Editor's Note: This story, written by Gary Achterberg, originally ran on the front page of the May 17 issue of The News Graphic, the community newspaper of Ozaukee County.
When much of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was destroyed in a four-alarm fire Tuesday, a part of Concordia University Wisconsin went up in smoke with the iconic church.
“The ties were deep and long, considering the fact that Concordia’s classes first met there,” said Larry Sohn, a historian who managed CUW’s extensive archives until his retirement last summer.
Sohn, along with others with strong connections to the church at Ninth Street and Highland Avenue, drove to downtown Milwaukee to survey damage from the blaze that spread quickly.
Sohn said many of the 13 charter Concordia students, who started class Sept. 1, 1881, were from out of town. They were adopted by “Sunday parents,” local families who met the boys – some as young as 14 – for church and then took them home for Sunday dinner.
“Concordia started as a single-purpose institution to prepare young men to enter the seminary to become pastors of the church,” Sohn said.
The school grew. By January 1883, it moved to its own site at 33rd and State streets, where it blossomed to a campus of about 16 buildings. The school remained there until 1983, when it relocated to its current Mequon location along Lake Michigan.
Sohn recalled the shared history as he stood across the street from the charred remains of the church and spoke by cell phone Wednesday morning.
“It’s a time of stress for the congregation – it’s sad to see, but yet there’s hope,” he said. “The important thing to remember is that it’s God’s house. His work goes on. His mission of having us preach the gospel will continue, not only at Trinity but at other places.”
There are other ties between Trinity and CUW.
John Behnke served as the main organ teacher at CUW and was Trinity’s organist.
“He was an excellent instructor of organ and handbell,” said Sohn. Behnke retired from CUW several years ago and lives in the Grafton area.
Christian Himsel, CUW’s director of library services, married his wife Kari in the church. His three boys, Nathanael, Jonathan and Christopher, were baptized there. He started working at CUW in 2004. As Himsel’s ties to the area grew, his family joined what is now Christ Alone Lutheran Church in Thiensville, where his children attend school.
Himsel heard about the fire just after he got there Tuesday.
“I’ll be honest, I was really taken off-guard,” said Himsel, who served on Trinity’s Board of Elders when he was a member: “It was hard to watch.”
Himsel returned to the Milwaukee area in the early 1990s after completing a graduate degree. He was immediately impressed by Trinity, which was built in 1878.
“Not only was there good preaching from the pulpit, but the organist preached through his talent as well,” he said.
Trinity became “a spiritual home” for the Himsel family.
“The congregation is a very small, but diverse group,” he said. “They’re very unified in their faith and their caring for the community around them.”
The church was magnificent inside and the congregation worked hard to keep everything in good repair, he said.
“It wasn’t a museum piece,” he said. “It was actively used in ministry.”
While the TV coverage was difficult to watch, Himsel said he was compelled to drive downtown on Wednesday to see the aftermath first-hand.
As he stood across the street, as close as police allowed, he saw an open door.
“Across the street, in the dark and through that door, an unilluminated picture of Jesus stood out as plain as day,” he said. “It reminds us that the church is more than bricks and mortar.
“When you focus on that pictures, it’s really all about Christ,” he added. “In the midst of a burned-out building, throughout the history of the church, there is hope at times like this.”
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