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Trinity Lutheran Church -- 150th Anniversary
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Metro NY Synod, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY

Trinity Lutheran Church -- 150th Anniversary


Trinity Lutheran Church and Wagner College

A Shared History

Presented at the Lutheran Heritage Evening

Wagner College

October 24, 2006

[slide 2]

Trinity Lutheran Church celebrates its 150th Anniversary this year; Wagner College is 123 years old. For most of those years, their stories have intertwined, and each institution has benefited greatly from the other. Tonight I would like to give you a very brief overview of some of the highlights of that history, concentrating on the difficulties involved in moving Wagner College from Rochester, NY to Staten Island.

[slide 3]

The focal point of the relationship has always been the Rev. Frederic Sutter, who served as pastor of Trinity from 1907 through 1964, and as Pastor Emeritus until his death in 1971. He also served as Chairman of Wagner’s Board of Trustees for 40 years (1919-1959) and as Interim President of the College three times.

Frederic Sutter was born in Stambach, Germany in 1875 and moved to the United States in 1881.

[slide 4]

In 1883, Wagner College was started as the “Lutheran Proseminary” in Rochester, NY, with the expressed purpose of preparing young men for Seminary, eventually to serve German-speaking Lutheran congregations.

[slide 5]

In 1888, Frederic entered Wagner College at the tender age of 13. A year later, the NY Ministerium (today known as the Metropolitan NY Synod of the ELCA) took ownership of the college – becoming the first Lutheran synod to own a college.

[slide 6]

Frederic graduated in 1894, entered the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and was ordained in 1897. [slide 7] In 1907, he was called to be pastor of the German church in Stapleton. [slide 8]

Interestingly, Pastor Sutter refused the first call from the congregation, mainly because the attendance at his trial sermon was so sparsely attended. As he later remembered, “If that’s how much interest there is here, God help me.” But the leadership of the congregation persisted, and called him a second time. He finally accepted. Had the church not been so insistent, Wagner’s and Trinity’s histories may well have been radically different.

Pastor Sutter set about immediately to bring changes to Trinity. He introduced English services and increased membership to the point where the old frame church, which had stood on the site since 1866, was no longer big enough to meet the needs of the parish. In 1913, the old building was demolished, and the Gothic brick and stone structure -- which still stands today -- was opened with great fanfare in September of 1914.

[slide 9]

By the way, the contents of the cornerstone included:

  • Church Yearbook, 1912 [slide 10]

  • Constitution of the Congregation [slide 11]

  • German catechism [slide 12]

  • Jubilee Report of the Congregation, 1906 [slide 13]

While Pastor Sutter was busy in Stapleton, Rochester had been growing apace. [slide 14]

As early as 1901, the Synod recommended that the college should find a new location, and put forward the New York City area as a desired site. This recommendation was ignored for several years, since the college seemed to be doing well right where it was. However, by 1916 Rochester had grown from a small city to a sprawling metropolis. Wagner College was now surrounded by buildings and railroad yards. Apparently the Synod felt that the noise and bustle of a growing city were not conducive to the education of future ministers. Something had to be done.

But 1916 was a year of challenges and peril.

[slide 15]

One of the largest polio epidemics in the United States occurred that summer; there were over 27,000 cases reported from 26 states -- a third of them in New York City alone. One in four children who contracted the disease perished. The World War in Europe was entering its third year, and anti-German sentiment in the US was growing. [slide 16]

But Pastor Sutter remained optimistic. In his annual report for 1916, he wrote:

While the World War with its horrors rages on, and moves our hearts with sympathy, and it sometimes seems that we will also be drawn into the vortex, we have so far been spared. The Lord stands by us, he leads and guides us as the wise and graceful shepherd of Israel. We will hold fast to the words of the psalmist: “Commend your ways to the Lord and hope in him, and he will make everything well.”

In June 1916, Frederic Sutter was elected to Wagner’s Board. The very next month, the new church tower was struck by lightning. If this was a warning that there were difficult times ahead, Pastor Sutter ignored it.

[slide 17]

On October 25, 1916, there was a Special Meeting of the Synod in Utica to determine where to move Wagner College. In attendance were 63 Pastors – including Pastor Sutter -- and 33 lay delegates – one of whom was Edward Meurer, a prominent member of Trinity. I quote here from an excellent history of Wagner’s early years, written by Walter Schoen, a Wagner student, in 1957:

There were two opposing factions at the meeting. The Rochesterians favored the relocation of the school in another part of the city or its suburbs. The other group advocated a complete move to New York City, which had become a great Lutheran center. ‘The New York faction won out to the keen disappointment of the Rochester men.

The vote was 57 to 33 – hardly unanimous.

And now the task to find a suitable place for the college on Staten Island fell to Pastor Sutter. Together with Edward Meurer, he combed the island looking for possibilities, taking photos and drawing maps. This seemingly innocent activity drew some unwanted attention, though. The United States was rapidly moving towards war, and all German-Americans were suspected of being spies. One month before the U.S. entered the European conflict, an article appeared in the March 3, 1917 edition of the New York Times. Surrounded by such headlines as “Paris Not Surprised at German Intrigue”, “All Nations Now Know Teuton Style of Double Dealing and Lying”; and “Americans Tell of German Officers Operating in Lower California”, is an article entitled

Pastor Denies Teuton Bias [slide 18]

Mr. Sutter Also Refutes Rumor About Photographs of Ports

For the last week there have been rumors on Staten Island that police officials were trying to run down the information contained in an anonymous letter . . . . to the effect that a prominent pastor in Stapleton and some of the most prominent men in his flock were distributers [sic] of literature tending to bias the feelings of German-Americans in favor of Germany.

The letter . . . also contained the information that photographs of Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hamilton were in possession of these men, with blueprints showing the best sites adaptable to forts on the island. There were also rumors that arrests had been made. . .

The Rev. Frederic Sutter, pastor of the German Lutheran Church on Beach Street, Stapleton, said last night that he had been interrogated a few days ago by Manhattan detectives, as was Edward Meurer, one of the most prominent members of his congregation, but that they had both satisfied the investigators that they were loyal American citizens. Both are naturalized.

The pastor and Meurer . . . admitted they had . . . frequently toured about the island looking for a site that would best be suited for a college.

We hear more echoes of this atmosphere of mistrust and prejudice that pervaded America at the time in this excerpt from Pastor Sutter’s 1918 annual report of the state of Trinity: slide [19]

The German school, sadly, was attended by only a few children. The widespread hatred against all things German has made itself especially felt in this branch of our ministry.

But even in the face of all this, Pastor Sutter and the Synod carried on. After all, 1917 was the 400th Anniversary of the Reformation, and the celebration of this event must have inspired them to keep pushing forward.

[slide 20]

They identified the former Cunard Estate on Grymes Hill as the ideal site for Wagner. When word of this got out, the Synod received a telegram from Cornelius G. Kolff, secretary of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce – and a member of Trinity. He enthusiastically welcomed the college to Staten Island, and offered $100 as the first subscription to build a “giant statue of Martin Luther . . . on the college campus” which would “be seen for miles at sea – a first and imposing welcome to America for every protestant entering the port of the great Metropolis of the Western Hemisphere. . .” [slide 21]

Mr. Kolff apparently did not worry about what non-protestant immigrants would think about a 50 foot high statue of the great reformer. It’s probably best that this project was never carried through. I suspect Pastor Sutter put the money to a more practical use.

The asking price for the Cunard Estate, which was actually owned at this time by Oberlin College, was $70,000. Pastor Sutter offered $60,000. They agreed on $63,000. That was the easy part.

Now, a little background info is needed here. Wagner College got its name originally from John Wagner, who gave the Rochester Proseminary a gift of $12,000 in memory of his son. [slide 22] According to the terms of the gift, it would revert to Zion Lutheran Church in Rochester if the college ever changed it’s charter; that is, if it ever became other than a Proseminary that prepared bi-lingual ministers for the Lutheran church. Since Pastor Sutter’s plan for Wagner was to make it into a liberal arts college, it was feared that not only the original gift of $12,000, but also all subsequent holdings of the College – including the Cunard Estate -- might legally revert to Zion. Remember, there was a large faction that never wanted the College to move. So here was the plan: purchase the estate in the name of the Synod, not the College.

But to get a mortgage, they needed $23,000. The Synod only had $5,000 on hand. On July 10, 1917, the Synod treasurer, the Rev. Dr. Justus F. Holzstein, sent this letter [slide 23] to Pastor Sutter, describing his ordeals in trying to get the mortgage.

Dear Brother Sutter,

. . . It is very urgent that we arrive at a decision in regard to the $18,000; else we are simply stuck. In accordance with your suggestion, I have obtained the . . . Synod resolution . . . to authorize [us] to use the . . . Jubilee Fund of Wagner College for the purpose of securing the property on Staten Island . . .. I then went to Title Guarantee and Trust Company . . . and presented this document. The answer was exactly as I anticipated: “This means nothing and is absolutely of no use.” Here are a number of questions I was asked: “To whom does the money of the Jubilee Committee belong?” (To us, the Ministerium, whose treasurer I am, absolutely.) “Very well, then, if you have the money, why don’t you use it?” (We have the money, but it is solidly invested in mortgages. . . ) “Why don’t you simply sell the mortgages. . . “ (We prefer to keep the mortgages as may be necessary.) “With what do you intend to pay back the . . . $18,000 to be borrowed?” (That should really be our own affair.)

The letter goes on and on; I will spare you further details. Suffice it to say that the Rev. Dr. Holzstein was out of ideas.

But not Pastor Sutter. He came up with a simple solution. He knew that Dr. Holzstein was a wealthy man; he suggested that he buy the property with his own money, hand over the deed to the Synod, who would then hand it over to the college. Dr. Holtzstein reluctantly agreed. I assume that, as treasurer of the Synod, he was in a good position to insure that he would be repaid. Or perhaps he just wanted the pain to stop! So in September 1917, the Cunard Estate temporarily became the property of Dr. Holzstein, who then handed over the deed to the Synod.

But before it could be transferred to the college, one vital question had to be decided: just who would have ultimate control over Wagner – the Synod or the Board of Trustees? [slide 24] As Pastor Sutter said years later, to have the Synod in control would be “a dangerous proposition to my way of thinking.” After what must have been very interesting discussions, a deal was struck whereby the Synod gave the deed to the Board in return for the stipulation that all members of the Board be members of the Synod. The deed was delivered. And so, after a long and complicated struggle, Wagner College finally arrived in Staten Island.

Building of the president’s house began immediately, along with a small building that I have not seen mentioned before in any history of Wagner College. According to this small item in the minutes of the June, 1918 Synod Assembly,

A cement-block structure, twelve feet square and ten feet high, . . . has been erected on the Wagner College grounds, with metal roof and door.

. . . The written record books and documents have been placed in the building, also a plain table and two chairs for the use of parties who may wish to examine the books and documents.

This small structure was built to house the archives of the NY Ministerium. The report was written by the Synod Archivist, the Rev. Pastor G.H. Gomph. And in fact, it was his last act as archivist, since he died soon after the building was completed. As the current archivist of the Synod, I have to say: thank you, Pastor Gomph.

From the very beginning of Wagner’s existence on Grymes Hill, Trinity was closely involved with Wagner. In Pastor Sutter’s Annual Report of 1918, [slide 25] he announces a fund-raising effort:

Certainly all members and friends of our congregation are ready to work together . . . to support an institution where Christian education and basic formation will be cared for. We Staten Islanders especially should be ready to bring offerings for this purpose, in order to bestow our gratitude and as an expression of appreciation that we have a school in our neighborhood which will become an infinitely great blessing. I am always ready to accept donations for this fund.

This effort raised $10,000 for Wagner.

The Board of Wagner in 1918 included two members of Trinity, Pastor Sutter and Edward Meurer. Trinity was known as the “College Church”, and it offered its gymnasium for the use of the students.

While glancing through the records of Trinity Church, I found evidence of a continuing relationship through the years. For example,

  • In 1920, Wagner students filled out the tenor and bass sections of the Trinity choir. Pastor Sutter had complained that the choir had “apparently lost interest in their singing.” So he brought in ringers.

  • On June 19, 1928, Trinity’s Council sent this resolution to Wagner College: “Resolved that this Board, with profound gratitude, takes cognisance of the action taken by Wagner College in awarding the degree of Doctor of Divinity on its beloved Pastor Sutter. That we thankfully acknowledge that the bestowal of the first degree ever awarded by this college is a most deserving honor, recognizing our pastor’s spiritual and secular leadership in all matters pertaining to our church and Wagner College, as well as to his personal worth and integrity.”

  • In October 1928, Mr. John Hazen, a member of Trinity’s Council, was elected to the Wagner College Board of Trustees, and also elected treasurer.

  • During the 20’s and 30’s, Pastor Sutter’s ministerial duties were handled during his summer vacation by the Rev. Ludwig, Dean of Wagner College.

  • The faculty of Wagner used the Parish house during the summer of 1929.

  • In 1935, the first lay President of Wagner College was elected: Clarence C. Stoughton. Prior to this, Mr. Stoughton taught Math at the college, was Secretary of the Trinity Church Council, and Superintendent of the Sunday School.

And today, the connections still abound. Many members of Trinity are graduates; some are professors; one is the chaplain. Our elementary school’s track team uses the Wagner facilities for practice. A Wagner graduate student is our school’s resource teacher. I could go on, but it’s almost time to eat.

I will end with one more story.

Once Wagner was established on Grymes Hill, the next step was to become an accredited college. The New York Board of Regents told Pastor Sutter that they would need a $500,000 endowment to make that happen. So Pastor Sutter and Clarence Stoughton went on the road. I will let Pastor Sutter say the rest: [slide 26]

I got wind of a well-to-do man who owned a smelting plant in Tottenville, so I went to see what I could get out of him. When he looked up from his sandwich and asked what I wanted of him, I replied, “I want your money.”

How much do you have in mind?” he asked.

A good slice of it,” I said.

He offered me $25. I told him I didn’t want it. We argued up and down the lane until he finally gave in with $500.

When we had pledges totaling more than $540,000, I went back to the Board of Regents to ask if we had fulfilled the first requirements for accreditation. There was a man there whom we had dealt with. He said, “Nothing doing. I want to see the money in the bank, not just on pledge cards. I know you Lutherans.”

Some things never change. Thanks very much.