Zion Lutheran Church
The Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, held a very special program on Monday, September 12, 2016. This year marks the 125th anniversary of Zion Lutheran Church in Fairport Harbor. The Museum meeting room was packed when member Jeff Werronen presented a 42 slide demonstration showing the history of this church. Tim Hadden, also a Museum member, provided the technical talent to keep the show running smoothly.
In 1885, the Finnish people, who had come to work and live in Fairport, would worship in each others’ homes, commercial buildings, or the Congregational Church building (the oldest church in town, built in 1869). In 1891, 73 people met with a pastor from Ashtabula, Ohio, in a second story room above a store next door to the Wolf Saloon on Water Street, and started the Zion Lutheran Church.
The first church building was a wooden rectangular structure built at 220 Seventh Street. In 1896, maybe because Fairport’s citizens lived mostly north of this area, it was decided to move the church to the corner of Eagle and Fifth Streets. A man and his horse were hired to move the building two blocks north. Evidently, they were not up to the task of moving such a substantial building, so the men of the church did it themselves, taking two days to move the building two blocks up a slight incline. Almost immediately, Zion’s congregation added a bell tower and bell. The bell came from St. Louis, and was tuned to the key of Ab, This same bell is still in use today.
At this time, Zion shared a pastor with the Finnish community in Ashtabula, the man alternating weeks between the two towns. In 1901, a parsonage was built next to the church. It boasted a “very nice kitchen” to try and lure a pastor’s wife to influence her husband to locate in Fairport. It must have worked because it wasn’t too long before the congregation had its first pastor, Kaarlo Salovaara.
In 1903, the church was able to purchase two acres on East Street in Fairport for a cemetery. The dedication of the cemetery was held on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) of that year. Fairport Harbor’s annual Memorial Day celebration continues to be held at Zion Cemetery. Not too many years ago, members of the congregation placed American flags on the graves in the cemetery, but these flags kept disappearing. One church member decided he would sit up all night to catch the culprits who were taking the flags. He saw no one; yet more flags had disappeared. Later a gust of wind came and blew a squirrel nest out of a tree. There, lining the nest, was an American flag. The mystery was solved.
In 1905, the congregation called the Reverend Hannes Leiviska, who then came to live in Fairport with his wife and two small daughters. Because of the pastor’s ill health, their stay in Fairport was very short, but they did leave behind a lasting legacy. Pastor Leiviska and his wife jointly painted the altar picture “Christ in Gethsemane,” which adorns the altar still today.
As time went on, the white church would no longer hold the worshippers, so it was moved again. This time it was pivoted to face north (Fifth Street) and plans were made to build a new church facing west (Eagle Street). The brick church was built in 1925, and was one of the largest Finnish American churches in the U.S. The dedication for this new church lasted a week, from August to September, 1925. From 1925 to 1929, the two churches stood side by side. The pews and other parts of the old sanctuary were removed, and the space served s a youth center and small gym. In 1929, it was decided to sell the structure. The disassembled lumber went, in large part, to build Potti’s Funeral Home down the street. The remaining wood went into a number of homes being built on the east end of Fifth street.
Until 1938, all services at Zion had been conducted in the Finnish language, including Sunday school classes, choir, etc. But in 1938, pastor Gabriel Lipsanen began the tradition of holding classes and services in English. Today, there is rarely a Finnish language service.
On the other side of Eagle Street, and down the block from Zion, was a large building owned by the Temperance Society. Zion Sunday school classes were held on the second floor of this large building. By 1948, there were only 10 members of the Temperance Society left; they virtually gave the building to Zion on the condition that no alcohol ever be served there. In 1954, this building was partially destroyed by a fire and had to be torn down. In 1957, a new building, called Luther Center was built, and continues to be used for Sunday school classes and recreational pursuits.
Jeff Werronen pointed out the beautiful stained glass windows which are on both north and south sides of the church.
Today the congregation at Zion is going strong, although it is not as large as it once was. In addition to its still solid Finnish base of members, many non-Finnish people are members and attend services there. All are looking toward the future and the next 125 years of Zion’s history.
When Jeff’s program was completed, and all questions answered, the meeting participants moved into the gallery for refreshments provided by members of the Genealogy Committee – Donna Lesiacsek, Bonnie Lackey, Juanita Cleary, Shirley Northcutt, and Elaine Kangas. FHM President, Lasse Hiltunen called the business meeting to order at approximately 8:00 P.M.
Text © Sharon Mackey, Photos © Bill Lukshaw 2016