First Evangelical Lutheran Church Celebrates Sesquicentennial

by | May 31, 2024

Above: The FELC congregation in May 2024. Photo by Kerri Stowik Photography

Submitted content

On May 19, 150 people joined together in festival worship and enjoyed a celebratory luncheon to honor the 150 years of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Greenwich – a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

The New England Synod Bishop, The Reverend Dr. James Hazelwood shared an inspirational message, “The local church is the hope for the future.” Former Pastors Mark Hultquist, Brett Hertzog-Betkoski, and Linda Forsberg were present and assisted in the service. We were thrilled when the children of Pastor and Mrs. Norman E. Henry (who served the church from 1955-1984) stepped forward to cover the cost of a hand-designed ornament, depicting the three famous stained-glass windows above the altar at FELC and the church’s Sesquicentennial.   

Our Director of Music, Philip Martorella, brought in several musicians and singers who provided inspirational music throughout the worship service. Musicians included: Birgitta Whited, Astrid Drew and her daughter Astrid, of the Scandinavian Women’s Chorus, Leota Springer, Pastor Mike Lembke, Aaron Gukian, Gino Cicchetti, Laura Furlong, John Faiola, and the Greenwich Bay Brass ensemble, including two sons and two grandsons of the Reslow family who performed with their father / grandfather, Leif.  Many of the song selections were either sung in Swedish or reflected the spirit of those Swedes who formed our community 150 years ago. 

A brief history of First Evangelical Lutheran Church: 

During the late 1800s, Sweden was suffering from a great famine. Mill owners in America were recruiting able-bodied men to work and many answered the call. The first to arrive sent letters home describing the opportunities in America. In one small town in Sweden, nearly 40 percent of their young men emigrated. Many of the mill owners lived in East Greenwich as the town was a central trading location and situated on the bay. Quite a number of these immigrants from Sweden built homes in the Hill and Harbor District, which was then known by the locals as “Swede Hill.”  

The area in Sweden where these families lived had a reputation of being deeply religious. These devote Swedish Lutherans immediately took steps to establish a community of faith in East Greenwich. Very few had horses and carriages so they wanted to be within walking distance of church which initially took place in homes. They met regularly for worship, Bible study, hymn singing, community events and fellowship. They were welcomed into the homes of Swedish families already settled. 

On May 23, 1874, First Evangelical Lutheran Church was incorporated in the State of Rhode Island. They could then procure land with funds they had pulled together among the two small churches, one on Spring Street, which now houses the Scout Troop 2, and the other is now a family home on Division Street. On June 13, 1874, a second organization was held at which the constitution was accepted and a church board was elected. The church members pledged 10 cents per week, and raised enough funds to complete the church as it now stands on Division Street at the completion in 1906. The Swedish language was spoken in church services until 1928 when Swedish and English were spoken on alternate Sundays. In 1943, use of the Swedish language was discontinued, and the church name changed from the Swedish Lutheran Church of East Greenwich to First Evangelical Lutheran Church (FELC).  

In October of 2023, Ms. Marlene Haglund Hatch stepped forward to lead the Anniversary Committee. She received enthusiastic support from the church council and mobilized volunteers to accomplish the many tasks in advance of the May 19th celebration. Special thanks go to Mrs. Maura McKone, Miss Edith Johnson, Mrs. Patti Reslow, Mr. Thad Henry (son of a previous pastor, Reverend Norman E. & Josephine Henry, his wife; both of whom served from 1955 through 1983), Mrs. Nancy Swanson, Mrs. Joyce Cusick Saenz, Mrs. Karen Lundberg Manning, and Chairperson Ms. Marlene Haglund Hatch, who served as the planning committee. A subcommittee of Dr. Kim Nelson, Mrs. Agnes Summerly, Mr. John Seubert, Ms. Marge LeBeau, Mrs. Lexie Riggs, Mrs. Jane Hentz, Ms. Kerstin Thell Ottmar, Miss Emily Swanson, Mr. Bob Kestler, and Mr. Mike Saenz supported them as well as did the entire Church Council.  We hosted an Easter Egg Hunt in March as an introduction to the celebration. Twenty-three (23) children and their parents enjoyed a wonderful Easter event. 

The Sesquicentennial Celebration continued with a panoramic photo taken of the entire congregation, as has been the tradition every 25 years, and then by the celebration luncheon. A mobilization of volunteers, some of whom flew in from Florida and Minnesota, were on hand to help with the success of this event and whom will lead future volunteerism at FELC into its next 150 years. Amen! 

Pastor Mike Lembke offers a prayer during the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of East Greenwich. Photo by Kerri Stowik Photography

The scene at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church parish house May 26, 2024. Photo by Kerri Stowik Photography

A news story about the church’s 100th anniversary. Submitted photo

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