On Sunday, December 22, 1866, a group of resolute German settlers in rural Freedom, Wis. gathered to organize a new church. Thirty-four men and women representing 14 charter families gathered in a crowded cabin to ignite the spark that would become Freedom Moravian Church.
With the influx of Mecklenburg Germans to Wisconsin in the mid 1800s, homesteads sprang up throughout Northeastern Wisconsin and dense forests were converted into farmland. After establishing their homesteads, these dedicated pioneers sought out a worship leader who would guide them in the fulfillment of their Christian faith and duty.
Two years earlier, in 1864, a few of these men had been summoned to Green Bay to answer President Lincoln’s last draft call for Civil War soldiers. Occasionally, these men were required to stay through the weekend and casually drifted into East Green Bay Moravian Church where Rev. M. Gottlieb Uecke preached. They were greatly impressed by his sermons, especially since they were presented in their native German tongue. When they returned to Freedom, they related their experience to friends and neighbors. Soon Rev. Uekce was invited to share his ministry with the Freedom folks, first on a once a month basis and later as their full-time pastor.
Services were first held in members’ homes as well as the public, one-room schoolhouse. Then five acres of land was purchased for $100 from member John Wiese and the new congregation pledged $115 in cash and 16,000 feet of lumber from their woodlands. The P.E.C. donated $150 to the project and gave Brother Uecke permission to go on a “collecting tour” that netted $1,025.53. The following year, 1867, a two-story frame building was built that combined the parsonage (on the first floor) and “versammlungs-saal” meeting room for worship, on the second floor.
The congregation quickly outgrew this building and in June of 1882, a new and larger wood frame church was erected. Two years later a brick veneer was added to the exterior. A new parsonage was built in 1913 and then replaced with the present structure in 1969. In the 1940’s a Fellowship Hall was added which was doubled in size in the 1960’s. In 1989, a spacious narthex was added and the most recent improvement was the construction of two new offices in the Fellowship Hall in 2015.
Heart lies in the spirit
These buildings represent only a small part of Freedom Moravian’s identity. The heart of the church lies in the spirit of its people who ignited a spark 150 years ago. There have been ups and downs, triumphs and challenges, but the flame remained constant throughout.
There were seasons of intense effort and devotion that resulted in membership growth and building construction. More often it was shown in the renewed vigor of the boards and organizations; the Sunday School, youth groups and women’s organizations flourished through the years providing education and service.
Music, also an integral part of Freedom Moravian’s identity, began in the early years with the “Blaeserchor” or trombone choir that led congregational singing for the first 40 years. This was followed with more traditional choirs as well as a folk choir. Most recently, a hand chime choir, praise and worship group and newly formed Freedom band carry on the tradition.
In 2009, Freedom members created a Prayer Shawl ministry and organized its newest service group, the Quilter’s Club, in 2013. This group created a commemorative quilt for the 150th anniversary featuring pictures of the church’s history, which is now on display along with two antique quilts sewn in the early 1900s.
Annual events that Freedom Moravian Church are best known for are the large Fourth of July picnics which were held in the 1920s and 1930s serving chicken dinners to nearly 1,000 people and the present day October Chili Supper and Bazaar which began in 1945.
A sesquicentennial celebration
The 150th Anniversary committee planned special projects and events throughout the year. A 266-page commemorative history book of Freedom Moravian church has been published and is now available. Weekly bulletins include questions and answers about the church. A huge wall display in the Fellowship Hall, presents a pictorial history of the church and its congregation.
Beginning in June, a display of old documents, scrapbooks, photos and artifacts was assembled in the church narthex for members and visitors to examine. A beautiful float was created to present in local parades, featuring a hand-crafted faux stained glass window and old fashioned pews to seat the Freedom Moravian Band while they play Moravian music.
The celebration will culminate on Sunday, August 14 with a special, traditional 10 a.m. worship service. Former pastors and members are invited to attend and share their memories of Freedom Moravian Church. This will be followed by a chicken dinner reminiscent of the dinners served nearly a century ago.
A group panoramic photo will be taken outdoors like those of the 75th and 100th anniversaries followed with the opening of the time capsule from 1966. At 2 p.m., a country western quartet, Standing Firm, will offer old gospel hymns and contemporary music. Friends and families of Freedom Moravian are welcome to attend.
Thirty-two pastors (including student pastors) have served at Freedom Moravian Church beginning with Pastor M. G. Uecke in 1864 and now Pastor Garritt Fleming who began his service in 2015. As Freedom Moravian faces a new era, we pray that the flame ignited 150 years ago will continue to be “a light unto our path” and that the God of grace who has brought us this far, will continue to bless us and those we serve.
Shari Nactwey is church historian for Freedom Moravian Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. Photos by Peter Pfundtner.