By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Four years ago, at the end of September, Ruth and I made an unforgettable visit to the Estonian Ev. Martin Luther Church in Lincoln County, Wisconsin. In November of that year, I posted a story about this church – the First Estonian Church in America.
Two years later, Bill Rebane, owner and great nephew of the founding pastor of this church, discovered our blog story and sent us an email saying, “Absolutely wonderful photography. With these, there may be new hope for the Estonian Ev. Martin Luther Church. What must we do to use them to promote the restoration? Some devoted Estonians from Chicago have joined in the effort to begin restoration in the coming spring. Would love to communicate with you.”
We responded with this: “Thank you so much for contacting us about using these photos for the purpose of promoting the restoration of your wonderfully historic church. Our main purpose in photographing old structures is to make people aware of the historical value in the hopes that some of them can and will be saved.” We then gave him permission to use the photos in his fund-raising efforts.
A short time later, Mr. Rebane set up a GoFundMe website with a goal of raising $40,000 and he used a couple of our photos on that site. He explained that the most pressing need at that time was for electric service and water for the restoration efforts. It stated: “Our hopes and wishes are relatively small: To restore the structure to its original state and to maintain the cemetery with 11 resting places.”
In June of 2014, a group of Estonians from Chicago volunteered their time to begin the restoration efforts. They stabilized the church foundation and began working on clearing brush from the cemetery to expose the gravestones. And in July of this year, volunteers worked to adjust the frame of the church and install windows and doors. The volunteer weekend ended with a benefit concert on the grounds of the church to raise money for construction materials. It featured two well-known Estonian musicians.
The concert website stated that “the first Estonian church is a monument to early Estonian immigration to America and the liberty and freedom they were seeking.” And the Facebook page for this historic church states that “the Estonian Embassy in Washington D.C. through its cultural attaché has expressed interest in making the church property a cultural information site of Estonian life, history and the arts.”
We are grateful that this historic structure will be saved from the ravages of time and we wish the Estonians good luck in their continued restoration efforts.