SYCAMORE – Seventeen years after a fire destroyed the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John in Sycamore, the congregation gathered July 25 to celebrate paying off the debt of its new church with a mortgage-burning ceremony.
“The mortgage-burning event is an opportunity to gather as a church family and to share our joys and sorrows,” said Senior Pastor Paul Mumme. “God has been very good and gracious to us. He saw us through a devastating fire 17 years ago. It is evident that He is with us, even when we can’t see it. Refining gold and silver can only be done through fire. Like precious metal, we are refined and purified for better service to the community and putting our Christian faith into action.”
Now that its mortgage is paid in full, the church plans to continue its charitable work locally and around the world. The church offers a lending closet with medical equipment for the community, helps with local food drives and food pantries, hosts a free community Thanksgiving meal and Christmas live nativity annually and sends Bibles, books and human-care needs to Indonesia through a missionary organization. The church also plans to have a float in this year’s Sycamore Pumpkin Festival parade.
Bob Gehrke, the church’s treasurer, said paying off the $1.25 million mortgage is a great reason to celebrate.
“We have a very generous congregation, and we always come together to help those in need,” he said. “Now we can look forward to other projects down the road. We can do mission work and outreach right in our backyard and around the world. Now’s our chance to make a difference and lasting impact.”
Paul Meier has been attending St. John his entire life. His mother, Irene Nehring Meier, was a longtime choir director of the church and his grandparents, Paul A. Nehring and Elizabeth Nehring, were church benefactors whose donations helped establish the 1938 church.
Meier describes paying off the mortgage on the third church as a relief.
“It feels like a millstone’s been relieved from our shoulders,” he said.
Meier said a lot of credit has been given to his grandfather, but “it was every member that helped build the church.”
“It’s not about equal giving. It’s equal sacrifice,” he said. “We all gave in some way to make the church what it is today.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John began as a small group of German Lutherans worshiping in Hinckley. Community members first met at the home of the Rev. Henry H. Norden on May 28, 1876, in Hinckley, and that summer, they moved to the jury room of the DeKalb County Courthouse. The group named itself the German Lutheran Society in 1876.
In 1885, the church purchased a vacant church at Main and Exchange streets in Sycamore for $1,300. The building, which at the time was the second-oldest church in Sycamore, needed substantial repairs. The church was called the St. John Congregation.
In 1937, Paul A. Nehring, owner of First National Bank of DeKalb, donated two lots at the northwest corner of Main and Ottawa streets. His wife, Elizabeth Nehring, donated the family’s former home across the street to be used as a parsonage. Ground was broken Oct. 11, 1937, and the first church service was held June 12, 1938.
The congregation officially changed its name to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John on April 12, 1950. In 1982, the church rededicated its pipe organ, which was first built in 1938 and was rebuilt in 1981. An addition was added to the church in 1995.
The Rev. E. Timothy Frick, the church’s assistant pastor, said growing up in the congregation “was the foundation of many, many happy memories.”
“In the summer, we had a church picnic at Sycamore Park, during Pumpkin Fest. The ladies had a cream turkey meal and there was soup and sandwiches on Sunday because we were on the parade route, and my uncle and a friend of his put on the Easter breakfast,” Frick said. “Every holiday was joyously celebrated. We had live trees at Christmas and lilies at Easter. It was a beautiful church and a church body that was very faithful to God’s word.”
A large fire ignited in the church on Main Street shortly after 5 p.m. Feb. 9, 2004. The fire caused about $4 million worth of damage, and the building had to be demolished. Firefighters from 11 fire departments responded to the scene and two firefighters were injured in the blaze. Brad Belanger suffered first- and second-degree burns to his hands, and Bill Reynolds underwent emergency surgery for a broken leg.
Investigators believe that material left burning after a small fire on Feb. 8 likely caused the second, more destructive fire at the church. According to a Feb. 19, 2004, Daily Chronicle article, the smaller fire was sparked by a malfunction in the pipe organ’s blower.
When firefighters attempted to open doors to ventilate the building, the fresh oxygen created a backdraft, which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms called the largest recorded backdraft in the United States. The explosion blew off the building’s roof, leaving only the church’s stone exterior and charred wooden beams.
Frick was serving at a church in Genoa and received a phone call notifying him about the fire.
“I rushed over there as soon as I could, and you could [see smoke] from four miles away,” Frick said. “It was devastating. I just remember that there was snow on the ground and it was cold because it was February. People were all around watching the church burn, with the windows out and the roof gone. You could look through the front doors to see inside the church, where the altar used to be.”
Frick said losing the church in the fire “reminded us all that everything is temporary, and the only thing eternal is God’s heaven with Christ.”
“We all mourned the loss of that beautiful church building,” he said. “We had a lot of memories in that church building, and although the building is gone, the memories are not.”
Resurrecting from the ashes
The congregation’s first church service after the fire was held at the Sycamore High School auditorium the Sunday after the fire.
In a Feb. 16, 2004, Daily Chronicle article, the Rev. Donald’s Phelp’s sermon was described as reflecting “on the past week, sometimes with heavy-hearted humor, but with a strong focus on how things could have been worse,” and the question “What if?”
“What if this devastating fire had broken out not on Monday evening, but on Sunday morning when the church was filled with worshippers?” Phelps is quoted saying.
The church later held worship services at Johnson Controls and Cornerstone Christian Academy, both in Sycamore. Church officials decided to choose a new location to construct a new church.
Ground was broken for the new church at 26555 Brickville Road in Sycamore in August 2005. In addition to the sanctuary, the 30,000-square-foot facility includes a multi-purpose room, kitchen, nursery, youth room, classrooms and several conference rooms and offices. The new church also has a large parking lot. The previous church offered only street parking.
The new church, which is approximately 50% bigger than the previous one, opened its doors and celebrated its first service on Feb. 11, 2007. A formal dedication service, open house and facility tours were held April 29, 2007.
On June 27, 2010, the church dedicated a stained glass window, storage garage and a bell tower. The bell and Wisconsin Lannon stone used to build the bell tower were salvaged from the previous church building.
In December 2020, the congregation paid off its $1.25 million mortgage that was taken out to build the new church. The church has held numerous fundraising events, as well as a debt reduction drive, over the years.
Church Treasurer Bob Gehrke said the new building was one of the factors that contributed to his family first attending the church about 12 years ago.
“It’s a beautiful church out in the country, and I was amazed at the beauty of it,” he said. “My daughter is getting married in the church in September, the first wedding held inside the church since the pandemic began.”
Deaconess Carol Brown said that now that the church’s mortgage is paid off, “the church can focus on other projects, because our new church building definitely did not cost $1,300 like the first.”
“We are looking forward to growing and proclaiming God’s love like we have through the centuries,” she said.
Bill Nicklas, who was Sycamore City Manager at the time of the 2004 fire, said seeing the church celebrate its mortgage being paid is “wonderful news, because the fire was so devastating and losing a church with so much architectural significance and history was wrenching for the neighborhood, community and congregation.”
“The congregation has made a tremendous investment and they have a beautiful new church now,” Nicklas said. “I applaud the congregation for rising from the ashes and rebuilding.”