A Brief History of Emanuel Church
In 1849, 89 years before the von Trapp family fled from the Nazi’s in Austria, Johannes Kerler and his family fled Germany because they were concerned about the rising militarism in that country. Their journey was not an easy one, but they were able to immigrate to America and settled in what is now part of Greenfield, WI. They farmed the land, became part of the local community, and worshipped at St John’s Lutheran Church near 68th street and Forest Home Avenue. Johannes had married twice but experienced the misfortune of losing both wives, and so took on a life-in housekeeper. When Johannes passed away in 1885 Pastor Turow of St. John’s proclaimed that because Johannes had a housekeeper live in his home he had “lived in sin” and was therefore condemned to hell.
Louis Kerler was one of the five children of Johannes. He was outraged at the statements made by Pastor Turow and joined discussions with his friends and neighbors about forming a new church – one with a more tolerant and accepting point of view. In 1888, the first meeting of the Evangelical Emanuel Church of Hales Corners was held. Philipp Jung, Louis Kerler, Christian Schmidt, Otto Neussel and Adam Conrad were elected as Trustees, and they signed a deed to purchase 4 ¼ acres of land in Hales Corners from William Cobb. The price was $875, to be paid with a $350 down payment and the balance due over the next 5 years at an annual interest rate of 6%. A wood frame church building was constructed on the land that same year. Before 1888 was done there would be 7 baptisms and a wedding held in Emanuel Church. Those founding members of Emanuel Church had faith in their community.
In 1889, the minutes from the church meetings note that a motion was made, seconded and carried to purchase a blackboard and table for the church school, and thus began a focus on Christian education that continues to this day. Today, Emanuel Church has a very active Board of Christian Education that coordinates Sunday school for children, adult education classes, confirmation classes, Bible Study, Vacation Bible School, youth and family events, as well as occasional special activities.
In 1890, the minutes from the church meetings note that a motion was made, seconded and carried to purchase a Melodeon reed organ, and thus began a long history of including music as an integral part of the life of Emanuel Church. Today, Emanuel Church is blessed with a music
program that includes the senior choir, the youth choir, the bell choir and the youth hand chime choir, as well as many members of the congregation that contribute their musical talents on a regular basis. Visiting musicians add their gift to our worship services several times each year, and the Community Chorus practices and holds concerts at Emanuel twice each year. The South Milwaukee Band also holds concerts at Emanuel.
In 1895, the minutes from the church meetings note that a motion was made, seconded and carried to grant all women members of Emanuel Church full and equal voting rights on all matters pertaining to the church, establishing a tradition of inviting all of God’s children to worship side-by-side and share in God’s Grace. It is worth noting that this action was taken by Emanuel Church a full 25 years before the same voting rights for political elections would be granted to women by Constitutional amendment.
These are all examples of how the early years of Emanuel Church set the tone for what has become a 125 year old center of faith in our community. Here are words from the 1894 annual report of the congregation: “With the help of God, the year 1893-1894 has been for our church another year of God’s spiritual and material blessing. We look up to our Father in Heaven full of gratitude for the Gospel of His mercy and forgiveness.” Here are words from a 1906 letter calling a new Pastor to Emanuel Church: “The Pastor shall perform the Divine Services regularly and take special interest in the spiritual affairs, he shall conscientiously instruct the persons who he is going to confirm and shall also take special interest in the education and welfare of the young people.” The concerns voiced in that 1906 letter still remain today, and one of the responses to those concerns has been the establishment of Parks Edge Preschool as a ministry of Emanuel Church. Today, Parks Edge Preschool is a 5-star rated provider of quality Christian-based child care with full accreditation from the National Accreditation Commission for Early Care and Education Programs. The name Parks Edge Preschool was selected because the church property adjoins and overlooks Whitnall Park.
One of the ways that funds were procured for the initial purchase of land and construction of the first church building was through the selling of cemetery lots. The cemetery has been part of the history of Emanuel Church from the beginning, and many of the founding members of the congregation and their descendants lie in rest there. Over the years, additional land has been acquired and the original 4 ¼ acres has grown to more than 7 acres.
The history of Emanuel Church has not been without periods of challenge. In 1937 the Evangelical Lutheran Synod merged with the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Pastor of Emanuel at that time could not accept the merger. He left Emanuel Church and a majority of the congregation went with him. The minority that remained were many of the same families that had originally founded Emanuel Church. There was a dispute about ownership of the church property between these two groups, and the matter wasn’t settled until a 1940 State Supreme Court decision ruled in favor of the founding families. The other group went on to form the Whitnall Park Lutheran Church, just a short distance away from Emanuel Church.
Thankfully, that kind of split did not occur in 1957 when the Evangelical and Reformed Church joined with The Congregational and Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ denomination. By the late 1950’s, the membership of Emanuel Church had outgrown the original building and plans were made for a new structure, which was dedicated in 1962. That building remains in use today, although there have been multiple renovations and an addition over the years. Today Emanuel enjoys a more energy efficient, handicapped accessible facility that is used by the church, by Parks Edge preschool, and by several community groups.
Mission outreach has always been a part of Emanuel’s history, and that legacy remains as part of today’s church as well. A generous gift from the Kurth family has allowed Emanuel to establish a fund that distributes grants to individuals and organizations in need within the communities that are served by Emanuel. In addition, volunteers from Emanuel assist with preparing and serving meals four times each year at The Guest House, shelter for homeless men; serving a mid-day meal six times each year at The Gathering, a meal program offered to all in need; active service in Southwest Interfaith by our members, providing rides to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, or other such needs for neighborhood seniors so that they can remain living in their own homes. Each year, our congregation provides financial support to programs such as Our Church’s Wider Mission, One Great Hour of Sharing, Neighbors in Need, The Christmas Fund, and local food pantries.
In 2012 Emanuel became an Open and Affirming congregation welcoming all persons regardless of sexual orientation, race, nationality, ability, age, marital status, economic status gender, and gender identity to fully participate in all aspects of our Church’s life and ministry. Emanuel Church feels called to provide “radical hospitality” to our neighbors. Our Stated Mission is to encourage faith in God as the focus of our lives, and to empower us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to: worship God joyfully; learn about God’s intentions for us; serve others with love.
After 125 years, we still have faith in our community … and descendants of Johannes and Louis Kerler remain as members of the congregation today.