History of Grace Lutheran Church from 1907-1957

At the meeting of the waters of Cayuga Creek and The Little River-grew the little village of LaSalle, in the Town of Niagara at that time. The “The First German and English Lutheran Zion Congregation of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession in LaSalle, New York” was established. This name was given in German to the organizing group that met in June 1907.

As for the name of the village-that could be traced back to Robert Cavelier de LaSalle from France, who built the first boat to sail the Great Lakes, called the “Griffon” around 1679.

In 1907-the roads were dirt, the sidewalks were boardwalks, the horse and buggy was common and electricity was just coming in. People walked to the neighborhood stores and people were interested in neighborhood churches. So churches formed in this growing suburb.

Enter into this picture, an enterprising builder and lumberman named William Gombert. He was a member of the neighboring Holy Ghost Lutheran Church in Bergholtz. He saw the potential of using land that he owned in LaSalle for building a church. He knew of those already in the village who were weary of the trip to worship at Holy Ghost Lutheran Church in Bergholtz, especially the kids who usually walked to the Bergholtz church for catechism lessons.

So William Gombert offered a corner of his land to build a church. The people were excited by the idea of building a church and pulled together for this common cause. The new church was built for the cost of $6,000. The church was constructed by the men of the parish and some of Gombert’s employees.

The first pastors were from neighboring areas like Bergholtz, Gratwick and Niagara Falls, and the first called pastor of this new congregation was the Reverend Daniel Kleist.

William Gombert’s three sons all pitched in and a bell was purchased. It was placed in the tower. The Theodore Witkop family who owned and lived in the “castle house” at Lindbergh and Cayuga Drive provided the new chandelier with electric lights that provided illumination for the worshippers.

This was the beginning of the new church known in abbreviation as Zion Lutheran Church. That name would change in time, as there were two Zion Lutheran churches in this area. A lot of mixups like mail and other things. There was the Zion in the village of LaSalle and there was a Zion Lutheran on Michigan Avenue in Niagara Falls.

The parish was used as an incentive for new people to move into this area who were looking for a German Evangelical Lutheran church. The non-members in the neighborhood referred to the church members as “The Dutchmen”

As a sign of the times one of the more affluent members of the church who worked for the Chevrolet Plant in Buffalo had decided that Pastor Kliest needed a car to do his work. However, one day that car was found in the Cayuga Creek, having rolled into the creek after being parked on an incline without the brake on.

That old church building was demolished March 22, 1971, long after our present building was up and running.

At the parish’s 25th Anniversary three services were held. The morning service was in German and the other two services that day were in English.

In 184 many German immigrants came into the Western New York area and through the help of Washington Hunt and the Holland Land Company they formed what they called their hamlet “New Bergholtz.” Bergholtz was the name of the town in Germany that they came from.

Some of those immigrants stayed in that little hamlet. But others moved out to areas like St. Johnsburg, Gratwick, Nashville, Martinsville and Walmore. Some even came down the Bergholtz Creek to a growing hamlet called Cayuga Creek, later to be called LaSalle.

Around 1905, LaSalle started to grow but still had dirt roads, boardwalks for sidewalks, a few cars, mostly horse and buggies.

These German Lutherans desired a place to worship. So they gathered at the Gornbion House on Buffalo Avenue. Services were conducted by the Reverend Albert H. Dallman from Bergholtz. That Gorbion House later became the parish office center for St. John de LaSalle Roman Catholic Church.

Those Germans found a place on the corner of Munson and Cayuga Drive, known as the “Old Cayuga Drive School” This building was in the way of the new church and it was moved down the street to 86th St and is now an apartment building.

William and Carolyn Gombert donated the property to this group of worshipers on the condition that they build a church on it. The men of the church and some of Gombert Lumber employees put up a church.

It was a beautiful church people recall the wonderful white wooden altar with hand painted flowers on it. But a money problem developed. The church was to cost $8000.00 so ten men took the bull by horns and each pledged $800.00 to cover the cost at a time when the average pay in those days was $15.00!

Those ten men were William Gombert, Theodore Witkop, Ferdinand Strassburg, Albert Holland, Ferdinand ??, Edward Gombert, Henry Gombert, George Greenwald, Christian Gombert and Henry Strasburg. Others in the congregation helped through a subscription process. Each family was asked to pledge an amount and the Elders would come each month to collect the portion that was due. Families were instructed to stay home the day of collection until those Elders came to their house.

Also money jars were given to each family so they could put their spare change into it and that was also collected by the Elders. Now the results of these collections where published for all to see and some called it a “Scandal Sheet”

The services were in German and then in English too because the young ones in the congregation were attending the English speaking public school and they could enjoy the service.

The sign in front of the church said “The German English Zion Lutheran Church of LaSalle.” The “German” was dropped because of WWI. The New York Tribune newspaper reported that America was infested with German spies, even then President Woodrow Wilson said that the Germans were treated badly even though most of them were citizens of USA. Dropping the “German” from the name of the congregation encouraged the Red Cross to use the church’s facilities for their activities.

At this time the stars and stripes were put into all churches along with the church flag

The first child baptized was Harold Witkop and the first person to be confirmed was George Hodle and the first marriage was John W. MacNeil and Kate H.G. Goode

That little church -The German English Zion Lutheran Church of LaSalle on the corner of Munson and Cayuga Drive was really growing in size as well as the Hamlet of this area called LaSalle. Both were having a growth spur.

Big things started to happen around 1927 to both the church and the Hamlet now known as the village of LaSalle. The village was incorporated by the city of Niagara Falls as the city grew. At this period of growth Zion Lutheran Church built a much needed parish hall or as some called it “Social Hall.”

The church bought the property just south of the church from William Gombert for $900.00. The home on that piece of land was being used as the Pastor’s home. In 1927 the congregation built a large brick structure on this property. The Pastor’s home was moved from that property to a piece of property behind the church on Munson Avenue with the use of horses and big wooden rollers. That home is no longer the parsonage but still stands.

The Parish Hall quickly became the social center of the LaSalle area since it included the only bowling alleys in town, 3 alleys. It also had an auditorium with a stage and a basketball court upstairs.

The elder members of the church had their reservations about a building such as this but the younger people saw it a must have building.

The social activity in the Parish Hall increased as it was the scene of many evenings bowling, basketball games for both boys and girls, big plays and church pageants. Also many dinner receptions and women’s activities were held in the Parish Hall. Trophies began to appear for women’s basketball, men’s softball, women’s bowling etc.

The growing church survived the first World War, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. World War II came and passed with the church still standing tall.

It was at this time that a big problem faced the congregation. It seemed as if the church building either shrunk or the congregation was getting too big. About this time the weekly worship attendance was about 225. The seating in the old church was limited. It had 11 pews on one side and 10 on the other, that is only 126 seats and they could put 30 people up in the balcony.

Sunday School classes had to be held not only in the classroom areas but on the stage, in the kitchen, even in the church pews.

A building committee was formed with these questions: shall we tear down and rebuild? or Shall we find a different site?

Numerous polls and votes were taken to help figure out this very tough decision. The wheels started to move when Caroline Gombert died. A long narrow lot thorough the middle of the 700 block of Cayuga Drive was left to the church in her estate.

Meanwhile in 1947, the building committee purchased five lots at the corner of Pasadena and Lindbergh. The wheels were turning a little faster. Also the word was out Zion was moving to a new location, so offers came pouring in to purchase the church property from Riverside Presbyterian Church and the LaSalle Baptist Church.

In 1950 a big break came when two houses on Cayuga Drive in the 700 block became available. The Smith home and the Gombert home. Now this really attracted the attention of the Old Church Committee. They already had some property on this block-buying those two would seal up the property needed.

This prompted the decision to resell the four properties on Lindbergh and Pasadena with the remaining unsold lot being given to Pastor Herfurth who built a home on it for his own.

The LaSalle Baptist Church negotiated for the sale of the old church property and their congregation now worships in the former Parish Hall.

Before tearing down the Smith and Gombert homes other uses were found for them. The Smith house was rented out to the Eckhert family. This provided some income for the church’s building fund. The Gombert house was used for additional space for the church’s education programs.

A massive campaign was put into place to raise money to build the new church with a very catchy motto “Rebuilding the walls of Zion” The goal was to build a structure that would seat 450 people for worship services, have educational offices, room for a potential elementary school, and also space for activities and large Sunday School areas all in one building. The building committee was chaired by Mr. Edwin Wendt of Wendt’s Dairy.

There is a large collection of letters regarding the communications between the building committee, Pastor Herfurth and the architects as to the decision of what type of church was to be built. It would appear that Pastor Herfurth was trying to wear out a typewriter.

At first they considered a gothic style church, Old English. The architect, Wallace Moll, submitted the design that was eventually adopted.

The Little Zion Church with its “Building the Walls of Zion” program started a big money drive to raise $100,000 in three years and they did just that.

The contracts were signed with Wallace Moll and his modern design, Frank Balcerzak the general contractor and John Highland of Highland Architects firm.

On October 31, 1954 the Ground Breaking ceremony was held on the church grounds. A large white cross was chalked on the ground about 6×8 feet in size. A doubled handled spade was used to break the soil inside that cross. On one handle Mr. Edwin Wendt, Chairman of the New Zion Building Committee and Pastor Lawrence Herfurth on the other handle.

This church building contains 353,000 cubic feet of building and offers the congregation with adequate facilities and social functions, although later the absence of bowling alley and basketball court of the Parish Hall was noted. This church building measures 120′ in length 50′ wide and the height from floor to peak of the roof is 43 feet.

The nave with its spacious center aisle of 7 feet has a normal seating capacity of 440. Along with the choir balcony for an additional 60 people seating-which with the use of chairs in the narthex and the auditorium it is possible to seat some 800 people to worship together.

As a person enters the church-focus is brought to the 24 foot high cross against the solid stone chancel wall. The cross is made of heavy copper and is perforated to permit light to sparkle through in a patterned design. The cross hangs on the wall above a 17ft wide wood alter.

The exterior is Wisconsin Lannar stone and trimmed with 11 redwood arches.

The pews and chancel furniture were made by the Ossit Church Furniture Company of Janesville Wisconsin.

A unique feature was outside-a sunken terrace on the Pershing side of the church building that was meant for very beautiful outdoor weddings and other activities during the warmer months.

There is also a 70 ft high bell tower which contained a Deacon Carillion. Which had its dedication on May 6, 1956. It was a gift to the congregation from Mr. John J. Russ-To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of his daughter Mrs. Lillian Russ Binkley.

The carillion consisted of 32 metal rings with a tonal range from C-G, each with individual striking action with a microphone that picks up sound for each rod. The sound was then amplified and projected from the bell tower and could be heard throughout the community.

On November 25, 1955 a new constitution and by laws were approved by the congregation. With a new building also came a new name. Since the village of LaSalle was incorporated into the city of Niagara Falls there weretwo Zion Lutheran Churches in the city. The one in LaSalle and the one on Michigan Avenue. Zion on Michigan Avenue had seniority so we became Grace Lutheran Church, although confusion still happens at times with this name because there is a Grace Lutheran Church in North Tonawanda on Payne Avenue and Robinson Street.

On Palm Sunday 1956 the new church was dedicated with a transfer from the 1907 little white clapboard church to the new modern church down the street. Pastor Lawrence Herfurth and Pastor George Hoyer led the congregation, all carrying palm branches. The altar Bible, Alter Service Book and the altar appointments were carried too. When they reached the new church’s door a blessing was given. The key was passed from Mr. Wendt to Pastor Herfurth and the new church was dedicated for worship.

That day of dedication three services held: the morning service with the Reverend Lawrence Herfurth, the afternoon service by the Reverend Benawin Foey and the evening service by the Reverend Paul Frethold, with a total of 1800 people in attendance.

When the congregation left the old church Winifred Wendt was at the organ and when the congregation entered the new church Virginia Wendt McKenzie was at the organ. Those two organists were sisters.

An editorial in the Niagara Falls Gazette said, “Grace Lutheran Church is perhaps the most modern religious facility that has been built here. It captures the spirit of the age in its simplicity, utility and beauty.”

The cost of our new church and educational fellowship hall, including land, construction and furnishings was approximately $400,000.

One woman commented, “I was leaving a small quaint colonial church to go to a massive modern church. I was leaving a lot of wonderful memories behind.” She was in the first confirmation class at Grace and instead of white robes the class wore beige robes to match the decor of the church.

– written by Ken Boyd for presentation at the 100th Anniversary in 2007

We need a history to be added for 1957-present. If interested talk to pastor.