History

First Bethlehem Lutheran Church was the eighth congregation of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to be organized in Chicago. It is currently the fourth oldest church of that synod still in existence.

First Bethlehem's first church building, 1871-1889

First Bethlehem's first church building, 1871-1889

First Bethlehem Lutheran Church was organized in July of 1871. The area around the church was not directly touched by the fire that swept Chicago in October of that year, but many people decided to move into the then largely unpopulated area served by the church. It completed its first building, which was constructed with a wood siding facade, in early 1872. The core of that building remains, although in 1889 the entrance was remodeled, portions of the nave were enlarged, and the exterior was covered in brick. Thus, if you judging the age of a building based on its core and not on any later remodeling that occurred, First Bethlehem has the oldest building of any Missouri Synod church in the city of Chicago.

First Bethlehem Exterior circa 1940

First Bethlehem Exterior circa 1940

First Bethlehem was the site where, in 1894, the first Lutheran service was conducted in sign language. This led eventually to deaf mission work being started in five states. At present it worships in English, but at various times it has had weekly services in German and Spanish, too.

First Bethlehem has always been concerned about education. It operated a day school from 1869 (two years before the church’s official formation) until 1985. In 1995, it began offering English as a Second Language classes for a decade and, in 1999, GED classes.

First Bethlehem has also always tried to meet the physical needs of its community. In 1984, it opened a small food pantry, which has grown over the years. More recently, it has hosted a neighborhood group and started a Generations project to serve elderly residents of the neighborhood.

In honor of our 140th anniversary we posted a series of articles with more information about our church’s history under the title Learning from our History. This is still something worthwhile reading as we look forward to our 150th anniversary in 2021.