The Division Street congregation marks 150 years in 2024.
Imagine life in 1874 in Rhode Island when employment for the most part was found in the large textile mills, and many were hired as servants in the homes of wealthy mill owners. Many of the mill owners lived in East Greenwich as that was a central trading location, situated on the bay. Quite a number of these immigrants were from Sweden built homes in the Hill and Harbor District, which was then known by the locals as “Swede Hill.”
During the late 1800s Sweden was suffering from a great famine, and when the mill owners came recruiting able-bodied men to work, 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. The area in Sweden where these families lived had a reputation of being deeply religious. Very few had horse and carriages, and therefore stayed within walking distance, meeting in their homes to continue their heritage Lutheran faith. They met regularly for worship, Bible study, hymn singing, community events and fellowship. They were welcomed into the homes of Swedish families already settled.
In 1874, First Evangelical Lutheran Church was incorporated in the State of Rhode Island. Land was purchased with funds from two small churches, one on Spring Street, which now houses the Boy Scouts, and the other which is now a family home on Division Street. The church members pledged ten cents per week, and by 1906 raised enough funds to complete the church as it now stands on Division Street. 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).
From 1874 to 1995, eleven ministers were called to lead this congregation. Pastor Norman Henry was installed in November of 1955. Pastor Henry brought much modernization to the church. It was during Pastor Henry’s tenure in 1962 that the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Synod became the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and we stand today as a member of the ELCA’s New England Synod. Pastor Mark Hultquist continued to lead the congregation in wonderful ways from 1984 to 1995. In 1996 the first woman to be called to lead a parish in Rhode Island was Pastor Linda Forsberg. Pastor Linda, as she was affectionately called, revitalized the youth programs, including, instituting the recognized “Homeless Awareness Weekend.” She also served as the pastor for Church Beyond the Walls, a street church in Providence, and taught at Salve Regina University after completing her doctorate degree. She served for 26 years. The Juilliard trained and esteemed musician, Philip Martorella, still provides musical accompaniment to spiritual growth.
Pastor Mike Lembke is the current pastor. As a chaplain in the US Army for 30 years, Pastor Mike served at posts in nine states, Germany, Belgium, Iraq, and Bosnia. He brings his gifts of music and songwriting to enliven services.
During this Jubilee Year, we are celebrating 150 years of the Lutheran faith in East Greenwich, which predates even the earliest Lutheran churches in Rhode Island. “Knowing Jesus, we love and care for all through the power of Christ” is the current mission statement. All are welcome. After 150 years, First Lutheran is still “gathered around the Word of God to grow as individuals and as a congregation.” We hope that if you are looking for a spiritual relationship and a community of faith that you will consider a visit to First Evangelical Lutheran Church (FELC) of East Greenwich. Help us to bring the FELC into the next 150 years through service, fellowship, and worship.
For further information or for questions about the FELC Anniversary Celebration, please reach out to Marlene or about FELC to Karen, both at [email protected].