September 11th has become a day of remembrance for many Americans this past decade, but for Emanuel Lutheran Church in West Warwick, Rhode Island it has always been a day to remember. It was on this day in 1886 that our congregation was born becoming part of the Augustana Lutheran Synod.
For many years Emanuel was known as The Swedish Church or the white church on the hill, and these are appropriate descriptors. The building we’ve worshiped in since 1896 does sit on a hill and is white, and for many years Emanuel was where the Swedish immigrants who worked the textile mills in Crompton, West Warwick came together for worship. However, in the years since 1896, Emanuel has become known for other things as well, like caring for those in need, caring for the environment, and welcoming people who often are unwelcome.
The early years of Emanuel were filled with changes. During its first 10 years the congregation worshipped at two temporary locations. In 1895 the land on top of the hill was donated by the family who owned the Centreville Mill – a mill that employed much of the congregation. A year later the building we still worship in today was completed for a cost of $9,300. The parsonage was built next door a few years later.
Emanuel also had many pastoral changes during its early years, nine to be exact in the first 25 years. During this time Emanuel was ministered by everything from students to knights. Its first two pastors were students who served only a short time, but in 1907 the Rev. Dr. Emil Lund came to Emanuel. Lund had served the Church of Sweden for many years and held an honorary Doctorate degree from Bethany College. He was even knighted by the Swedish government. Many pastors came and went in the early days of Emanuel, but in the hundred years since 1911 only seven pastors have served here.
Pastor Anders Herenius was already 53 years old, when he came to Emanuel in 1911. He too had much experience as a pastor and the congregation likely thought he would only be with them for a few years. But it was Pastor Herenius who shepherded Emanuel through the tumultuous events of the early 20th century: World War I, the Pawtuxet Valley mill strikes of 1922, the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the depression that followed, and even WWII.
All together Pastor Herenius served Emanuel for 37 years. He was known for his strictness and also his intelligence. He could speak seven different languages and was elected to serve as a Rhode Island State Representative. It was during his tenure at Emanuel that worship services began to be held in English. In 1932 the first all English service was held, and by 1943 all services at Emanuel, much to Pastor Herenius’ chagrin, had switched to English.
On Sunday September 12, 1948, as church bells were ringing calling parishioners to worship, Pastor Herenius died in the upstairs’ bedroom of the parsonage. He was 91 years old.
Pastor Edgar Malmstrom succeeded Pastor Herenius, and his call to Emanuel was an odd twist of fate. One Sunday morning, Pastor Malmstrom came to Emanuel to visit his friend Pastor Herenius. Pastor Herenius became ill during the service and it was Pastor Malmstorm who jumped in and completed the service, preaching a sermon that some even remember today on The Lord’s Prayer. Pastor Malmstrom served at Emanuel for 17 years and is remembered for his faith in the power of prayer, for making Sunday home visits (often around dinner time), and for smoking big cigars.
During the last 50 years under the leadership of pastors like Dan Carlson, Alan Grant, John Carlson, Paul Krampitz, and Todd Stange, Emanuel has gained a reputation for reaching out to help people in need. Working with other Lutheran congregations in Rhode Island in what was known as Uni-Parish in the early 1970’s, Emanuel helped build the Matthew XXV House. Inspired by the scripture from Matthew where Jesus is seen in the “least of these,” the Uni-Parish congregations built a house for low-income elderly and people of differing abilities.
In the late 1970’s Emanuel participated in the church wide “Word & Witness” program. Moved by their experience some members felt called to establish a Day-Care Center at Emanuel. The center named Joyful Noise opened it doors in 1978 with 15 students and a staff of 5. Now, over 30 years later Joyful Noise has two locations and serves almost 200 children each day.
In recent years Emanuel has reached out to cloth and feed people in need. In 2002 a program called “Wrap-a-Friend” began. In the spring coats were collected from local businesses and schools. The coats were then mended, cleaned, and then given away in the fall. Over 25,000 coats have been given away through “Wrap-a-Friend” to people from all over RI. Since 2008 Emanuel has also been running a year-round food pantry.
In 2005 Emanuel became the first church in RI to sign up for the New England GreenStart program. In doing so, Emanuel became the first church in RI to pay for all its electricity to come from renewable sources of energy like wind, solar, and hydroelectric.
Today Emanuel is a more than just a Swedish congregation. In recent years we have made a conscious effort to welcome people of different ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations. In 1978 Emanuel was one of the first Lutheran congregations to invite all baptized members regardless of age to receive Holy Communion. It’s not uncommon now to see a three year-old next to ninety year-old at the altar receiving the sacrament together. More recently, in 2006 Emanuel voted to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Since then people of all sexual orientations – gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight – have been extended a special welcome.
Over the last 135+ years Emanuel has been blessed to be called and energized by God in a variety of ways making God’s love known in West Warwick, RI and beyond. As a 1986 Providence Journal article noted, “The church does more than just sit on the hill... it equips people to do ministry seven days a week.”