The Tribune Phonograph (Abbotsford, Clark Co., WI.)

Vol. 47, No. 52, p. 1, Wed., Dec 26, 2007

Transcribed by: Bob Lipprandt


By Ben Schultz



Approaching 100 - The church building is a few years younger than its congregation. It was built in 1911.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Milan will look back at the last 100 years and keep the next 100 in mind as the calendar turns.

The church was formally constituted on New Year’s Eve 1907. To commemorate the event, there will be a New Year’s Eve service at 7:30 p.m. Refreshments will follow the service.

“We’re just going to celebrate the history, the 100 years of faithful word and sacrament. It’ll be pretty low-key,” pastor Matthew Christians said.

Former pastor Roger Moldenhauer will speak at the New Year’s Eve service. He served the congregation 22 years before Christians.

“I thinks it’s a big milestone,” he said. “Along the way in their history, there were some big struggles, economic and so forth. Looking back, there are a whole lot of blessings from God that made this possible.”

The congregation is also planning a larger summer celebration June 15, hopefully with some outdoor activities. A committee is still working on the details.


“They’re still working on the details,” Christians said. “(It will be) outdoor, with a big tent, with an extended celebration afterwards.

For the June 15 service, Moldenhauer’s predecessor, Mark Nicolaus, will preach.

Moldenhauer said Bethlehem Lutheran has been a steady, resilient institution in Milan. He said the town once had four churches and only two remain. There used to be an Evangelical Reformed and a Pentecostal church.



Pastor Matthew Christians, who has been at Bethlehem for three-and-a-half years, holds Sunday service at 8:15 a.m. Sunday school follows at 9:30.

The church hosts a dart-ball league and weekly Bible studies. It hosts Vacation Bible School in July.


At the beginning of September, Bethlehem Lutheran and its sister church, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (High Steeple) in the Town of Wien, hold an annual picnic at Cherokee Park.

The congregation is also putting together a book to commemorate the 100th anniversary, which will describe the history of the church and Milan.

Christians said about of quarter of the congregation hails from Abbotsford with the rest split between Milan and the Athens area.




Half  As Old - The church in 1957 did not have the front entrance it does today. 

The roots of the church go back to 1904, when several German Lutherans in the Milan area petitioned Pastor Joseph Oesch of St. John’s to conduct a service for them. The first gathering was the Monday after Easter.

Pastor Oesch recognized the needs of the congregation and started a preaching station in Milan with services on the last Sunday of the month.


The first Sunday School class was formed in the fall of that year consisting of five children. They were confirmed January 6, 1905.

About a year later, Pastor Oesch presented a constitution to the assembly and a number of congregants began to organize. From January to December 1907, 13 members signed the constitution. (At that time, only adult males were permitted to sign.) They held a formal meeting Dec. 31, 1907, and chose the name “Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Bethlehem at Milan, Marathon County, Wisconsin,” creating an official congregation.

An officer of the church, Frederick Pagel, donated 10 acres, which is where the Lutheran and Catholic cemeteries are today. Plots only cost $5, and owners took care of them. St. Thomas Catholic Church of Milan purchased an acre of the cemetery in 1925 and leased another in 1996.

Pastor Oesch moved away in 1909 and his successor, Pastor Schiemann, only lasted a few months. Pastor Knuff of Athens took over duties in 1910.

Knuff confirmed Bethlehem Lutheran’s first group of catechumens in September, though the congregation did not yet have a church building.


In those days, Milan had a grocery store with a hall upstairs, where the church held their early meetings.

Martin C. Ellingson donated land and a building was erected in 1911. It was 26 feet by 44 feet and constructed with lumber from the cemetery plot. Its total cost was $736.79. At the building’s dedication Nov. 19, Pastor Schiemann gave the German festival sermon, and Pastor Theodore Laetsch of Chippewa Falls gave the English sermon.


Of Days Gone by - The interior of the church was decorated for Christmas in 1912.


When Pastor Knuff left in 1912, Schiemann came back and served until 1913. Pastor E. Burger followed and united the congregations of St. John’s in the Town of Holton and Bethlehem Lutheran.

Mr. Ihno Janssen became pastor in 1915 and presided over the church’s first marriage. Emil Venzke and Lydia Jurgemeyer were wed June 6, 1915.

The Ladies’ Aid was organized Oct. 4, 1914, and has been instrumental in funding building improvements for the church. Moldenhauer praised the group for its constant commitment. “Sometimes the Ladies Aid had to keep the pastor paid and the church kept up,” he said.


Janssen received a parsonage across the street from the church the following year. In 1920 he left for a mission congregation in Mattoon and members of St. John’s of the Town of Holton split from Bethlehem. Pastor Walter Piehler was installed in 1921.

That year one English service was allowed per month and the constitution of the district synod was distributed in English and German. Services were alternated between the languages each month starting in 1926. The official English hymnal was introduced in 1934.

When Pastor George Groh came to lead the church in 1927 the congregation was in the midst of considering a new building. Soon afterward they found estimates far exceeded their expectations and those plans were dropped. However, the Ladies’ Aid Society helped finance remodeling with 10 feet built on the back of the church, a raised ceiling and repainted interior. The work was dedicated Dec. 9, 1928.

As the church celebrated 25 years, the Great Depression hit it hard, reducing its number to 40 and requiring a subsidy from the district mission board.


Leadership changed hands again in 1939 when Pastor Groh resigned and Emmanuel Malueg of St. John’s, Town of Wien, came in. Malueg then served both congregations, an arrangement that persists to this day.

Shortly after Harold Malotky replaced Malueg in 1947, the church went through several adjustments to its structure. It moved to its current location on a new foundation in 1948, which gave it a basement, kitchen and oil furnace. The altar and pulpit area were remodeled the next year.

Malotky reorganized Sunday School and added Vacation Bible School in 1949. It meets every summer in Milan.

The church parsonage was sold in 1950 and is currently owned by the Randy and Sandy Reynolds family, members of Bethlehem Lutheran.

Malotky was released for health reasons five years later, and Frederick Kempfert stepped in for the next five, before Ferdinand Timler was called. He served from 1961 to April 1967.


Soon after David C. Schroeder came to the church as pastor it combined its confirmation classes with St. John.

In 1969 the building underwent an extensive redesign. A 12-foot by 26-foot entry was added to the south end of the building and included space for coat racks and a room for small children. The basement addition gained restrooms, replacing the outdoor facilities. New gas furnaces were put in as well as a hot water heater. Before this congregants brought milk cans with hot water from the local cheese factory.

Schroeder handed off the ministry to Mark J. Nicolaus in 1972 and served until 1980, when Roger Moldenhauer joined as pastor.

A second women’s group, Christian Women in Action, was formed in 1982. The group holds monthly Bible studies and supports missionary work abroad.

Bethlehem continued its fellowship with St. John in 1991 when it combined its annual picnic. In 2000 the churches merged their Vacation Bible School classes.


Through the 90s and later the church was touched up, starting with new siding and window maintenance in 1993. The first phone was installed and 12 pews were purchased in 1995. A year later a handicap entrance was constructed on the west side of the church. In 2002 a new steel roof was added while the steeple was repaired.

Moldenhauer said the congregation has always been a very dedicated group of people who worked together. They wanted to re-roof the church, so the hands showed up and the roof was on.

“When you wanted to do something, you went ahead and did it,” he said. “That’s been a hallmark of the church. It’s built, operated and maintained by the members themselves. Instead of throwing the money in the offering plate, they do it themselves.”




A Look Inside - The interior of the church today.


In 2002 a Voters’ Assembly overwhelmingly chose to build a new church at a new location in Milan and the congregation has been wrestling with how to proceed with it.

Pastor Christians insists nothing is finalized. There are plans to purchase land by the church’s cemetery North of Milan next year. The church building is almost 100 years old and its age would hinder any upgrades. Handicapped entrances to the basement are lacking and heating is a problem. Also, the church is growing and needs more space to accommodate the congregation.

“A lot of Sundays we overflow our space,” Christians said.

Christians said the congregation is small, family-friendly and keeping the future in mind.


“They’re looking at positioning themselves for the next 100 years,” he said.



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