The Rev. Timotheus Stiemke was in a difficult situation.
He’d been assigned to a new Lutheran congregation in the little town of New Start (a few miles south of Serbin), where he was installed on the fourth Sunday in Advent in 1874. Stiemke was the second pastor to serve the congregation, which had only been founded twenty-one months earlier.
But those twenty-one months had been pretty rough.
A few years earlier, in 1870, an ongoing squabble in the Rev. Jan Kilian’s Wendish congregation about four miles up the road in Serbin had resulted in the organization of a competing congregation which established itself just across the cemetery from the original church. About one-third of Kilian’s flock joined the new St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.
The schism was painful for Kilian, who had hoped to establish a united Wendish community in Texas where the culture and language of his people could be preserved. To add insult to injury, the Missouri Synod, to which Kilian belonged, assigned a pastor to the upstart congregation.
Yet there was more. At the height of the disagreement, prior to the establishment of the St. Peter’s congregation, the Synod sent the Rev. Theodore Brohm to Serbin to attempt to smooth things over. During Brohm’s visit, apparently encouraged by some of the would-be separatists, he rode to West Yegua (today Fedor) and helped organize another congregation there for folks who had previously belonged to the Serbin parish.
But the rift would become even more painful for Kilian. His efforts at conciliation had the unfortunate side effect of alienating his close friend, Karl Teinert, who served as cantor and organist at the Serbin congregation, now known as St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Before that, Teinert had traveled with Kilian from town to town as he served independent Wendish Lutheran congregations in Prussia.
Teinert, who like Kilian was a strong proponent of the preservation of Wendish culture and language, remained at Kilian’s congregation for some time. But in 1873, he and others from both the St. Peter and St. Paul congregations who lived in the area of New Start organized a church and school there.
Kilian, who was watching his dream crumble, naturally opposed the formation of a fourth congregation nearby. There were at the time only a handful of Missouri Synod congregations in the entire state of Texas (Kilian’s had been the first), and three were within twenty miles of one another.
Apparently those at St. Peter’s felt the same way. In a rare moment of unity, the two congregations both refused to grant peaceful releases to those who aligned themselves with the new congregation.
Teinert, much like his erstwhile friend Kilian, was a strong advocate for the Wendish language and culture. Many in his congregation were of a similar mind, and they wished to have a Wendish pastor who could conduct services in Wendish.
That was unlikely, though, since there were very few Wendish pastors affiliated with the Missouri Synod. In fact, three of them were already in the area: Kilian, the Rev. Pallmer at St. Peter’s, and the Rev. Proft at Trinity in West Yegua.
To make matters worse, the Synod refused to recognize the new congregation due to the ongoing conflict with the two existing congregations in Serbin. Not only could they not have a Wendish pastor, but they also wouldn’t be able to get one from the Missouri Synod at all.
The folks at the new congregation at New Start were unwilling to reconcile with the two churches they’d left in Serbin, so they doubled down and asked the Texas Synod.
The Texas Synod (perhaps with some encouragement from Kilian, though this is just speculation on my part) assigned the new congregation a pastor. That pastor, the Rev. Eduard Zapf, would only serve the congregation for a mere nine months before dying on June 21, 1874. However, during those nine months those within the congregation who weren’t happy with the Texas Synod affiliation attempted to convince Zapf to join the Missouri Synod without success.
Following Zapf’s death, the Texas Synod did not have another pastor available to fill the pulpit in New Start, so they sent a recently-licensed candidate, Mr. Frederick Jesse, to the congregation. As with Zapf, some in the congregation tried vigorously to bring him into the Missouri Synod fold, but they again failed.
It’s hard to say exactly how long Jesse ministered to the little flock, but it couldn’t have been more than a few months, because the congregation’s desire for a Missouri Synod pastor grew so great that they decided to try to reconcile with St. Peter, St. Paul, and the entire Missouri Synod.
They even submitted an apology to the synod as a whole that was published in its periodical, Der Lutheraner. Although it would be some time before they were able to reconcile with Kilian’s congregation, the Missouri Synod quickly accepted their apology and soon after that Rev. Stiemke arrived. Teinert was so unhappy with this turn of events that he left the congregation that he’d been so instrumental in establishing.
When Stiemke arrived in New Start, he was just out of the seminary, and a mere twenty-seven years old. He’d been born and raised in Wisconsin, so Texas was a pretty big change for him. His new congregation was still on edge. Even though they now had a Missouri Synod pastor, that pastor was unable to speak the Wendish language that many of his flock wanted to use in its services.
So how did this young outsider who didn’t speak the lingua franca earn the trust of his new congregation?
He learned their language.
For months after his arrival, it was common to see the lamps burning late into the night at one particular home in the community. That was the Rev. Stiemke’s home, where he sat at the feet of the elders of the congregation until he was able to commune them in their native tongue.
In time, Stiemke won the hearts of those in his little congregation. He would go on to be the first pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Houston in 1880 (another difficult situation). Two years later the Missouri Synod’s new Southern District would choose him to serve as its first president, a position he held with distinction for six years (1882-1888).
The little Holy Cross congregation at New Start, which would move a few miles down the road to Warda, grew during Stiemke’s tenure there, and after his departure, they were served by another remarkable pastor, the Rev. Gottfried Buchschacher.
But that’s another story.