The words hanging over the doorway leading in and out of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ at the corner of Fifth and Market streets in Downtown Washington say it all: “Enter to Worship,” “Depart to Serve.”
“That really does characterize who we are,” said the Rev. Gary Schulte, who has served as pastor at St. Peter’s UCC for the last two years. “And people live that here. I see it.”
The mission was in action following the worship service Sunday, Aug. 25, as about 60 members gathered to fill 75 emergency cleanup buckets for Church World Services to distribute in the wake of natural disasters, including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. The church devoted 100 days to collecting items needed to fill the buckets.
The project perfectly reflects the mindset of members at St. Peter’s, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year — the best way to mark their major milestone is by doing something tangible and meaningful for others.
The church is known across the community for things like hosting the free weekly Harvest Table community meal and the annual Festival of Trees at Christmas to collect food and donations to stock the local pantries. St. Peter’s, in fact, operates its own food pantry to serve the community.
“We open our church to a lot of different things,” said Patty Wood, chair of the anniversary committee and a past president of the congregation. “The Civic Chorus rehearses here, we have AA groups that meet here. We have Great Decisions book group that meets here, literacy groups (tutor and students) who meet here.”
“All of those things are emblematic of the church being a really integral part of the community,” said Jon Bauer, who also serves on the anniversary committee and is a past president of the congregation.
The church’s location in the heart of Downtown Washington is key to all of that.
“St. Peter’s really made a decision to stay downtown and to serve the population here,” said the Rev. Schulte. “It’s not always easy. If we had newer and modern buildings that weren’t just sort of put together at various periods, maintenance and all of that would be smoother, but we have made a conscious decision to stay.”
Began in Log Cabin
St. Peter’s UCC was founded in 1844 as the German Protestant Church in Washington. It was the second church to be established in Washington, second only to St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church.
Its first church was a log cabin built at the corner of Third and Lafayette streets in Downtown Washington, where a storage unit business stands today. That was the edge of town, at the time.
A second, larger brick church was built just west of the first structure, and the current church was completed just after the Civil War in 1868.
“The first person to serve this church was the minister of Femme Osage (the Rev. Hermann Garlichs),” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Schwab, pastor emeritus, who served as pastor at St. Peter’s UCC from 1982 to 2006. “He would come across the river when he could make it. My understanding is they would ring the bell to let people know if the minister was going to be here to hold service.”
Accessible to All
Additions and improvements to the building at St. Peter’s for decades have been driven by the will of the congregation to make the facilities more handicap accessible, said the Rev. Schwab.
Currently, members are looking into what it will cost to make more of the church’s restrooms and the back entrance more handicap accessible.
The front entrance and restrooms in other parts of the building already are fully accessible, Schwab noted, but the doors at the back lot could benefit from having an electronic device installed so people in wheelchairs could open the doors, and restrooms near where the Harvest Table meal is served could be more accessible.
Its not just by chance that the members at St. Peter’s UCC are interested in making the facility as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. One of its native sons was the late Rev. Harold Wilke, who was born without arms, grew up in the St. Peter’s congregation and went on to champion the need for the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Wilke was actually on stage with then-President George H.W. Bush when he signed the ADA into law in 1990.
“The Americans With Disabilities Act has really changed how we approach architecture and buildings and accessibility in our country, brought it to the forefront,” said Bauer. “That has meaningful roots here and in a personal way, with Harold Wilke, being born and raised in this area, being confirmed here and having a life that has literally affected millions of people.”
Emphasis Placed on Education
From its earliest years, St. Peter’s members valued education, and without a public school available to the community, established its own school that was open to all children, not just to members. It remained open until 1918.
Perhaps even more notable is that St. Peter’s built a private high school in 1887 that was open to both boys and girls. It was unusual to have a co-ed high school at that time, Schwab pointed out.
Students from outside of Washington enrolled at the school, and local residents opened up their homes to offer room and board, said Schwab.
The school was sold to Washington Public School System in 1900 and still stands today on Locust Street, where it is used as the Washington School District administration building.
And although St. Peter’s hasn’t operated a formal school for more than 100 years, education continues to be an important part of its weekly message. The church holds Bible study, weekly Coffee With the Pastor, Vacation Bible School and more.
Cemetery Welcomed People of All Races, Traditions
In 1875, St. Peter’s purchased land on the east end of what is now Fifth Street to establish a cemetery. The first 3 acres were purchased from the Hausmann family for $150 an acre.
St. Peter’s didn’t limit who could be buried in its cemetery, said Schwab. It was one of the first in the community to allow African-Americans to be buried there and open to receive people of other races and traditions.
Outreach Through Music
The music at St. Peter’s is another thing the church is known for, said Schwab, noting the church has always maintained a very good pipe organ.
Bauer, who joined the church in 1987, noted it was the performance of the handbell choir at a Christmas Eve service that initially drew him in.
“Music is still an important part of outreach for our church today,” Bauer remarked.
St. Peter’s has not shied away from bringing different styles of music into the church. In recent years, the Saturday evening services have even included jazz music.
St. Peter’s holds two services each weekend — one on Saturday evening at 5 p.m. that tends to be more informal, and another on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.
The church officially has 650 members, although not all are active or even living in the immediate area anymore. Many members who have moved away like to maintain their membership, said Wood, coming here for services on holidays and special events.
Active members include many people from Washington and beyond, including communities like Union, New Haven, Marthasville, even Wright City and St. Louis.
“It’s kind of a regional church,” said Schwab.
Pastor Schulte noted that St. Peter’s service is “an open table,” meaning that its Communion service is open to everyone, not just St. Peter’s members or even UCC members. That is a reflection of the people who are members.
“I think the openness of the table really does translate into the openness of hearts and how people view things,” he said.
175th Anniversary Events
St. Peter’s has been celebrating its 175th anniversary all year with events featuring fellowship and food, including a New Orleans-style shrimp boil to an ice cream social. There also was a concert featuring the music of Jennifer Judd, Ann Hirschl and Aiden Ip
“It’s really been a vibrant anniversary,” Pastor Schulte remarked.
The celebration kicked off in January with Rev. Dr. Ginny Brown-Daniel, conference minister for the Missouri Mid-South Conference, of which St. Peter’s is a part, leading the worship service.
In February, Dr. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, came to preach at St. Peter’s. And the Rev. Jeffrey Schwab, son of the congregation, led a worship service in May.
Later this month, the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, will be at St. Peter’s. He will give a lecture Saturday, Sept. 14, at 5 p.m. which will be followed by a catered meal.
The lecture and meal are open to the public. The cost of the meal is $15 per person. To register, call the office at 636-239-6176.
Dr. Dorhauer also will lead the worship service Sunday, Sept. 15.
And the celebration will culminate Sunday, Oct. 13, with a worship service led by the Rev. Bill Schwab.
Hear the Message, Practice the Message
As excited as members of St. Peter’s are about celebrating the church’s past 175 years, they do so with an eye to the future and an understanding that their work continues. This is an opportunity to do more.
“Since its start, St. Peter’s church members have lived their discipleship both humbly and boldly before the community of Washington and beyond,” the church’s website reads. “Giving God our best through worship, Christian education, outreach and a strong commitment to walk in Christ’s ministry, vision and way has guided our congregation throughout its history.
“2019 will mark our 175th anniversary in the town of Washington, but more importantly, it will mark 175 years of faith-filled work and witness.”
Church members use words like “warm and welcoming,” “inclusive” and “progressive” to describe St. Peter’s.
“It’s also very open to each individual’s path,” said Bauer.
The Rev. Bill Schwab believes St. Peter’s strikes a nice balance between preaching about personal salvation and saving society.
“We try to have a good combination of both things, being very supportive of individuals and their faith journey, and also calling for our society to be supportive of people,” he said.
Pastor Schulte agreed. There is a responsibility to hear the message shared during the worship service and then practice that message and put it in action when you leave, he said.
Again, “Enter to Worship. Depart to Serve.”