St. John Lutheran Church Celebrates a Century

The History of St. John Lutheran Church & School in Rochester

In early 1920, a small band of first- and second-generation German immigrants living in Rochester decided it was time to stop riding the interurban car to Royal Oak to attend church services. They asked their pastor, the Rev. Otto H. Frincke of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Royal Oak, to help them form a congregation in their own town. Their first exploratory meetings were held in the home of Charles and Anna Kitchenmaster on Drace Street. On February 22, 1920, six voting members and 14 total members officially founded St. John Lutheran Church of Rochester.

Students of St. John Lutheran School stand in front of Helen Street building

Students of St. John Lutheran School stand in front of Helen Street building in 1945 (Courtesy of St. John Lutheran Church)

The growth of the new congregation was slow at first, and the members held worship services in rented quarters for a decade and a half. The Avon Township Hall and the Opera House were used for short periods, and the congregation rented the Nazarene (formerly Universalist) church building on Walnut Street for several years.

By 1935, the congregation was able to purchase property on the northeast corner of Second and Walnut streets. A two-story residence was renovated into a chapel, and St. John officially joined Rochester’s “church district”—the two-block section of Walnut Street between Second and Fourth streets that was the home of six other congregations at the time. In addition to St. John at Walnut and Second, First Church of the Nazarene was located in the same block; St. Andrew and First Congregational each had buildings on opposite corners of Walnut and Third; First Methodist (later St. Paul) and St. Philip’s both had buildings on the north side of Walnut between Third and Fourth, and First Baptist stood on the northwest corner of Walnut and Fourth.

Two-story house rear view

This converted barn on Helen Street was the home of St. John Lutheran School from 1945 to 1950 (Courtesy of St. John Lutheran Church)

While every one of these seven congregations outgrew its quarters on Walnut Street and eventually moved on to build larger facilities outside of the downtown area, St. John was the first one to do so. In 1943, the congregation purchased three acres of the former Oscar Brewster farm at the corner of Fifth (now University Drive) and Helen streets. Having voted a year earlier to establish a Christian day school as the congregation’s primary mission arm, the members of St. John knew they needed room to grow. During its first year, the school enrolled 28 children, and enrollment nearly doubled in the second year. The Brewster property not only provided the space to accommodate a new church and school building in the future but also offered a barn that could house the school in the interim. The barn was promptly renovated and re-purposed for classroom space and dedicated as the new home of St. John Lutheran School in November 1945. The building would house the school for the next five years.

A new brick church seating 375 and a school wing with four classrooms was dedicated in early 1950, while the former Brewster residence became the congregation’s parsonage. However, as St. John saw its membership and school enrollment increase during Rochester’s postwar population boom, the need to build again became evident after only eight years. A gift of land from Rochester industrialist Howard L. McGregor made a large school addition possible in 1958. By 1965, planning for a new, larger sanctuary with nearly double the seating capacity was underway. The new building was dedicated in 1967 after the old Brewster house was moved to Alice Street to make way for the construction.

People sit in pews inside the church while the children's choir stands to sing. Christmas decorations show what time of year it is. Wooden beams overhead and pipe organ in the background.

A church and school Christmas Eve service at St. John in 1958 (Courtesy of St. John Lutheran Church)

As St. John enters its second century in 2020, the congregation is once again making additions and renovations to its campus to facilitate the expansion of mission and ministry. Already visible along University Drive is a new entrance plaza that was installed during the fall of 2019 and will be completed with new landscaping later this spring. Planning for another phase of construction that will expand and upgrade the building is also underway.

During regular worship services on the weekend of February 22-23, the members of St. John will reflect upon one hundred years of blessings received and kick off a year of anniversary observances. “As our St. John Lutheran Church & School family looks back at the original six families that prayerfully came together in a living room to form a worshipping congregation in this community a century ago, it makes total sense that they couldn’t keep it to themselves,” said the Rev. Marc Schwichtenberg, St. John’s lead pastor. “The eternal love of Jesus still leads us today as we continue to build for the future and share that same impacting love and hope that God has for our community and world. It’s why we are still here … it’s impossible to keep it to ourselves.”

A two-story corner house next to a church

Corner of University and Helen ca. 1965, before the current sanctuary was built (Courtesy of St. John Lutheran Church)

All photos provided are courtesy of St. John Lutheran Church

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Great article. I graduated form there in 65, then on to Central Junior High, then Rochester High School.
    Grew up on Helen Street, walked to school with a few others, never a worry.
    A great staff of teachers, principal, and pastor. Will never forget!

  2. Donald Worrell says

    Congratulations to Deborah Larsen for yet another magnificent local history article! What a fine history this church has.

  3. Roger Guetzkow says

    Outstanding article on a great church. The best is yet to come. To God be the glory!

  4. Michelle Ray says

    I went to school at St. Johns Church. It was where I was a cheerleader for basketball, fell in love and sang in Choir and played musical instruments.

  5. I met my very first girlfriend there in 1985 when I was 14 years old, at the St. John’s Fun Fair. She was dressed as a clown. I fell in love at first sight. (Funny, because I’ve always disliked clowns!).

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