An older gentleman who walked with a cane was coming into Zion United Church of Christ through the back door Sunday morning for the 10:30 service, and needed a little more time to cross the threshold. Fellow members coming up the steps as he was walking in did what comes naturally to them — they lent him a hand and made him feel welcome.
It’s hard not to feel welcome at Zion UCC, where members greet newcomers and visitors with warm smiles, friendly hand-over-hand handshakes and a sincere offer to show them around the church and extensive facility. Plus, they wear nametags each Sunday to encourage conversation and help people get to know one another.
The atmosphere is one that Zion’s founding members, no doubt, would be proud to witness 100 years after they came together to establish the church at the corner of Washington and Springfield avenues in downtown Union.
According to the Zion UCC history booklet, back in 1912, the church was organized in response to a need for a more local place to worship.
“Most of the founding families had been attending the Presbyterian (the only Protestant church in town) or taking the lengthy buggy or wagon ride over muddy roads to St. John’s Church at Mantels or St. Jordan’s Church at Jeffriesburg, both several miles away,” the history reads.
“But by 1912, there were enough German Protestants among the 1,000-person population of the county seat to decide to build a church of their own.”
The First 75 Years
Records show it was a group of 16 ladies of the community who took charge, meeting with the Rev. F.P. Jens, superintedent of Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis, to organize the Evangelical Zion’s Ladies Aid, which led to plans being set for a group of about 50 people to begin worshiping together.
The Rev. Jens initially led these services in the Presbyterian Church building, but members soon purchased a lot at the corner of Washington and Springfield avenues where they could build a church of their own.
The 16 ladies who took the first steps toward organizing Zion were:
Mrs. Bertha Clark, Mrs. Emma Fink, Mrs. Anna Dress, Mrs. Emilie Fink, Mrs. Katharina Fink, Mrs. Anna Gehlert, Mrs. Berta Gorg, Mrs. Lizzie Heeger, Mrs. Minnie Holtgrewe, Mrs. Henrich Jung, Mrs. Katharina Kundert, Mrs. Anna Pfeiffer, Mrs. Marie Rapps, Mrs. Zweifel and Mrs. Sophie Young.
It was 14 men, however, who signed the constitution and bylaws officially founding Zion Evangelical Church on Aug. 19, 1912. They were:
Fritz Barlage, George Fink, John L. Fink, Emil O. Greise, Henry Heeger, Henry Kundert, Emil C. Mantels, Otto J.H. Mantels, C.B. Maune, O.H. Maune, Henry Muenstermann, Ferdinand Pfeiffer, Henry C. Vossbrink and Charles Young.
The cornerstone was laid on Nov. 10, 1912, and the building was dedicated May 18, 1913.
The church sponsored a Sunday school right from the start. The first year it had a five-member German class and an 18-member English class.
Minutes of the congregational meetings for the first two years are in German, and two worship services were held each Sunday — one in English and the other in German.
The Rev. Carl Fritsch Sr. was pastor of the new church.
By the end of the 1913, Zion’s membership had grown from 14 families to 43, and the Ladies Aid group that started it all had 50 members.
During World War I, German was dropped — as the Sunday school language, for keeping church records and for the second worship service. Ladies Aid meetings, however, continued to be held in German. It didn’t begin to hold meetings in English until 1923.
German services were reinstated by 1921 when they were held on alternate Sunday mornings.
Ladies Aid purchased a pipe organ for the church in 1924. Cost was $2,475. Lucas Fink was the church organist.
Zion has reached out to its youngest members from its earliest years.
In 1921, a Young People Society was organized and published the Zion Herald, a church paper with ads from Union businesses.
Four years later, a Senior League for those 15 and older was organized. Members met on Sunday nights for devotionals and on Monday nights for business and social activities.
The Senior League sponsored the first confirmation banquet and put on plays, held chili suppers and organized lawn socials to raise funds. The group sponsored the first Franklin County Rally of Evangelical Young People in October 1936.
In 1929, a Junior League for children 8 to 15 years old was organized under the name “Busy Bee League.”
In the mid-1930s, with the Depression dragging on, the pastor, the Rev. Schenk, reduced his salary.
Around that same time, Zion became an E&R church when the Evangelical Synod of North America joined the Reformed Church.
Members began receiving Communion in the pews, rather than at the altar, in 1940.
After World War II, plans to build an addition took shape, and an educational building adjacent to the church was completed and dedicated in 1949.
A groundbreaking ceremony for a new church was held in October 1958. The new church was financed entirely by bonds sold to members.
During construction, which involved tearing down the original church, worship services were held in the grade school auditorium across the street.
The new sanctuary was dedicated in February 1960.
In 1962, Zion members played an important role in developing Camp Mo-Val.
And although the E&R Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches of the United States had united back in the ’50s, it wasn’t until 1968 that Zion E&R officially changed its name to Zion United Church of Christ.
A bell choir was added in 1976 under the direction of Ann Hartley. A junior bell choir led by Gail Mefford also was added.
In 1986, Zion purchased a church van to help with church group and worship transportation.
Additional property adjacent to the church was acquired in 1965 and 1975.
The Last 25 Years
In the late 1980s, the Stierberger property on West Springfield was developed into a parking lot.
A chapel was built at Zion Cemetery in the early ’90s. The cemetery is located next to the Union City Cemetery on the north end of town. Zion had purchased the 5-acre piece of land to start the cemetery back in 1915.
The coffee hour was started in the library lounge around 1992-’93, around the same time that the first confirmation reunion was held.
A church preschool was added in the mid-’90s, and an addition to the church was made in 1997.
The Zion UCC website was developed in the late ’90s, and members began wearing name tags to Sunday services to help visitors and newcomers feel more comfortable.
New stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible were added to the church and narthex in 2001.
The church school began the Faith Quest workshop rotation system, which combines learning with doing. Classrooms offer engaging activities — Bible stories are read to children as they sit in a tented-space (“Abraham’s Oasis”) on soft rugs and plush pillows; movies of popular Bible stories are screened in a theater room with stadium seating and actual theater seats; and a puppet theater (“Peter’s Playhouse”) gives children the chance to act out popular Bible stories.
And in 2010, an automatic telephone system to contact members was purchased.
‘Rooted’ in the Community
Zion’s current senior pastor, Dr. Michael Bone, who joined the Union congregation in 2009, said members stand out among other churches where he has served because of their involvement in the community.
“Rootedness” is the word he used to describe Zion.
“I’ve never seen a church as deeply rooted in the community,” Dr. Bone said, referring to the more than a dozen activities Zion holds or is involved with to benefit the Union area community — things like the Union Food Pantry, Emmaus Home, Habitat for Humanity, Camp Mo-Val and more.
“Other churches have a sense of place, but they are not always so invested in their community . . . the interests of the congregations are not so firmly fixed on the city,” said Dr. Bone.
He likened the effort to the words the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the exiles.
“He said, ‘Pay attention to the city . . . where you are now, plant a tree.’ To me, that symbolizes Zion,” said Dr. Bone. “It’s a warm and welcoming church.”
Members also describe Zion as a “friendly” church, and their actions support their words.
Celebrating the Centennial
Zion began celebrating its 100th anniversary on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2011, by ringing the bell 100 times at midnight.
Since then, members have held nearly monthly activities and events to mark the milestone. These include several Sons of Zion returning to lead the services, a hymn sing service, a service in the park, a piano recital by the wife of a past member who now lives out of town . . .
This past Sunday, Sept. 16, was Music Sunday, when members honored Zion’s choirs and directors.
This weekend, the church will hold a private anniversary banquet on Saturday night and a 100th Anniversary Service of Thanksgiving on Sunday, Sept. 23.
Activities will continue into Novmeber.
The Next 100 Years
Pastor Bone said Zion recently put together a centennial plan to look ahead to the next 100 years.
“It may be a bit presumptuous of us,” he said, “but we want to plan.”
The plan includes eight objectives which were delegated to the church’s various committees. One of the objectives, he said as an example, is hospitality and the need to “rebrand” Zion.
“We can’t be ‘the church across the street from Fricks when Fricks moves,” said Dr. Bone. “We are looking to the future.”
By the Numbers
Over the last 100 years, Zion has celebrated:
2,098 weddings; and