In 1895, several dozen families of St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park, Illinois, opened a branch Lutheran school at Augusta and Belleforte, in northwest Oak Park. Harlem Avenue, the main north-south thoroughfare that linked the two towns, was not paved in those days, and attending the new school meant that students would not have to trudge through mud to get to class.
The school flourished, and in 1902, the school families and others chartered a new Lutheran congregation in Oak Park, for which they chose the name Grace. In 1904, they erected a church structure next to the one-room schoolhouse--a brick building with a tall steeple that still stands today.
In 1922, Otto A. Geiseman was called to be pastor at Grace, and thus began an era of growth and outreach into the non-German, non-Lutheran surrounding community. A larger church and school building was dedicated in 1931. The building, in the English Gothic style, was designed by the architectural firm of Talmadge and Watson. It was erected on the corner of Division and Bonnie Brae, across Harlem Avenue in neighboring River Forest, adjacent to the campus of Concordia Teachers College (now Concordia University). Despite the Depression and World War II, the congregation was debt-free by 1947. A new wing was added to the school in 1952.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of steady growth for Grace. F. Dean Lueking, who had come to the congregation as an assistant pastor in 1954, became pastor in 1963, after the death of Geiseman. The church and school communities enjoyed a close relationship with Concordia, which is owned and operated by the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, the larger church body to which the Grace congregation belonged. Grace School served as the lab school for Concordia's teacher education program, and many faculty members and their families were members at Grace.
Controversies in the Missouri Synod during the late 1960s and 1970s led to the congregation's decision in 1978 to leave the synod and become an independent Lutheran congregation.
Through the years, God has blessed Grace with gifted leadership. Victor Waldschmidt served as principal of the school for 33 years. He was succeeded in 1980 by Gerald Koenig, who retired in 2000. Hugh Kress served as principal from 2000-2009. The current principal is Bill Koehne, who came to Grace from the staff of Walther Lutheran High School. Paul Bouman came to Grace in 1953 as a teacher, organist, and choir director, and with Carl Schalk, founded the Bach Cantata Vesper Series in 1971. He retired in 1983 but continues to participate in Grace's musical life as music director emeritus. John Folkening served as music director from 1983 to 2000. Michael Costello is the current cantor.
From the late 1940s through the 1980s, a series of assistant pastors served the congregation for two- or three-year terms. In 1990, the congregation called its first permanent associate pastor. Phyllis N. Kersten, the first woman pastor at Grace, served as associate pastor from 1996 until her retirement in 2008. Pastor Lueking retired in 1998, and Bruce K. Modahl was called to be senior pastor later that year. Kelly Faulstich joined the staff as associate pastor in November 2008.
Expanding ministries and the changing needs of the church and school led the congregation to construct a substantial building addition, dedicated in 2001. The new building includes modern classrooms, a large gymnasium, a youth room for junior and senior high programs, meeting rooms, and office space. The remodeling of the old building added rehearsal space for the music program and upgraded Fellowship Hall from part-time gymnasium to full-time meeting space.
Grace's constitution and governing structure call for wide participation from lay leadership. More than 90 individuals serve on boards and committees; many others volunteer their time and talents in the church's healing and teaching ministries and its many activities. We look forward to a future in which the people of Grace, nourished by Word and sacrament, continue to witness to the good news of the Gospel in the congregation and in the community.
Grace Under Pressure, by F. Dean Lueking (Richmond, VA: Skipworth, 1979).
These books are available in the church library.
Building on the Vision Video