Saint Luke’s was never disconnected from events in the broader society, and the World Wars had a significant impact on the congregation. In many ways the congregation’s experience during World War I reflected that of the broader German-American Lutheran population. They staunchly promoted American neutrality during the war’s opening years and supported Germany, confident of its eventual victory. Yet once the United States entered the conflict in 1917, Saint Luke’s members were anxious to show their patriotism and loyalty. Lukans enthusiastically bought Liberty bonds and enlisted. The congregation went one step further, hosting service men on their way to Europe.
During World War II, Saint Luke’s was the Lutheran Service Center for the East Coast. There every element of the small congregation banded together to ensure that the thousands of military personnel who visited Saint Luke’s had a church home away from home.
World War I
The United States was officially neutral during the early years of World War I, but many Americans sided with the country of their forebearers. We do not know where members of Saint Luke’s stood, but Pastor William Koepchen was firmly for Germany, as he made clear in his 1916 annual report.
The report began with a lamentation over the war’s destruction, especially the “devilish action” of Britain and its blockade of Germany. He then bemoaned the “besieged land of our ancestors.” Nevertheless, he asserted, there were many hidden blessings in the war and several lessons the congregation could learn from Germany:
- – Christians must prepare for war; the enemy seeks to make them prey. As Germany prepared for war, so too must Christians arm themselves against sin and the hostility of the world through the preaching of the Word.
- – Christians must remain true to the Lord and to their allies. Japan, England, Russia, and Italy betrayed Germany. In contrast, Germany stands by its allies. Christians must remain true to Jesus, our only ally against the devil.
- – What a person sows, so shall that person reap. Since 1871, France has sown hatred toward Germany. Now it is reaping the harvest! Russia has stomped on Germany and now is rewarded with social discord. England has filled its people with envy and greed. Now it is losing its status as a world power. Italy has sowed betrayal and now is betrayed by its former allies. In contrast, Germany has increased mutual trust and unity among its people. Saint Luke’s works in this German manner, building solidarity in this place.
- – Suffer as one in spirit. Instead of dividing Germany, the war has brought Germans together. Germany has fulfilled its duty to protect itself from its enemies. This duty to protect can also bring Christians together. United by God’s means of Grace they can fight against the devil and the world.
- – The image the congregation should take for their communal work is the trenches. The trenches not only offer a position from which to view the enemy and to shield soldiers from him, but they also provide a place for rest and recreation. So, too, a congregation not only helps to see the enemy (the devil), but also provides opportunities for happy times: laughing, singing, and socializing within congregational organizations.
Pastor Koepchen concluded by characterizing Germany’s inevitable victory as one of righteousness over an unrighteous and weak Britain. Germany would be free and a God-fearing ruler of the world, a blessing for all. By its example, Germany would also give the church weapons to protect it from the world. Through the works God commands of us we will be victorious.
Yet, when The United States entered the war in 1917, Saint Luke’s joined the effort. Some ten percent of the congregation, 88 men, served in the US Army and Navy. The council authorized the sale of Liberty Bonds, and the church opened its recreational facilities to service members. A special committee from the church council and the Young People’s Guild served as hosts to the visitors. These actions foreshadowed Saint Luke’s far greater efforts in World War II, when it became the Lutheran Service Center for the East Coast.
World War II
During World War II, Saint Luke’s was the site of the Lutheran Service Center for the East Coast. Here, from 1942 to 1945, some 5,500 military personnel were offered a warm welcome regardless of color or creed. At Saint Luke’s they could rest, socialize, have a snack, and enjoy its recreational facilities. Bowling, ping-pong, badminton, shuffle-board, and volley-ball were always available. A pastor was on hand seven days a week for counseling and private communion in a tiny 12-seat chapel set aside solely for that purpose.
But the goal of the Center was far more ambitious than merely providing rest and recreation. It was “to continue the men and women’s normal church life just where they laid it down back home.” So, on Saturday nights, service personnel joined members of the Senior Young People’s Guild to attend plays and movies, or to go bowling, roller skating, or swimming. They took ferry rides to Staten Island, visited the Planetarium, and enjoyed Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.
Sundays offered a full day of activities, beginning with a special Communion service. Although the congregation celebrated Communion only once a month, the special military service offered the Sacrament weekly to ensure that the men and women, who usually spent a short time in the area, could receive Communion before deploying.
|12:00 Special Communion|
6:00 Fellowship, Supper, & Devotions
Following the service, Guild members and their guests had a quick lunch at a neighborhood restaurant—usually The Eats Shoppe around the corner—before heading out for an afternoon adventure. Activities varied widely, from beach parties at Far Rockaway, to visits to the Museum of Modern Art or the Cloisters, to picnics and sledding in Central Park. Around Halloween and Valentine’s Day, Saint Luke’s hosted parties and treasure hunts. Guests who dropped in before Christmas helped decorate the church for the season.
All returned to the church around 6:00 for devotions, fellowship, and supper. Each week volunteers from the Young People’s Guild, the Ladies’ Aid Society, and the Dorcas Guild served 45 to 60 people cold cuts (generously donated by two men from the congregation) along with home-made salads and baked goods. The evening ended with more recreation and singing around a piano.
Saint Luke’s thought of those back home as well. Women of the congregation sent letters to the parents of all military guests when they attended Sunday services for the first time.