened in 1911. At the request of Bishop Muldoon the contemplative religious order of Poor Clares established a community here in 1916. The School Sisters of St. Francis were established here in 1957.
Among the Protestants, the Lutherans enjoyed the most active church growth from 1900 to World War II. Ten new Lutheran churches were organized. These included Calvary, 1923, and Messiah, 1925, bother sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church; Salem Lutheran in 1907; Grace in 1924 and Tabor in 1925. Rev. Clarence Anderzon became pastor of Tabor Lutheran Church in 1928, and is the senior-ranking church pastor in Rockford.
The Norwegian-Danish Lutheran Church was organized in 1928. It changed its name to Our Savior’s in 1938 and completed a large new church on Rural Street in 1953. Ninety-six Lutherans founded Bethlehem Lutheran in 1938, and Alpine Lutheran, the Lutheran congregation on the easternmost edge of the city at the time, was started in 1942. Faith Lutheran Church, South Beloit, dates from 1942.
Redeemer Lutheran Church, the city’s second Missouri Synod congregation, was born in southeast Rockford in 1931. Its English Gothic style sanctuary was built in 1938.
In the prosperous 1920’s, Emmanuel Lutheran Church constructed its present sanctuary at a cost of $170,000. It was said to be the most expensive church built in Winnebago County up to that time.
The altar carving represents Leonardo daVinci’s “Last Supper.” The figure of Christ in the north window was called a masterpiece in purple and ruby art glass. Anther outstanding art window is in the $450,000 education and chapel addition to Emmanuel Lutheran that was built in 1958.
The second Negro church in the county, Pilgrim Baptist, was organized in 1917, and the city’s largest Negro church, Bethel Baptist, which has about 2,000 members, was started the nest year.
Elim Baptist church, originated in 1917, ministered to Swedish-speaking parishioners at 1406 16th Ave. until 1939 when English services were adopted. The church now is located on Newburg Road.
Another Negro church, New Zion Baptist, was organized in 1924, and the only Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation, the Mexican Baptist Church, was started in 1933 as a First Baptist Church mission. Kishwaukee Street Baptist was organized in 1938.
The Presbyterians were active in the north end of the city in the early 1900’s, founding in 1910 Third Presbyterian Church which occupied a former large schoolhouse for many years, and Bethany Presbyterian Church, which was the first church established in what is now Loves Park, in 1917.
A group breaking away from a Swedish-speaking First Mission Covenant Church was responsible for founding Bethesda Covenant Church in 1926. In the years before World War II, First Covenant was busy forming mission Sunday schools that later were to evolve into independent churches. The first of these were South Park in 1913 and Lovejoy and Evergreen in 1939.
Other churches that came into existence during this period were Free Methodist Church in 1920, Brooke Road Methodist in 1924 and Lincoln Park Church of Christ in 1925.
The county’s second Jewish congregation came into existence in 1914, when a group of young people left Olave Sholom Synagogue to form Temple Beth El. The temple at 1200 N. Main St. was built in 1926, and the new temple on Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Road that cost $365,000 was constructed 30 years later.
Rabbi Leo A. Bergman, former Beth El rabbi and civic leader, said of liberal Judaism in 1947: “Temple Beth El represent liberal, reformed Judaism in that it is rooted in the atmosphere of freedom and the soil of the democracy of America…Basing itself upon the Hebrew prophets, it has cast aside a great deal of outworn ritual and instead devotes itself to ethical living.”
During the 40-year span from 1900 to World War II, 13 new denominations made their debut in Winnebago County.
First Church of the Brethren was founded here in 1902. Followers of the denomination, once called the “Drunkards,” however had been in the Rock River Valley since the 1830’s. St. John Evangelical United Brethren Church dates from 1907 and Zion E.U.B. from 1916. Zion later was merged with Beth Eden E.U.B. Church, 3201 Huffman Blvd., which was formed in 1951. The county’s only United Brethren in Christ Church, 2000 Kilburn Ave., was founded in 1919.
The Mormons, who are well-known in Illinois history as founders of the village of Nauvoo in 1839 before they emigrated to Utah, are recorded as making their appearance in Winnebago County in 1916. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which now has a church at 6103 Forest Hills Road, was organized here in 1916 in a home at 1217 Blaisdell St.
The county’s other Mormon church--Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-Mormon-was founded in 1931 by the Northern States Mission. The congregation, which built a $160,000 church in 1960 at 620 N. Alpine Road, has 625 members.
St. Constantine Greek Orthodox Church organized in 1917, and two years later bought the church at 108 N. 5th St., which was formerly occupied by Ohave Sholom Synagogue. Orthodox Masses are in the Greek language except for the sermons.
Other churches representing new denominations that were formed here in the 1920’s and 1930’s are the Church of God (Anderson, Ind., headquarters), 112 S. Henrietta Ave., in 1923; First Church of the Nazarene, now Bethel Evangelical and Reformed Church, now Bethel United Church of Christ, 2405 Auburn St., in 1926; and Christ Church Unity in 1927. The latter church, now meeting in a modest building at 115 Regan St., met for 23 years in a room in the Empire Building. It follows the teachings of the Unity School of Christianity, Lee’s Summit, Mo., founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore.
In the 1930’s adherents of the Assembly of God faith, now termed the largest branch of the Pentecostal movement, began to meet, and in 1935 organized First Assembly of God Church. The church has been at 804 N. 2nd St. since 1941; plans have been announced for a new church on North Alpine Road.
The first church here representing the split in the Christian Churches, largely inspired by Thomas Campbell a century earlier, was the Church of Christ, 1705 Kilburn Ave., founded in 1930. Churches of Christ, of which there are now five in the city, separated from the Christian Churches, of which Central Christian is the oldest here, over use of musical instruments in services and institutional practices.
Blessed Hope Church of God (Oregon, Ill., head-quarters) was established in 1930. Rockford Gospel Tabernacle, now Calvary Memorial Church, was founded in 1936 by Rev. Gerald Boyer, who was its pastor for 30 years. First Wesleyan Methodist Church, 1406 School St., was organized in 1942.
Christian service to the down-and-outers was expanded when the first mission station for alcoholics, Union Gospel Mission, was opened on East State Street in 1926. It closed in 1934, and it was not until 1964 that Rockford Rescue Mission, 116 Kishwaukee St., began operating to render the same type of service.
The 25 years since World War II have spelled unparalleled prosperity for the nation, and unprecedented growth in Winnebago County churches.
The number of churches increased by 94, from 113 in 1942 to 207 on 1967.
The Baptists have been the most prolific church builders in recent years. In the first hundred years since the county’s beginning, 11 Baptist churches came into existence. In the 20-year span from 194 to 1967, nineteen more Baptist churches were built. A number of these are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which first made it appearance in the county in 1952.
The postwar Baptist churches are: Providence, founded in 1947; Memorial, in 1949; First General, 1951; Eastview, 1952; Liberty, 1953; Berean, 1953; North Park, 1955; Windsor, 1955; North Towne, 1956; Forest City, 1956; Calvary, 1957; Jefferson Heights, 1957; Halsted Road, 1958; Macedonia, 1958; Greater New Hope, 1959; First Baptist, Pecatonica, 1959; Lincoln Wood, 1964; South Main, 1964; and North-Love, 1966.
Three more Roman Catholic parishes were created in the postwar years to accommodate the expanding population: St. Bridget’s in Loves Park in 1949, St. Bernadette’s in 1957 and Cathedral parish in 1964.
One of the most significant achievements in recent years for Winnebago County Catholics was the construction of the $1 million St. Peter church in 1958-59. It is of modified Romanesque architecture with a huge exterior relief sculpture of Christ over the entrance. Rt. Rev. Msgr. William G. McMillan retired in 1966 after serving 30 years as pastor of this church.
A new $400,000 church was erected for St. Stanislaus parish in 1960-61, and St. Rita Church and parochial school was relocated from Cherry Valley to a new building at 7810 Valley Knoll Drive in 1965. A diocesan retreat house was built on a large rural tract near Meridian Road and Illinois Route 2 in 1966.
Bishop John J. Boylan succeeded Bishop Hoban as head of the 12-county Rockford Diocese in 1942. Upon his death, Bishop Raymond P. Hillinger was appointed in 1953. Bishop Loras T. Lane became the diocese’s leader in 1956.
Eight new Lutheran congregations have been created since the 1940’s
Trinity Lutheran Church completed its present $690,000 sanctuary in 1955. This impressive building with Georgian-style architecture seats 1,040
St. Mark Lutheran Church on Mulford Road was created in 1961 when 250 members of First Lutheran left the church after a move to relocate the 110-year-old congregation was defeated.
Other recent Lutheran Church in America congregations are Gloria Dei, 4700 Augustana Drive, organized in 1957; Faith Lutheran, 3630 N. Rockton Ave., in 1958; Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran, Harrison Avenue at Mulford Road, in 1961; and St. Andrew’s, Rockton, in 1963.
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, organized in 1947, completed in 1960 a new sanctuary that features artistic use of archways. It is an American Lutheran Church congregation, as is Living Christ Lutheran Church, 7721 N. Alpine Road, which was built in 1967.
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod churches that have been formed in recent years are Mt. Olive, 2001 N. Alpine Road, in 1956, and Concordia, 7424 N. 2nd St., in 1952.
Second Congregational Church, which increased in size to 1,700 members under the pastorates of Rev. Dr. John Gordon and Dr. Joseph C. Cleveland, instigated the formation of three new churches. These are Riverside Community Congregational, 6816 N. 2nd St, organized in 1950; Spring Creek Congregational , 4500 Spring Creek Road, and Woodside Congregational, now meeting in the Woodside Branch of the Y.M.C.A., both dating from 1960, Second Congregationals’ Gordon Chapel addition was constructed in 1949.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which dedicated its new church in 1958, was instrumental in the formation of St. Chad’s Episcopal Church in Loves Park in 1947 and St. Ankar’s Episcopal Church in 1959.
Evans Memorial Methodist was organized in 1949, Christ Methodist in 1956, Our Master’s Methodist in 1959, and Aldersgate Methodist in 1961.
Charles Street Presbyterian Church began its life on an east side farm in 1956, and the city’s oldest Presbyterian congregation, First Presbyterian Church added a new educational building and chapel to the sanctuary building in 1906.
When Westminster Presbyterian Church’s 88-year-old church at South Second and Oak Streets burned in 1946, the congregation erected a Normandy style church edifice, occupying an entire block at 3000 Rural Street. The Rev. James Benson had served the church for 24 years, retiring in 1951.
First Evangelical Free Church was another “parent” church that gave birth to a number of mission churches. Loves Park Evangelical Free stared out as a Sunday school class in 1942, Silver Hill Evangelical Free in 1943, Alpine Evangelical Free in 1950 and Chapelwood in 1960. Now all are independent churches.
The Loves Park church moved into its new hexagon-shaped sanctuary , Forest Hills Road at Pleasant Valley Drive, in 1966. First Free embarked on a $320,000 remodeling project on its 62-year-old sanctuary in 1954 that provided for seating 800 person, and featured and unusual circular balcony.
Covenant congregations in the county now total eight with the additions of Broadway Covenant in 1952, Morningside in 1953 and North Park Covenant in 1959. All had been missions of First Evangelical Covenant before they became independent churches.
First Covenant Church built in 1965 what many regard as the finest church in Rockford to date. The $1.5 million complex on a 17-acre site on Wood Road features a pyramid-shaped sanctuary that seats 800, and a large educational unit with a banquet hall.
Churches of other denominations that have been established since World War II are: Miles Memorial, Christian Methodist Episcopal, 1943; Church of God, 510 Island Ave., about 1945; Rock Church, 1945; Apostolic Tabernacle, about 1948; West Side Assemblies of God Church, 1949; Silver Hill Pentecostal, 1953; First Church of the Open Bible, 1954; First Pentecostal of Loves Park, about 1955; Rock River Church of Christ, 1955; Calvary Church of Christ, 1956; Harlem Road Christian, 1956; Alpine Foursquare Gospel, 1956; Emmanuel Temple, Independent Assemblies of God, 1957; Faith Weslyan Methodist, 1958; Havens Assembly of God, 1959; Parkside Church of the Nazarene, 1959; Prince of Peace Church, Roscoe, 1959; Glad Tidings Assembly of God, 1960; Church by the Side of the Road, Rockton, 1960; Auburn Road Church of the Nazarene, 1960; Washington Park Christian, 1961; Church of Christ, 1406 16th Ave., 1965; and People’s Community, 1965.
Except for the variety of organizations in the Pentecostal movement, the number of major new denominations to appear in Winnebago County since the 1940’s has dwindled to a trickle. Jehova’s Witnesses were first on record as being in the county in 1946 when plans were announced for a Kingdom Hall at 615 Oak St. in 1960, and a Kingdom Hall on Owen Center Road near Whig Hill School was built in 1962. A North Unit has met since 1960. It is Witness policy to spit a unit when it exceeds 150 members.
A group of Friends (Quakers) was originated in Rockford about 1951. After meeting for services in Beloit, Wis., for several years, the group of about 30 persons meets weekly in the Y.W.C.A. in Rockford.
An Eastern Orthodox congregation was organized in 1955 by displaced persons from Ukrania, Russia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Poland, many of whom had been in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. They contributed much of the labor for Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church at 1802 Pershing Ave. Services are conducted in the Slovak language.
In 1963 the church extension department of the Reformed Church in America, commonly known as the Dutch Reformed Church, organized Hope Reformed Church and built a church the following year on Spring Creek Road.
The Youth for Christ movement was organized here in 1944, the same year Youth for Christ International was organized. The organization moved into the teen center at 214 N 5th St. in 1964.
The story of the rich and varied religious history of Winnebago County from 1835 to 1968 necessarily has been told in terms of “bricks and mortar.” That is the away it has been recorded for posterity in our history books and newspapers.
There are other aspects of religions’ impact on the growth and prosperity of Winnebago County that deserve to be enlarged upon.
One of these is the growing social awareness of churches of virtually every denomination and their increasing conviction of the need for Christians to leave the “four walls of the church” to minister to man wherever he is.
The number of educational units, youth centers and, in later years, even “coffee houses” attest to the church’s unending effort to insure that each new generation receives the message of the Bible in terms it can understand.
Many of the churches have become aware that new means of communication are needed to help modern man understand an almost 2,000-year-old message about God’s plan for him. This explains the guitar strumming in some church sanctuaries.
The Second Vatican Council in Rome signaled the a period of renewal for the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s. The liturgy in the United States is now in English; the priest faces the congregation; and other changes have taken place.
Protestant denominations also have made attempts to update some of their centuries-old doctrines and practices, no longer deemed relevant in a world that has changed.
As for Winnebago County specifically, let it be said that although this history records the existence of 50 different religious denominations here, that all of their members nevertheless believe in the same God, and with the exception of our Jewish friends, all worship the same Christ.
Any church or synagogue, after all ,must be regarded primarily as a listening post and a refreshment station whether a person takes out what he has already brought into the pew, namely the conviction that God operates in him,
Those who believe this include the many who have made Winnebago County what it is today.
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