October 04, 2022

Echoes of the old country > Waldoboro’s German Lutheran church honors its past in annual service

Vater unser, der du bist in Himmell, geheiliget werde dein Name,” they prayed in unison. “Dein Reich komme, Dein Wille geschehe, wie im Himmel also auch auf Erde.”

It has been almost two centuries since the sound of German prayers have regularly filled the plain wooden church above the Medomak River in Waldoboro. Every Sunday for about 50 years, German immigrants gathered to worship in what is now called the Old German Lutheran Church.

Families huddled together in numbered square-benched pews in winter, seeking solace from the hostile environs of their new home. In summer, the sun beat down on the steepleless church and families in the balcony pews fanned themselves, most likely struggling against nodding off, while the minister challenged them to stay true to the tenets put forth by Martin Luther.

Today, the descendants of those first settlers gather once a year to worship in this austere frame church, constructed in 1772. Earlier this month, two Lutheran ministers conducted an afternoon service in German and English. More than 100 people attended the event. Most were brave enough to say the Lord’s Prayer in German, stumbling over the words as they read them from the program. Others recited the familiar prayer in English.

“The service is to remember the faith of the people who came here under very hard circumstances and built a church,” said the Rev. William Luger, pastor emeritus of Water of Life Lutheran Church in Newcastle. He conducted the English portion of the service, while the Rev. Michael Murphy, pastor of West Waldoboro Community Church, led the German sections, including the sermon.

What Luger calls hard circumstance others might consider fraud and trickery that brought the first permanent white settlers to what was then Broad Bay, Mass. Josef Roggenbauer, a retired professor of German, was doing research for his 1968 sabbatical from the University of Maine.

He was reading microfiche of German papers and saw an ad printed in 1742 urging settlers to come to what is now Waldoboro. Col. Samuel Waldo promised each family 160 acres, equipment, livestock, a school and a church, according to Roggenbauer. Between 1740 and 1763, 150 German families, mainly from the Rhineland, moved to Broad Bay.

When the settlers arrived they found nothing but Indians. Conrad Heyer was the first white child born in the settlement, and his father froze to death that first winter. Despite his desperate beginnings, Heyer grew to be a hardy soul and lived to be 106. He served with George Washington and was with the general on his famous crossing of the Delaware River.

Just as life in the river valley was looking up for the immigrants and the new country was forming, a group of men traveled north from Boston and claimed the land the Germans believed was theirs. The Brahmins had the deeds to back up their assertions. Many Broad Bay settlers were forced to move, buy new land and start over.

Yet, four years before the shot heard round the world rang out, 32 German Lutherans build a meetinghouse on the eastern bank of the Medomak River. Twenty-four years later, during the winter of 1794-95, the church was moved downhill, over the ice, then up another hill to its present location perched above Route 32 and flanked by a graveyard.

Just as the location of the building changed, so did the makeup of the congregation. With the turning of the century, parishioners began to decline in number. In a now familiar scenario, the older Germans insisted that the word be preached in the native language. Meanwhile, the second generation of young Teutons became bilingual, and the third no longer spoke or understood the language of their grandparents.

As the Civil War began, the church sat empty and silent while the tiny graveyard behind it grew rapidly with the bodies of young soldiers. The German Lutheran Ladies’ Auxiliary of the German Protestant Society was organized in the 1880s to help preserve the building.

The 21st century members are not sure when the summer service became a tradition, but Rebecca “Becky” Maxwell remembered attending them when she was a child almost 50 years ago. Heyer is Maxwell’s grandfather six times removed. She also is the town manager and president of the auxiliary.

Putting German back into the service is a recent development, dating back just three years. Murphy, who has led the service since 1995, was the catalyst. Despite his Irish surname, he was baptized, raised and ordained a Lutheran. In college, he learned to speak, read and write German.

In what some might consider poetic justice for those who contributed to the demise of the church nearly 200 years ago, Murphy decided to conduct the service in both languages in 1997. Two years ago, he asked Luger to take over the English portion of liturgy.

At this year’s service, the two alternated between German and English. The Psalm, Lesson and Gospel all were read in both languages. Each minister climbed the steep wooden stairs to the hourglass-shaped pulpit to deliver separate sermons. Those attending sang the hymns in the language of their choice.

David and Priscilla Smith of Walpole said after the service that they have known the church for years and wandered through its graveyard. It was their study of the German language that brought them to their first service at the old church.

“We like to hear and speak German,” said Priscilla Smith, who with her husband has been taking classes at the Penobscot School for about five years. “To take part in a service like this is a very special occasion.”

Ruth and Alan Cleaves on the other hand have been attending the service for a decade. When the decision was made to conduct the service in German, Ruth Cleaves, a native of Berlin, was asked to read the Lesson. She chose to use a German translation of the King James version rather than read from one the original congregation’s huge Bibles printed in 1765.

“The service gives everybody a touch of what it was like for our ancestors, said Renee Seiders of Nobleboro, a member of the Old Broad Bay Family History Association. “This keeps us connected to our past.”

While sightseers and descendants of the original settlers reveled in the past, Murphy focused on the future and next year’s service. The pastor said he wants to hold a Reformation service and offer Communion in German using the church’s original Communion set kept on display at the town office.

The first settlers in this river valley struggled to put down roots in a hostile land. They drew sustenance from their God as well as from the land. Yet, little did those Germans know how deep, strong and long-lasting their lives and customs would become.

They could not have guessed that nearly 200 years after the congregation scattered seeking to hear at the end of each service, “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace,” the same words in German would echo through the old church again.

“Der Herr erhebe sein Angesicht uber dich und gebe dir Frieden,” Murphy said Sunday as he blessed the congregation and sent them into the sunshine of the 21st century.

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