Here, you will find information about our history, our current staff and leadership, our denominational affiliations, and our hopes for the future.
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UCC church Waukegan
churches in Waukegan
A Brief History of St. John’s UCC
Revised: October, 2014 by Donald Ziebell with Wendy Celesnik, June Stelter and
The year was 1863, just four years after Waukegan became a city. Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States, and the Civil War was at its height. The country’s population was about 35 million, and the telephone wouldn’t be invented for 13 years. It was at this time that 63 people formed what was then called the German Evangelical Protestant Church of St. John’s congregation in Waukegan, Lake County, Illinois.
For their first eight years, the founders had neither a building to call home nor a single leader to call pastor. This congregation is believed to have met in such diverse places as the old Central School, a County Street building once known as the Salvation Army Building, and even the basement of the town’s courthouse. Ministers from neighboring churches conducted services and offered the sacraments.
In 1871, they called their first pastor, Rev. August Becker. That same year, the church was reorganized as the German Reformed Church of St. John’s congregation. The German language was spoken at services, which may have attracted a number of parishioners who otherwise would not have worshiped at all. It was a heady time for German-speaking people, in general, for in Europe Otto von Bismarck boldly was leading a nationalistic charge that led to a new German state in 1871.
St. John’s erected its first building, a church at 110 North West Street at a cost of $850. The cornerstone for the original building was laid August 5, 1872, and the dedication was less than four months later. The church was incorporated November 25, 1872, and it is from this date that anniversaries have traditionally been observed. The first church building had facilities for a private school in the basement which operated there for 10 years. Rev. Becker was principal and a teacher, and the curriculum naturally included the German language. By 1874, church membership was up to 137, while the population Waukegan hovered around 4,250.
Not much is known about the church from the time Rev. Becker resigned in 1883 until 1914 when Rev. H Hollinger became pastor due to the fact that many of the original records have been lost. In all, nine pastors served during the 31-year span during which Waukegan got its first electric lighting system (1890), telephone exchange (1892) and the world’s first moving picture (1895).
Under Rev. Hollinger, the church made a transition from the German language to English, which no doubt was hastened by the tensions surrounding World War I. Also under Rev. Hollinger, the church auditorium and basement were renovated, central heat replaced the stove in the sanctuary, fine art glass windows replaced the older windows and a new remodeled electric pipe organ replaced the one that was pumped by hand. Rev. Hollinger’s 13-year tenure would be the longest in the church’s history until Dr. Richard E Barbour left after nearly 14 years in 1989.
Rev. Raymond Klingeman became pastor in 1927 and served until 1930, initiating strong emphasis on a youth program, which along with the increase in Waukegan population to well over 33,000 by 1930, helped the church membership grow. The organized program continued through the Great Depression and up until World War II
After the Klingeman ministry, Rev. John N. Naly spent five years at St. John’s. He was there in July of 1934, when the church changed its name again. Our denomination, the Reformed Church in the United States, merged with the Evangelical Synod of North America, thereby forming St. John’s Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Rev. Edward Hamme (1935-38), who previously was a professor of Hebrew at the seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Hungarian-born Rev. Frank Erdey (1939-43) were the next two pastors. Pastor Hamme came to St. John’s when his seminary merged with one in St. Louis and he sought other employment before retiring to Hagerstown, Maryland. Pastor Erdey, who came to the United States at age 9, made weekly trips to Waukegan from his seminary in Sheboygan Wisconsin. He started leading services before graduating with an agreement that he would become the church’s next full-time pastor. During Pastor Erdey’s stay, the church basement was remodeled, oil heating was installed and church membership reportedly increased.
In 1944, Rev. George A Mohr became St. John’s sixteenth pastor, and he remained until 1951. For the church’s 75th anniversary celebration in 1947, when membership was 195, major remodeling of the building took place. The organ was rearranged and got a new, remote console. New lighting, flooring and decorating gave the church a fresh look inside, while the removal of the original steeple in favor of a short belfry and small spire, along with a new entrance, gave the outside a new look in 1948.
In 1952, the second year of Rev. Vance Geier’s three year stay, the house at 108 North West St. was acquired. In 1955, it became the parsonage, allowing the house behind the church to become the Fellowship House for use as Sunday school rooms and for other meeting purposes.
Rev. William F. Kamphenkel served from 1953-56, followed by Rev. R. A. Wagner of Elmhurst College who served as interim pastor for six months. Following Rev. Wagner, Rev. Frederick A. Ludwig began a seven year stay, during which the church’s name changed again. In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Church to form the United Church of Christ, thereby giving us our current name.
In 1961, church leaders exercised keen foresight and moved toward acquiring new church grounds. They noted that Waukegan’s population base was spreading westward while seven major Protestant churches continued to exist within a few blocks of each other downtown. With or without a little spiritual congestion, physical space became a problem. After the fire station was moved across the street in 1962, parking became especially difficult in the area, and wailing sirens occasionally erupted, disrupting services.
Eventually, the seven-acre tract on McAree Road was bought for $23,000, and plans were developed for construction. The address was 1520 McAree but somehow it soon became 1400 for many years before the mistake was realized and changed back in the late 1980s. Ground was broken in 1967, the first service in the new building was held on August 25, 1968, and the dedication was held on November 2, 1969. Although it was designated as just a “first phase” of construction until a more traditional sanctuary could be built, the western-most structure of today’s McAree complex functioned as the main church hall for more than 20 years. The upstairs and downstairs classroom and became the church’s first facilities primarily designed for a Christian education. “First phase” construction cost $120,000.
The outside grounds were developed, which include the Chapel garden, which has been used for sunrise services, weddings and other functions through the years. An endowment from the widow of the late William Graff, one of the garden’s strongest influences and early molders, helps keep the ring well-serviced today. The focal point of the garden was a hand-hewn wooden cross made from a fallen tree by the late Alfred Knox, one of the church’s most active members, who dedicated the creation in memory of his good friend John Froehlich, another active member who died in 1970. The chapel garden and a sundial dedicated to Ralph Scherer, have both been popular with members of the general public.
Before moving into the new building, the church sold its West Street holdings in 1967 to a lawyer for $46,000. Eventually, the old church was torn down, and today a small red brick professional building sits in its place, across from what is now City Hall. Because the old site was sold before the new building was finished, the congregation met at Glenwood and McCall elementary schools in Waukegan. Also, since the personage was sold with the old church, a new personage was acquired at 2602 Roberts Ave. in Waukegan.
Rev. Robert J Tripp served from 1965-67, during which time the plans for the “first phase” all-purpose chapel and classrooms were approved. Other plans for a sanctuary and classrooms were selected earlier, but they were deemed too expensive and rejected.
The first service in the McAree building was held August 25, 1968, with Dr. William A Young preaching. At a meeting of the congregation following the service, Dr. Young was called to become the church’s 21st pastor. In Dr. Young’s final year, 1975, the church had 187 members.
In the spring of 1976, the church called Rev. Richard E Barbour, Jr., who brought a melodious singing voice and a New England accent from Bangor Maine, for a 13-year 9-month stay, the longest of any pastor in the history of the church. Under Rev. Barbour, many changes took place.
One of them led to many others: in 1985, he earned his doctorate, which was the cause for many projects at St. John’s. During Dr. Barbour’s stay, the church expanded its role in the larger UCC context; Pastoral Care, Mission and Evangelism committees, among many others, were formed; and the church constitution was revised.
There was also a distinct generational change in the make-up of the congregation during his ministry. For a variety of reasons, the church congregation generally became much younger from the 1970s to the 1990s. By the time Dr. Barbour conducted his final service in the last week of 1989, membership was around 230.
During Dr. Barbour’s stay, the church sold its Roberts Avenue personage, and he acquired a house of his own in Zion. But the biggest physical property change was the work toward a new sanctuary. When Dr. Barbour interviewed for the St. John’s job in the mid-1970s, plans for expansion were mentioned. They were put on hold, partly because of a recession, but in the mid-1980s, he helped fire them up again. A feasibility committee examined the prospects in 1986, and by May 1989 plans were drawn up. The congregation voted to go ahead with a fund-raising project, and construction began in May 1990.
Fund-raising and construction efforts continued under strong lay leadership, while the search for a full-time replacement for Dr. Barbour took place. Rev. Ralph Smith was the guiding light from the pulpit as interim pastor.
On October 28, 1990, Rev. Peter M Cook of Berkeley California, was unanimously called at St. John’s 23rd pastor. Rev. Cook came to Waukegan for the Advent season of 1990. The new sanctuary was completed in March 1991, at a cost of $350,000. The first service held in the new sanctuary was on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1991. The building was dedicated on June 23, 1991, and signified the completion of what was planned more than two decades prior with the move from West Street.
During Rev. Cook’s tenure we began renting use of portions of the building to other organizations. We rented to organizations including Joy of Life Metropolitan Community Church, Amistad y Vida (Hispanic congregation), Girl Scouts of America and Lake County YWCA. We also worked during 1995 and 1996 to establish an affordable housing facility initially proposed for the back 4 acres of our current property. The Waukegan zoning board turned us down on this use of the property, so we worked with the developer to purchase the property across the street where the Chapel Gardens complex, completed in 1997, currently exists. Rev. Cook resigned in the summer of 1999 to accept a position as a senior pastor of a church in Massachusetts. His last Sunday was the end of August 1999.
Following Rev. Cook’s departure we were served by Rev. Gerald O’Connor as interim pastor for approximately 10 months. Rev. O’Connor was followed by Rev. Kathleen Bleyaert who served as interim pastor for approximately seven months. During Rev. Bleyaert’s term as interim pastor we sold the back 4 acres of our property to a private developer for $140,000, $100,000 of which was used to pay off the mortgage on the new sanctuary. On January 14, 2001 Rev. Bleyaert was called as the 24th pastor of St. John’s. She served until the end of December 2008. During her tenure we received a donation for the bells used by the Bell choir from Reuben Segebarth in memory of his son Roger. She also worked to attempt the establishment of an adult Sunday school program and Christmas parties for a social engagement of the members of the congregation. The other major initiative during her tenure was the attempt to try to establish a Hispanic outreach effort at our church. To this end we hired Rev. Maria Puerta as the Hispanic Outreach pastor in September 2004. This program was funded by grants from the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ but the effort never generated sufficient income to become self-sustaining. The program was ended in March 2009 when grant funding ran out and we had to release Rev. Puerta.
On April 19, 2009, the Church Council selected the Rev.’s LeAnne and Jorge Montes-Claussen as interim co-pastors. Their initial call was for six months but this was extended in six month increments several times through February 2012. In March 2012 the Rev. David Strang became our interim pastor serving until August 2013. Following Rev. Strang, Rev. Brenda Barnes Jamieson became interim pastor from September 2013 to February 2014 and Rev. Beth Dickerson followed from February 2014 to June 2014.
On June 15th, 2014, St. John's called the Rev. Dr. James J. Olson, OCC as its 25th Pastor. Dr. Olson's first service with us was on July 6th, 2014. His installation service was held on November 2nd, 2014, with representatives of the Fox Valley Association of the Illinois Conference assisting. A native of Massachusetts, and raised in the Congregational tradition of the United Church of Christ, Dr. Olson comes to us after serving churches in Vermont and Connecticut, and as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at Boston University. He holds degrees from Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His M.Div theological training was taken at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He completed his S.T.M. and D.Min at Boston University School of Theology, and has studied as a Visiting Scholar at Regent's Park College, Oxford University. Dr. Olson is a member of the Order of Corpus Christi, a covenantal order of Pastors and lay people rooted in the Mercersburg Theology of the German Reformed Church. He is a talented singer and musician, and enjoys old books, polishing silver, his cats and his family. Dr. Olson is married to The Rev. Darrick Jackson, who is the Dean of Students at Meadville-Lombard. At the time of the writing of this history, they reside in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.
We said goodbye to Rev. Olson, as he has now been called to be the Associate Conference Minister of the Fox Valley Association of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ.
On Sunday, November 13, 2016, the Rev. Selena L. Blackwell, OCC was called as Pastor and Teacher. She began her pastorate on December 4 after moving from Salisbury, Maryland. She was installed as St. John's 26th pastor.
Rev. Blackwell was ordained February 16, 1997 by the Hartford East Association of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. She has served congregations in the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, and Maryland. She was graduated from Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT) with a Master of Divinity degree.
Before being called into ordained ministry, Rev. Blackwell attended Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) and St. Joseph College (West Hartford, CT) where she was graduated with Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies. She worked for The Hartford Insurance Group and Aetna Life & Casualty as an information technology specialist for business applications.
Rev. Blackwell is also member of the Order of Corpus Christi, an ecumenical organization of clergy and laity who are called to lead a life of common prayer, worship and contemplation which produces concrete action in the life of the Church and the world and who seek to encounter the living Christ in Word and Sacrament in the community of the Church which nurtures us in the life of faith and in mission and ministry.
Rev. Blackwell enjoys kayaking, swimming, reading, movies, film analysis, and knitting. She is also the mother of two adult children and the doting grandmother of a granddaughter.
PASTORS OF ST. JOHN’S
1. August Becker 1871-1883
2. E. R. Heinske 1883-1889
3. August Frantz 1889-1893
4. J. P. Dyken 1894-1895
5. L. C. Martin 1895-1897
6. W. H. Lahr 1897-1900
7. W. E. Shaley 1900-1903
8. E. R. C. Meyer 1904-1909
9. C. F. Dahn 1909-1910
10. F. P. Franke 1911-1913
11. H. Hollinger 1914-1927
12. Ray Klingeman 1927-1930
13. J. N. Naly 1931-1935
14. Edward R. Hamme 1935-1938
15. Frank J. Erdey 1939-1943
16. George A. Mohr 1944-1951
17. Vance Geier 1951-1953
18. William F. Kamphenkel 1953-1956
Int. R. A. Wagner 1956-1957
19. Frederick A. Ludwig 1957-1964
20. Robert J. Tripp 1965-1967
21. William A. Young 1968-1975
22. Richard E. Barbour, Jr. 1976-1989
Int. Ralph Smith 1990
23. Peter M. Cook 1990-1999
Int. Gerald O’Connor 2000
Int. Kathleen Bleyaert 2000-2001
24. Kathleen Bleyaert 2001-2008
HO. Maria Puerta 2004-2009
Int. LeAnne & Jorge Montes-Claussen 2009-2012
Int. David Strang 2012-2013
Int. Brenda Barnes Jamieson 2013-2014
Int. Beth Dickerson 2014
25. James J. Olson 2014-2016
26. Selena L. Blackwell 2016-present
Int. - Interim Pastor
HO. - Hispanic Outreach Pastor
Today, we are a small but faithful Christians trying to live as Christ commanded, in love. We gather to worship, pray and sing, (and eat together frequently!) We teach ourselves and our children about our faith. We embrace diversity in a way that welcomes and invites.
We look forward to a long and growing future, serving God's people in Waukegan and the greater Lake County area as a place of prayer, worship and joy. You are invited on this journey with us as we faithfully try to live out our trust in Jesus Christ. We invite you to join us. We can't and won't promise easy answers to life's questions, but we do promise to walk together with any who join us along the way.
The Rev. Selena L. Blackwell, Pastor
Nathan Osborn, Music Director
Frank Zavaski, Sexton
Our Leadership (2020-2021)
Frank Zavaski, Council President
Celeste Torres, Clerk
Al Ballok, At-Large
Carol Peck, At–Large
Jill Zavaski, Conference and Association Delegate
Frank Zavaski and Don Carman, Buildings & Grounds
St. John's is a Safe Place for LGBTQQIA+ groups to meet for recreation,
just hanging out.
Call for more