The History of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
The years of 1920’s were one of changes around the Camden County region. In 1926, the boroughs of Bellmawr and Runnemede were incorporated, and the Delaware River Bridge (now known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) opened to vehicular traffic. Around the nation the “Roaring Twenties” were in full swing. Many young men and women were rejecting the ways of their parents by choosing science and technology over faith in the Lord. However, in the fall of 1925, several past members of St. Andrew Evangelical Lutheran Church, Philadelphia were attending Mount Calvary United Church when they met to discuss their desire to form a Lutheran Church in Runnemede. The pastor of Mount Calvary, Rev. William Wescott encouraged them to follow the Lord’s call. As a result of that meeting, Mrs. Evelyn Cochran, wrote a letter from her kitchen table to Rev. Silas Daughtery, Superintendent of Home Missions of the Eastern Pennsylvania Synod - United Lutheran Church in America, Philadelphia, Pa.
During the summer of 1926, Mr. Allen Roth, a seminary student at Mount Airy Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, came to Runnemede to conduct a religious survey of the area. He then began gathering interested people together for home worship. By the end of the summer, when Mr. Roth returned to the seminary, he had gathered 87 signatures on a petition to the formation of a church in Runnemede. Rev. Ivan Hagedorn and Dr. Daughtery alternated the preaching duties for the first Lutheran services held in Runnemede. On September 19, 1926, the interested members met for a service followed by a congregational meeting during which the congregation officially organized, a constitution adopted, and the name, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, was chosen by ballot. There were thirty-six charter members. Holy Communion was celebrated for the first time on November 28, 1926.
In May 1927, the ground on which the Church now stands was purchased for $3,500. Most of the money for this was provided by the charter members who used the equity of their homes to secure the mortgage. The children of the congregation helped, too. Mrs. Bittle remembers selling penny candy to help with building the church and for furnishing the Sunday School department, later called the Children’s Chapel. On June 1st, the Reverend Christian M. Hansen, S.T.M. was called to be the congregation’s first Pastor. At the same time the congregation was growing and again it was in need of larger place to worship. They moved to John Teall’s Runnemede Hotel on the southwest corner of Clements Bridge Road and the Black Horse Pike. The Church was incorporated in July and ground was broken for the new building on September 18,1927, only a year after the first services.
While waiting for the completion of the building, the congregation grew too large for the hotel. On January 17, 1928 they moved to the one room schoolhouse known as School Number 1 (it stood next to today’s Downing School). The first services were held in the sanctuary and the new building was dedicated on March 25th.
With the beginning of the Depression, Pastor Hansen resigned on December 1, 1930. The Rev. Robert E. Olsen arrived on February 15, 1931. A yearly budget of $2500 was not met and the Home Missions Board had to help the young congregation pay its bills. As the Great Depression deepened several members lost their jobs and homes. Other members moved away. In 1932, the communing membership dropped to 72, the lowest since the founding of the church. However, a high point occurred in 1933 when Eugene B. Umberger became Trinity’s first ministerial student. He entered Gettysburg College and upon graduation and ordination, Rev. Umberger became the pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, Haddon Heights, New Jersey. Rev. Olsen resigned to accept another position on February 1, 1938. An annotation in the 20th Anniversary states: “The depression - by God’s grace, the faith and sacrifices of the Pastor and the people, the Church survived.” The Rev. Harry S. Bowman, S.T.M. accepted a call to be Trinity's third pastor on June 1, 1938.
The congregation continued to grow through the 1940s. Early in the decade the communing membership had grown to 170. In November 1944, the average attendance exceeded 100 for the first time. In October 1940, the building at 214 E. Clements Bridge Road was purchased for use as a parsonage. During World War II seventy-seven members of the congregation served in the Armed Forces and four made the ultimate sacrifice. A plaque was dedicated in their memory in 1946. Today the plaque can be found over the entrance to the rear of the sanctuary. After the war, Pastor Bowman helped establish the Lutheran Home in Moorestown. He served as vice president on the home’s board of trustees until he resigned on August 31, 1948 to become pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Corry, Pa. Pastor Thomas C. Lott, S.T.M was called to become Trinity’s 4th pastor on February 1, 1949. Later that year, two regular morning services (8:30 and 11:15 AM) were instituted to accommodate the growing congregation.
Just as the rest of America was growing during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, Trinity’s congregation grew. On January 1, 1950 the church became self-supporting for the first time in its history and the final mortgage was burned the following April. Also during that year: Trinity’s sermons were broadcast on Sundays in April on station WCAM; Trinity became part of the newly established Evangelical Lutheran Synod of New Jersey; Bi-monthly vespers services began at the Mental Hospital Annex, Lakeland, NJ; and Harry Stetser became Trinity’s first Student-Assistant Pastor. By the end of that year the communing membership reached 354, an increase of almost 55% from the end of World War II. On Easter Sunday, 1951, four services were held and attended by over 500 attendees, the largest communion on church record. The 25th Anniversary of the congregation was celebrated in September 1951.
As the congregation continued to grow and the Sunday school attendance increased, the need for more room was recognized and on March 25, 1955 ground was broken for a Sunday School wing. Pastor Lott dug the first shovel full of dirt. Student Assistant Pastor William Jensen, Sunday School Superintendent Mrs. Evelyn White (formerly Cochran) and most of the congregation attended the short ceremony on a cold, cloudy day. The Sunday School wing was completed and dedicated the following year on the 28th anniversary of the original dedication of the church building.
At the 1960 Annual Meeting of the congregation, it was agreed that more room was needed in the sanctuary to accommodate the growing congregation. Construction on the building began in the spring of 1961. The sanctuary was enlarged and the pulpits were raised. The original rosette stained-glass window was replaced with the larger window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The white stucco and dark wood interior was changed to the familiar brick facade. Services continued throughout the reconstruction of the interior and work was concluded the following year. The rededication of the building was held the last Sunday in March 1962. By 1964, the interior of the main church building looked very much the same as the church of today. This resemblance can be seen in a comparison of the 1964 and 1996 Christmas Cards of the alter area.
By 1965, both the communing membership and the enrollment in the Sunday school program went over 1000. During the 1960s, the Confirmation Classes averaged 50 to 65 students. It again became apparent that more room was needed. The original parsonage located at 214 E. Clements Bridge Road (known to many as Mrs. White’s house) had been converted to Sunday school classrooms and the office of the church secretary. This building was destroyed by fire in the late 1970's. The home at 17 Johnson Avenue was purchased for use as the new parsonage. By 1966, the congregation purchased the house at 25 Knight Avenue for use as classrooms. Within five years the adjoining property at 17 Knight Avenue was purchased. This was used first as a parsonage for the Assistant Pastor and his family, later it was used for more classrooms.
As the congregation grew during the 1960s, it became apparent that an Assistant Pastor was needed. Robert A. Griffith, a member of Trinity, answered the call of the Lord in 1965. During Pastor Lott’s illness in 1968, Pastor Bob helped the congregation continue its work. After completing his studies he was ordained at Trinity on June 3, 1971. The church was filled to capacity for the ordination service. Pastor Bob worked tirelessly with the youth of the congregation and drove the church bus, “Bluebird,” to help transport the youth to retreats, concerts, and other events. In 1975, Pastor Griffith resigned from Trinity to become the pastor of two Lutheran churches in the Newville, Pa. area.
During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Norman M. Ressler, a member of Trinity, wrote many songs for use by the youth and members of the church. “Let the Sunshine In” was written for the Children’s (Junior) Choir and the “Vacation Bible School” song was dedicated to Pastor Lott. In the fall of 1970, Mr. Ressler arranged for the recording of some of his songs on an album, He Loves Me So. Fourteen members of Trinity’s Youth Choir were brought together to sing two songs, “I’ll Follow His Lead” and “Don’t Bottle Up Your Love.” This group became known as the Trinity Teens. For the next eight years, the Trinity Teens sang their witness for Christ to congregations across four states, on various radio stations, and they even taped a segment of the “Al Alberts” TV show. Pastor and Mrs. Lott sang “A Closing Prayer”. Eight-year old, Ruthie Dirkes sang, “Let the Sunshine In” with the Parks Brothers. This record opened a new and unique witnessing tool for the youth in the congregation. During the summer of 1971, the Trinity Teens recorded an album entitled, I Can Hear His Voice in the church. By the spring of 1973, the Teens had grown to more than 30 strong. It was said by many after listening to the Teens sing, “ I’ll never worry about our young people again.”
On February 24, 1974, Pastor Lott celebrated his 25th year of service to the congregation at Trinity and a dinner was held to celebrate the occasion. Over 600 people from the South Jersey and Philadelphia area attended to congratulate Pastor Lott for his accomplishments. Along with serving the congregation as minister, Pastor Lott was involved with the community. He served on the Relief Committee, Juvenile Conference Committee, Board of Directors at the Moorestown Home, Camp Scoutmaster of Troop 117, staff member of “Update” for Roman Catholic Priests, member of the Rotary Club International, Chaplin for the Boy Scout Jamboree in 1964, Chaplin at the Lakeland Hospital, and advisor at the YMCA in Camden, and many others. A cake shaped as a replica of the church building was the centerpiece of the dinner.
Pastor Lott was named Pastor Emeritus, in 1980, when Rev. Martin Pauschke was called as the new pastor. Pastor Lott remained busy within the church. He taught Bible classes and Sunday school and helped maintain the church books. When Pastor Pauschke resigned in 1983 to begin service in Maywood, Illinois, Pastor Lott and supply pastors filled in until a new pastor was called. During his 35-year pastorate, Trinity’s congregation grew form 275 worshipers in 1949 to 1,150 families in the 1970s. This made Trinity New Jersey’s largest Lutheran Church. Throughout the years since Trinity began, the congregation had seen five if its sons enter the ministry. Most of these occurred during Pastor Lott’s tenure, 1949-1985.
In 1985, Rev. Edward C. Schmidt, from Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, Maywood was called to be the new pastor. When he began his ministry the communing membership at Trinity had dropped to around 200. Under Pastor Schmidt’s leadership the church grew. In the early 1990’s a third service, at 10am each Sunday, was added and today it is the most popular of the three services. We have been blessed with Susan Dilks, who has served as our organist at this service has been doing so for over 26 years. The needs of the community have been addressed with the establishment of the Food Pantry. In 1994, the sanctuary was air-conditioned. By the end of the 1990s there were four Sunday school classes being held in the houses on Knight Avenue and in concern for their safety a new addition was proposed. Construction began in 1999 and on April 9, 2000, a new Sunday School Addition was dedicated with 5 new Sunday School classrooms, new offices for the Pastor and Secretary, a new kitchen and an elevator which makes the entire building handicapped accessible.
After serving Trinity for nearly two decades Pastor Schmidt began to prepare for retirement. In June of 2004 the congregation voted to pursue a transitional ministry, calling an associate pastor with the intent that this pastor would remain as the solo pastor upon Pastor Schmidt’s retirement. On September 26, 2004 the Rev. G. Andrew Engelhart III, S.T.M. was called as our associate pastor to commence on January 1st 2005. A retirement celebration was held for Pastor Schmidt on June 26, 2005 with well over three hundred guests and members of Trinity. Pastor Schmidt was named Pastor Emeritus and remained an active part of Trinity in addition to his supply preaching for various congregations throughout the Synod until his passing in 2014. At a meeting on September 25, 2005, Pastor Engelhart’s status was changed from associate pastor to pastor by vote of the congregation.
During 2005 the parsonage at 17 Johnson Ave. was razed to make room for much needed additional parking and a fund was established to provide for paving the lot. A year later the parking lot was expanded adding 25 well needed spaces. In addition our house on 17 Knight avenue has become a clothing closet, another way in which we help those in need. We also added a prayer shawl committee who knit Baptismal blankets for the infants who are Baptized at Trinity as well making shawls and lap blankets for those suffering illness or for those celebrating a significant life achievement. All of these items are made with love and prayer as symbol of God's love everyone. As of January 2009, we celebrate communion every week at our 10:00 am service. In 2012, we burned the mortgage for the new building constructed in 1999-2000. Thanks to the generous extra donations to "Burn-A-Debt" we paid off the mortgage seven years ahead of schedule. Another update was the addition of monitors in several parts of the building to advertise our ministry projects and events and to broadcast our services for the benefit of those who may have to step out of the sanctuary for various reasons.
Over the years Trinity has had a wonderful legacy with its staff members. After serving as Church Secretary for 41 years, Joanne Thornley retired in 2013. Her knowledge of members - old and new - was unsurpassable. During her tenure the church office has been relocated four times. She saw the transition from mimeograph to copy machine, typewriter to computer, ledger book to QuickBooks. In 2013 Janet Lipski began the task of Church Secretary and quickly became an efficient and integral member of our ministry support staff organizing the office and helping members on a daily basis with numerous issues.
In January 2016, Trinity was assigned it's first Seminary student in over forty years. David Dudzinski, a first year student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, spent five months with us as part of his education toward becoming an ordained pastor.
2018 was a difficult year for the Lutheran Church as several congregations closed including two neighboring congregations, Ascension Lutheran in Haddon Heights and Holy Trinity in Audubon. Several long time members of these congregations have joined Trinity and very quickly have become active in a variety of our ministries. We are also grateful that Pastor Jack Slotterback (Retired) joined Trinity several years ago. Pastor Jack has been very active with our praise band and often covers our worship service when Pastor Andy is on vacation.
Continuing long tenures at Trinity are Florence Adler, who has been our organist for 68 years. She has also directed our Bell Choir for at least half that time. Susan Dilks has been our 10:00am organist (and backup for Florence) for 29 years. Pat Schmidt has led our children's choir for 34 years. And Bob Kraemer has been accompanying our children's choir for many years. Bob is also our "third string" organist.
In the fall of 2019, after 45 years as our choir directress, Pat Henry retired. We give thanks for her energy and enthusiasm that she has brought to worship through our choir. No one will ever dance down our aisle the way she did. In addition to her musical skills Pat has been involved in so many aspects of our ministry at Trinity. From Sunday School Superintendent to VBS director, from constantly working on behalf of the pantry to leading the parenting class that coincided with confirmation for many years. In so many ways Pat has lived out her discipleship here at Trinity. Her legacy will inspire us for years to come. It is with thanksgiving and honor that we have named her Choir Director Emeritus. Life long member Jim Shisler has stepped into the role of choir director. A retired music teacher, Jim has been involved in Trinity's music program his whole life and has served as a Sunday School Teacher for many years, currently teaching our confirmation program along with Anna Marie Wright.
This updated version of our history was written in July 2020 after four months of struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. During that time, Trinity has adapted from in-person worship to viewing worship services at home via You Tube. The congregation has shown its strength and faith through keeping touch with each other and continuing to send in offerings so that the church will survive and thrive until we are able to worship in person again. The food pantry has continued to collect and distribute food to the needy during this difficult time adding an extra day of distribution to the schedule. Thanks to Phil Daniels for his wonderful expertise in editing services and uploading them to You Tube for us. We do not know our future, but we do know that God will bring us through the "wilderness" of this pandemic into the "promised land" of our Sanctuary.
Although histories may be documents filled with dates and events from long ago, they are also tool for to reflect upon our past and give thanks to God for the many ways in which He has blessed us. As we read this history, we are reminded of the many people who's faith along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit have brought us this far. The struggles and sacrifices of the people of God who once served here and who serve here now were not and are not in vain. God still calls us to make difficult decisions, to struggle with difficult issues, and to Know Christ and Make Him Known. We give God the glory and thanks for all those who by faith have brought us to this year of serving in the Lord. We place our trust in God that He will continue to guide us by the Spirit in our serving, in our worship, in our praise keeping us faithful in our mission until the day of Jesus Christ.