Next week, when the pastors and lay staff of ELCA congregations in Texas and Louisiana meet at the Tri-synodical Theological Conference in New Braunfels, we are returning to a historical site for Lutherans in Texas. In fact for those coming from Houston, or flying into Houston then driving, the journey is one that four of the six pastors from the St. Chrischona school in Basel, Switzerland made in mid-November of 1851, after founding the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas.
In 1846 Texas became a state, and the Republic of Texas was no more. Immediately, immigrants began flowing in, and colonists arrived from elsewhere in the United States. According to H. C. Ziehe, in his A Centennial Story of Lutherans in Texas, published in 1951, the Lutheran Synod of South Carolina sent George F. Guebner to survey the mission needs of the area in 1850. He assembled a small congregation in Galveston, but only stayed a short time.
On May 7, 1850, Pastor Caspar Braun of Beaver, Pennsylvania was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Synod for mission in Texas. He arrived on June 11, conducting his first service on June 15. He would become the first pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston, organized a year later. He would serve for 30 years.
The next two pastors came from the St. Chrischona School in Basel, Switzerland. They graduated in 1850: Theobald G. Kleis and Christoph Adam Sager. They arrived in Galveston in the fall of the 1850. Sager went to Victoria, establishing himself in Meyersville (northwest of Victoria). Pastor Kleis went up to Neighborsville-Hortontown on the opposite bank of the Guadalupe from New Braunfels.
Pastor Kleis began holding open air services along the banks of the Guadalupe River. This pastor, in his mid-twenties, built a building there to serve as a church and a school. It cost $253.
The congregation grew. A letter went to St. Chrischona saying that there was ample work for many more pastors.
So it was, that in 1851, St. Chrischona sent six pastors, their entire 1851 graduating class, to Texas: John George Ebinger, Christian Oefinger, John Conrad Roehm, William T. Strobel, Henry Wendt and Philipp Frederick Zizelmann.
These men were ordained on June 29, 1951. They boarded the Franziska at Bremen on September 2, 1851, setting foot on Texas soil in Galveston Wednesday, November 5, 1851.
They immediately discovered that Pastor Guebner had departed, leaving no instructions. Not a soul was expecting them. The congregation organized by Pastor Guebner, now seven families, provided them lodging. Pastor Wendt stayed in Galveston to serve that congregation. The other five travelled 12 hours by steamboat to Houston to consult with Pastor Caspar Braun.
On Monday, November 10, 1851, Martin Luther’s 368th birthday, a convention was held, and the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas was born. Pastor Kleis was there from New Braunfels. Caspar Braun in Houston, then 29 years of age and the oldest pastor in Texas, was elected president of the synod.
On Friday, November 14, 1851, Stroebel, Oefinger, Zizelmann and Roehm headed west by stagecoach. Their route was not exactly I-10. The first night they stayed at Washington on the Brazos. They arrived in Seguin a week later, on Friday, November 21, and in Neighborsville-Hortontown (New Braunfels) the next day. They travelled a little over 20 miles a day on road so bad, Pastor Roehm describes them in his journal like this: “Such a coach and roads! Never had I even imagined the kind!”
These pastors went their separate ways, seeing one another once a year for synod convention. Kleis took Strobel to Victoria where he served Trinity for many years. Kleis took Zizelmann and Oefinger to San Antonio. Roehm walked to LaGrange (from Seguin).
The six pastors that constituted the First Evangelical Synod of Texas ended up serving as follows:
• H. Wendt was in Galveston,
• J. G. Ebinger was at Spring Creek (north of Houston),
• J. C. Roehm in LaGrange,
• P. F. Zizelmann at San Antonio,
• C. Oefinger at Castroville (west of San Antonio),
• W. T. Strobel at Victoria
Additionally, the earlier pastors remained as follows:
• C. A. Sager was at Meyersville,
• C. Braun was in Houston,
• T. Kleis was at Neighborsville-Hortontown (New Braunfels).
Kleis only lived to 1853, dying at the young age of 27. He was part of a small crop of frontier pastors that left everything to serve the gospel in a foreign land.
St. Martins no longer exists as a congregation, and the building is no longer where it originally was. By 1900 the Texas Synod could no longer afford a pastor there, and in time the building was abandoned as a meeting house. The school site was eventually given to the Comal School System. I believe the Goodwin Primary School is there now. The building was moved a short distance to the cemetery on Loop 337, where it now resides.
We always think about the missionaries we send abroad, and how vital their work has been. We sometimes forget that our churches exist today because someone else sent missionaries here. We were once considered a foreign mission field. I hope we will continue to make mission work a priority, both here and abroad, not to manipulate or proselytize, but to spread the love of Christ to the ends of the earth.