How it all began
Immanuel was not the first Lutheran congregation in Chicago. Nor was it the first Swedish congregation in the city. It was, however, the first Swedish Lutheran church in the rapidly growing urban center.
The honor of being the oldest Lutheran congregation in Chicago belongs to St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church (now First St. Paul Lutheran), founded in 1846. Under the leadership of Pastor Augustus Selle, it ministered to a diverse population, including Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes. Eventually, these ethnic groups went their separate ways.
In 1848, the Scandinavians of St. Paul Lutheran Church created their own congregation, the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church (now Lakeview Lutheran). Organized by Pastor Paul Andersen, a graduate of Beloit College, this assembly represented the progressive wing of American Lutheranism and worshipped at a rebuilt structure on Superior Street between LaSalle and Wells.
Five years later, the Swedish members of the Scandinavian church likewise formed their own congregation. While the division appears to have been amicable, there had been some tensions, relating both to language and theology, between the Norwegians and Swedes. As the Norwegians had built a new church at Erie and Franklin, the Swedish congregation kept the Superior Street building.
Given the steady increase in the Swedish population of Chicago, Pastor Andersen felt that they needed a church of their own. Working with Pastor Tuve Hasselquist, later the president of the Augustana Synod and of Augustana College, Andersen helped to organize the congregation in 1853. A call was extended to Pastor Erland Carlsson in Sweden. Carlsson was installed as Immanuel’s first pastor in 1853 and served the parish until 1875.
The very first Swedish congregation in Chicago? It was St. Ansgarius Episcopal Church, founded in 1850. After several changes in location and name, the parish is now St. Francis Episcopal in West Rogers Park.
Out of Ashes
Two tragic events framed Immanuel’s first twenty years as a community of faith. In 1854, a cholera epidemic, one of many in the city’s early history, attacked Chicago, especially the immigrant neighborhoods. Immanuel lost at least one-tenth of its membership, leaving many others weakened and grieving.
Despite illness and poverty, economic instability and unemployment, Immanuel continued to grow and thrive between 1853 and 1870. By the late 1860’s, the congregation had grown to over one thousand members. The Superior Street church had been greatly outgrown, despite the addition of a basement (pastor’s office and publishing house) and a school house (college and seminary).
The new building, begun in 1869, at Sedgwick and Hobbie Streets, was an imposing edifice, with a 154-foot steeple. Sadly, it was used only for a short time by the congregation, since on October 8, 1871, it became a victim of the Great Chicago Fire. Not only was the church building destroyed, but the homes of nine-tenths of the members were also burned.
Pastor Erland Carlsson prevailed upon Immanuel to honor the debt for its lost building and to begin constructing a new one. Through extensive fund-raising in America and Sweden, Carlsson was able to raise ten million dollars, sufficient to begin work on the new church, which occupied the same location on Sedgwick and was almost identical to the one which had been destroyed by fire.
Carlsson retired as pastor of Immanuel in 1875, the same year that the new church building was dedicated. He had also served as president (bishop) of the national Augustana Lutheran Synod and chaired the Board of Trustees of Augustana College. Carlsson died in 1893 and was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.
Learning and Healing
Long before the term ‘institutional church’ became popular in the 1890’s, Immanuel was an ‘institutional church.’ Its activities ranged beyond strictly liturgical and theological matters to encompass all facets of people’s lives and the urban environment.
The first cries of need from the community came in the form of the cholera epidemic, when the congregation was barely one year old. Although Pastor Carlsson and the members of the church devoted long hours in caring for the sick, waiting in anxiety with their families, and attending to the burial of the victims, no permanent health care facilities emerged from this experience. It would be almost 30 years until such plans came to fruition.
The education of the community was another matter, however. Immanuel acted quickly to set up a parish day school, then a college and seminary. In 1860, Augustana College and Seminary was officially opened, with 21 students and 2 professors. Three years later, the college and seminary relocated to Paxton, Illinois, and then in 1875, it acquired a new campus in Rock Island, Illinois.
Due to the quirks of denominational fragmentation, Immanuel can be considered the source of three colleges and two seminaries. In 1869, the Norwegian contingent of the original Augustana College and Seminary withdrew to Marshall, Wisconsin. A further division in this school created both Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis. Augsburg College, founded by the seminary, became a separate institution, while the seminary joined Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul. Meanwhile, Augustana Seminary merged with four other schools to form the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1962.
While informal health care agencies (and a small private hospital) had operated within Immanuel and the Augustana Synod, the establishment of a major medical center did not occur until 1881. Immanuel, in cooperation with other Swedish congregations, constructed a building with 6 floors and 150 beds, which also housed a training program for nurses. Augustana Hospital, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, received several additions in later years and merged with Lutheran General Hospital in 1987. Lutheran General is now part of Advocate Health Care.
A college, seminary, and hospital were by no means the only manifestations of Immanuel’s institutional church. Other examples include a short-lived newspaper, residences for working women, a life-insurance society, at least two energetic evangelism groups, a home for orphaned children (forerunner of today’s Lutheran Social Services of Illinois), a publishing house (part of the genealogy of Augsburg Fortress Press), and an endless array of musical groups and mission societies.
Public Transportation: We are conveniently located about two blocks from the #22 Clark bus and a ten-minute walk from the Thorndale red line station.
Parking: On Sundays, parking is available at Senn High School (5900 N Glenwood Ave) half a block south of the church. An accessible drop-off location is located directly in front of the church entrance on Elmdale Ave.