Organist adds continuity to Bagley’s Zion Lutheran Church
By Audrey Posten
At Bagley’s Zion Lutheran Church, a lot of things have changed in 130 years—the location, the ministers, the congregation size, even the religion itself.
When the Bagley settlement first established a church on June 18, 1876, in a schoolhouse near what is now the Bagley Cemetery, it was a Presbyterian congregation, under the leadership of a Presbyterian minister from Boscobel.
However, by July 1883, the mostly German—and largely Lutheran—settlers worried that their children would drift away from the Lutheran doctrine toward Presbyterianism, so Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church was officially organized.
In 1898, the church purchased two lots in the village of Bagley and moved the church building to its current location at 225 N. Bagley Ave.
During the congregation’s early years, it relied on traveling ministers, as finances were too meager to afford a residential pastor. It was not until 1892, with the arrival of Dr. Max Fritschel, that the church secured a long-standing pastor. Fritschel presided over the church for 42 years, ending his tenure in 1934.
“When Professor Fritschel said he wasn’t coming anymore, we were worried we wouldn’t get anyone,” recalled Evelyn Caya, who was confirmed in 1933, and is Zion Lutheran’s organist, as well as its longest-standing member.
The fear was unfounded, as Rev. J.J. Lippoldt replaced Fritschel in 1934, becoming the first resident minister. Lippoldt instituted a number of changes, including the addition of a basement, a larger altar area, stained glass windows and a vestibule with a spire above it in which a bell was hung.
In 1937, the church organized a campaign that raised over $600 for the purchase and installation of a pipe organ. The organ became so popular that the church charged 25 cents per hour for those who wanted to practice.
It was then that Caya learned to play.
“I taught myself to play,” she said. “I never had a lesson.”
In 1949, when the church’s organist left, the minister asked Caya to take over.
“I told him, ‘I’m just not qualified. I’ve never had a lesson,’” Caya recalled. “But he said, ‘You already sing in the choir and read music. You can do this. God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.’”
Aside from a handful of years when she moved away from Bagley, Caya has been playing the organ ever since.
“I’ve worn out two organs,” Caya said with pride.
Over the years, both Caya and her music have added continuity to the ever-changing church.
“I don’t think church would be the same without Evelyn’s music,” said Jean Oppermann, a Zion Lutheran member.
For a congregation that once boasted over 100 members, congregant Bud Wood said there are now a little over 20.
“Times have changed so much,” said Caya. “Church used to be your social life. Us kids on the farm liked to go to choir practice just to get away. Now, Sundays aren’t just for church-going.”
Caya and Wood said the smaller congregation size at Zion Lutheran, as well as other area churches, is also attributable to the changing farm communities.
“In the earlier days, so many people farmed and just stayed around here,” Caya explained. “Then they came to church.”
Wood agreed, mentioning that the “slug of kids” the congregation once had—kids who participated in Sunday school, Bible school and a kid’s club—moved away.
“Kids have to move away now to college, to the big city, to find jobs,” Wood said. “We’re just not getting those families anymore.”
Despite the changes, Zion Lutheran members look toward the future, while also embracing the past, as they celebrate the church’s 130th anniversary on Sunday, June 30. The celebration will include a 10 a.m. service, officiated by Pastor Pamela Strakeljahn, followed by a potluck dinner. The event is open to all community members, with Wood, Caya and Oppermann hoping to see new faces, as well as former members who have moved away.