A Corner of San Francisco with a German Past
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, on the corner of Sixteenth and Dolores Streets in San Francisco, is a tangible reminder of both the city’s ethnic evolution and often forgotten German past.
After the start of the Gold Rush in 1849, people from all over Europe came to San Francisco and the West Coast, including Protestants (Lutherans and Reformed) and Catholics from German-speaking countries. Despite being an ocean apart and a continent away from their homelands, these immigrants wanted to have religious services in their own language and cultural setting. A wide range of ethnic churches was established in San Francisco, many of them catering even today to various European groups, including Russians, Scandinavians, Germans, Croatians, French, Greeks, Italians, and Irish. Assimilation, political pressure, and urban flight have left their mark on these congregations.
Today, St. Matthew’s is the only Lutheran church in Northern California offering weekly German-language services. Yet in the 1870s there were four German Lutheran congregations in San Francisco alone, as well as one German Reformed congregation, one German Evangelical (a union of Lutheran and Reformed) congregation, and the Roman Catholic German parish. The attraction of San Francisco for people from the German-speaking world was such that four years after the discovery of gold in 1849, there were consuls in the city representing the interests of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Hanover, Hamburg, Bremen, Austria, and Switzerland.
By 1905, German-speaking Lutherans worshiped at St. Mark’s, St. Paulus, St. Matthew’s, St. John’s, St. Andrew’s, and Zion Lutheran Church. Roman Catholics attended St. Boniface and St. Anthony’s. There were three Methodist and three Evangelical German speaking congregations. The German-speaking Baptist congregation also had its own church. At least two synagogues, Emanu-El and Ohabei Shalome, also served German-speaking immigrants. Emanu-El was founded in 1851 by members who came primarily from Bavaria. Although the congregations have changed over time, several of the old church buildings still exist. Unfortunately, the old building of St. Paulus did not survive a fire in November 1995 and had to be torn down.
St. Matthew’s first pastor, Hermann Gehrcke, served the congregation for over 40 years. He was born in 1863 and studied Theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany. After graduating from the Teachers College at Verden and serving as School Principal near Lüneburg, he immigrated to California in 1891. In San Francisco he became the Assistant Pastor to J. F. Fuendling at St. Mark’s. Pastor Gehrcke was ordained in 1893 by the Synod of California at the German Lutheran church in Sacramento. Subsequently, he saw the need to minister to the growing Protestant German community of San Francisco’s Mission District. With the support of the Synodical Home Missions Committee, he organized the new congregation of St. Matthew’s with twenty-eight charter members. The congregation gathered for the dedication service on February 10, 1895 in a rented church building on Eleventh Street between Howard and Mission Streets. The congregation grew so much that the building had to be enlarged. Unfortunately this building was destroyed, like much of San Francisco, during the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. This disaster was a major blow to the congregation, as many lost their homes and possessions. Prior to the earthquake, in August 1905 the present site of St. Matthew’s was purchased as the church’s permanent home.
With help from the Board of Home Missions, the cornerstone for the new church was laid on May 15, 1907, and the congregation was able to dedicate the new building, across from historic Mission Dolores, on March 29, 1908. It is said that St. Matthew’s was modeled after Pastor Gehrcke’s home church in Hildesheim, Germany. Although St. Matthew’s is built almost entirely of wood, the echoes of North German masonry churches are clearly evident. St. Matthew’s is well known for its beautiful stained glass windows. (See Photo Gallery for a virtual tour of the sanctuary and description of the windows.)
While St. Matthew’s was under construction following the 1906 earthquake, the congregation met at the then-Swedish Ebenezer Lutheran Church at 15th and Dolores Streets. At this time the Mission District also had a strong Scandinavian population. There were a Danish, a Swedish, a Finnish church and two Norwegian churches in the Mission District.
Following the earthquake, the congregation continued to prosper. American involvement in the First World War made being German or of German ancestry suspect in the eyes of neighbors and employers. At that time many German-speaking congregations in the United States gave up their German-language services and displayed American flags inside their churches as proof of their loyalty. It was at this time that Pastor Gehrcke added English-language services and English and German services were held on alternate Sundays and the congregation was able to maintain its linguistic identity. Pastor Gehrcke died in 1936, after over forty years serving his church and community.
Pastor Hermann Lucas succeeded Pastor Gehrcke at St. Matthew’s during what would prove to be one of the most difficult times for Germans in San Francisco. Pastor Lucas, a native of Stuttgart, had studied theology at the Lutheran Seminary at Kropp in Schleswig-Holstein, but in the aftermath of the First World War had a difficult time finding a congregation at home. Consequently, he immigrated to the United States in 1922. He served a congregation in Oregon before receiving a call to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Fresno, where he stayed for twelve years.
During World War II all churches in San Francisco holding services in German except for St. Matthew’s ceased to do so in 1941. “”It was not an option [to give up German],” said Dorothy Praeger, granddaughter of the founding pastor, Hermann Gehrcke. Despite anti-German sentiment, “the building was never vandalized,” said Praeger. In addition to his own congregation, Pastor Lucas counseled and ministered on a weekly basis to some 5,000 German prisoners of war held on Angel Island, Treasure Island, and at the Presidio in San Francisco. Following the end of hostilities, the congregations of both St. Matthew’s and St. Boniface sent significant amounts of relief supplies to the German-speaking communities in Europe suffering from the ravages of war. “The church hall was filled with bales and bales of care packages for Germany,” said Praeger, describing how the congregation of St. Matthew’s collected, packed, and sent foodstuffs and clothing to the refugees in Germany. Over an 18-month period, the German Relief Society centered at St. Matthew’s was able to gather 220,000 pounds of clothing and collect $100,000.00 which was sent to the Evangelische Hilfswerk (Lutheran Relief Society) in Germany. Pastor Lucas received a commendation and memorial plaque which reads:
The German prisoners of war of Treasure Island
Rev. Herman Lucas, the faithful pastor
during a time of great need.
Pastor Lucas continued to serve until his retirement in 1961. He died in 1972 at the age of 77.
Following the war, a new wave of German immigrants coming to San Francisco made St. Matthew’s their church home. One such immigrant, Hans Kraemer, came to San Francisco in 1961. Originally from Insterburg, East Prussia, he and his wife came to California after first having lived in Canada from 1955 to 1961. Immigrants like the Kraemers gave St. Matthew’s a new purpose and lease on life, as the earlier immigrants had, of course, aged. “Most came after the Second World War, and it was a place where we could come together,” said Kraemer, explaining the role St. Matthew’s played for the new immigrants.
The pulpit of St. Matthew’s, which had known only two pastors since the founding in 1895 up until 1961, now saw change much more frequently. After his retirement at the end of 1961, Pastor Lucas was succeeded by Pastor Dr. Hans-Ludwig Wagner, a native of Hamburg, Germany, who had left Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War and served congregations in Canada and the United States. Prior to coming to St. Matthew’s he had served at Zion Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Under his leadership attention was paid to ecumenical work and the needs of the surrounding community. Towards the end of 1968 Pastor Wagner accepted a call from St. John’s Lutheran Church in El Cajon, California. Pastor Lucas then accepted the request of the Church Council to serve as an interim pastor until a successor could be found.
In 1969 Pastor H. G. Kurt Adelsberger, born in Bärenfang, East Prussia, and educated at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Saskatoon, Canada, accepted the call to serve the congregation at St. Matthew’s. Prior to coming to St. Matthew’s, he had served at Peace Lutheran Church in Leduc, Alberta, Canada. His untimely death in early1989 after 20 years of service was a source of great sadness.
Pastor Dr. Hing Siem, an Indonesian of Chinese ancestry, who had ministered in West Berlin, stepped in to tend to the congregation as interim pastor until a new permanent pastor was found. He is fondly remembered and returned to Berlin where he currently resides.
Pastor Stephan Kienberger served St. Matthew’s from 1990 until 1994, when he accepted a call to the US Virgin Islands. During his pastorate closer ties with neighboring Lutheran churches were established and St. Matthew’s was a founding member of the Mission United Lutheran Parish.
Since leaving the St. Matthew’s he has served parishes in the Caribbean, Norway and Germany. Together with his wife he served in Palestine as a short-term missionary and supported mission work in the Gonja district of Northern Ghana. Pastor Kienberger and his family have been with American Church in Berlin since August of 2010.
Pastor Kienberger was succeeded by Pastor Susanne Donahue-Bombosch from 1995 to 1998. She received her theological education in Germany. During her studies she worked for the Red Cross and Bahnhofsmission. After arriving back in the USA, she was a resident fellow at Standford University and served at Messiah and Golden Gate Lutheran Churches.
Pastor Andreas Pielhoop became a Lutheran by virtue of being born into a family from the Hanseatic City of Bremen in Germany. Religious education was his favorite subject at school as well as English later on. After studying law and fulfilling his mandatory social service for conscientious objectors, he enrolled in Theology and Psychology in Bonn. Pastor Pielhoop completed his theological studies with a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary St. Paul, MN and the German equivalent from Tübingen. He was on the roster of both the church in Germany, where he served in Mainz and Wiesbaden, and with the ELCA. In 1996 he trained as a chaplain resident at Stanford University and added a second year at St. Louis, MO. After being ordained at University Lutheran Church, Stanford in 1996, he accepted a call to St. Matthew’s where he served from 1999-2003. He then completed special training for interim ministry and after serving at Our Savior’s Santa Clara, he received a call from the Sierra Pacific Synod to interim ministry.
Pastor Horst W. Gutsche succeeded Pastor Pielhoop in 2004 until his departure in October 2007. Pastor Gutsche was born in Hoiersdorf, Germany and moved with his family to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1956. He attended Northwestern College in Watertown, WI and the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK . He then attended seminaries in Oberursel, Germany and Saskatoon, SK and did post graduate work at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. He has done volunteer work among the newly resurrected Lutheran Churches in the countries of the former Soviet Union. After his ordination in 1975 he served several bilingual congregations in western Canada as well as Zion Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, NY before coming to St. Matthew’s.
Pastor Pielhoop then returned in November 2007 to lead the congregation in an interim capacity. His tenure lasted until July 2011. Since 2001 he also served as an assistant Night Minister in San Francisco. He has been a council member at St. Paulus and is working towards developing a joint Lutheran strategy for San Francisco.
On May 2, 2010 St. Matthew’s celebrated its 115th Anniversary at a combined service and on May 13th at a reception hosted by Consul General Rothen and his wife at the German Consulate in San Francisco.
After having served as a substitute pastor for several months, Pastor Robin Ressler officially assumed the role of permanent Pastor at St. Matthew’s in March 2012. She received a Master’s degree in Divinity, and graduated from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. An American of German descent she brought a wide range of academic and professional experience from her prior career in social and hospice work, which she gained in New York and San Francisco. Pastor Ressler had also worked in Slovakia, where she was a teacher and a Lutheran missionary. In her role as the Pastor at St. Matthew’s, she continued the tradition of the congregation being a spiritual center of the German-speaking community of the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as reaching out and embracing the local Lutheran community and the neighborhood that does not speak German. Pastor Ressler resigned her position at St. Matthew’s effective January 31, 2014. The congregation was served by guest pastors and preachers during its vacancy.
On May 4, 2014 the congregation called the Rev. Kerstin Weidmann to be its full-time pastor. She accepted on May 14 and began her duties at St. Matthew’s on July 1, 2014. Pastor Kerstin was installed on Sunday September 14, 2014 in a service officiated by the Rev. Susan Strouse, Dean of the San Francisco Conference of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA. The Rev. Dr. Diane Bowers gave the sermon.
Pastor Kerstin, a native of Delmenhorst (near Bremen) in the north German state of Lower Saxony, has been a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area since 1997. She received most of her theological and pastoral education in Germany, attending seminary at Kirchliche Hochschule Bethel, Georg-August-University of Göttingen, and Westfälische Wilhelms-University of Münster, finishing her studies with a double degree, equivalent to a M.Div. (Master of Divinity) and S.T.M. (Master of Sacred Theology). After moving to California, she fulfilled several requirements equipping her specifically for ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). As part of those requirements, she spent nine months in 2001 as an intern at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco where she was ordained in 2002.
Pastor Kerstin has served congregations both in Germany and in the Bay Area and has gained many insights from being in ministry on both sides of the Atlantic. Since taking her first call at Zion Lutheran Church in San Jose in 2002, she has continuously reached out to the German speaking population of the Bay Area. She established a German language ministry for young families in the South Bay, and offered regular family-oriented Easter and Christmas Services in German in the East Bay. As a German serving as a faith leader in the U.S., Pastor Kerstin sees herself as a hybrid. She is well acquainted with the challenges many German speaking immigrants face as they live their lives in the ‘New World’, including the issue of holding on to traditions and customs from the ‘Old Country’ while adapting to life here.
Our Church Today
Ongoing demographic and cultural changes present both challenges and opportunities for St. Matthew’s as a bilingual congregation. The neighborhood surrounding the church, near the center of the city and where the Mission district with its resurgent Valencia Street corridor, the now upscale Noe Valley area, and the predominantly gay Castro district intersect, has been undergoing relatively rapid gentrification with an influx of often transient urban professional and high-tech workers and the subsequent displacement of its previous mostly blue collar residents. The families of the original German immigrants have largely moved to the suburbs and have become assimilated into American culture. Many are no longer fluent in the German language, but still wish to keep some contact with their heritage and so often only attend services on the church’s major holidays. Our historical, diverse, and interesting corner of San Francisco continues to change, as it has in the past, is doing now, and will do so again in the future. Join us and participate in the continuing and evolving history of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.
It should be pointed out that St. Matthew’s does not receive any material support from the central umbrella organization of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in Germany or Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), unlike some other German-speaking congregations on the East Coast (Washington, DC and New York). Instead, St. Matthew’s is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
2014 Corner of San Francisco with a German Past (PDF format)
Adams, Edgar Holmes. Private Gold Coinage of California, 1849-1855. New York: 1912.
Adelsberger, H. G. Kurt, and Herman Lucas. Seventy-Fifth Anniversary 1895-1970. St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, San Francisco: 1970.
Betton, James L., ed., Money Talks: A Numismatic Anthology Selected from Calcoin News, Irvine, California: Hendricks Printing Company, Inc., 1970.
Byington, Lewis Francis, ed., The History of San Francisco, Volume III. San Francisco: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1931.
H. S. Crocker Company. Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory 1905. San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1905.
Hoick, Rev. John Edward, The Fruitage of Fifty Years in California: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of California in Connection with the United Lutheran Church in America. Los Angeles, 1941.
Klinck, Daniel Noble, ed., The Legacy of the Strybings: Pioneers in the Clipper Ship Trade between New York and San Francisco. Louisville, Kentucky: 2007.
Leeds, Wilbur. “Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.”December 1974
Marr, Günther. Geschichte der Kirchengemeinde Römstedt und Ihrer Pastoren. Uelzen, Germany: Niedersächsische Buchdruckerei, 1960.
Memorial Record, # 13, p. 50. – Alice Phelan Sullivan Library, Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 1915 4/5.
Schmalenberger, Carol, “Before the Earthquake and Fire of 1906: Lutheran Congregations Organized Prior to the Great San Francisco, California Disaster” Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Sullivan, G. W., Early Days in California: The Growth of the Commonwealth under American Rule, with Biographical Sketches of Pioneers, Volume I. San Francisco: Enterprise Publishing Company, 1888.
Willard, Ruth Hendricks; Carol Green Wilson; Joseph Armstrong Baird, Jr.; and Roy Flamm. Sacred Places of San Francisco. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1985.
Year Book of the United Lutheran Church for 1937, Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1938.
California Historical Society
678 Mission Street
San Francisco CA 94105-4014
California State Library
California History, Room 200
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PO Box 942837
Sacramento CA 94237-0001
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
2770 Marin Avenue
Berkeley CA 94708-1597
San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco History Center / Book Arts & Special Collection Center
100 Larkin Street
San Francisco CA 94102
The Society of California Pioneers
300 Fourth Street
San Francisco CA 94107
Strybing Arboretum Society Library
Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA 94122
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