Originally organized in 1867 by local Swiss and German residents, St. Peter’s Deutsch Evangeliche Gemeinde, today knowns as St Peter’s United Church of Christ, has a long presence in the Village of Frankfort. Charter members include names still familiar to many long-time village residents: Benedict Baumgartner, John Bobzin, C. Peter Felden, Simon Hohenstein, Peter Koerner, Phillip Lenhardt, Fred Leppla, Abraham Minger, Louis Mohr, Martin Muff, John Nieland, and Fred, Henry and John Schroeder. [Appendix 1]When the expanding congregation outgrew its small wooden church, they decided to build a new sanctuary in 1912.
The congregation hired Chicago architects, Worthmann and Steinbach (active 1902-1928). Worthmann & Steinbach were known for their designs of large and elaborate churches in the Chicago area and Midwest region. St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, now a condominium development in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, bears some similarities and has Chicago Landmark status. [Appendix 2] The F. Balgeman Company of Chicago Heights constructed the new church. The beautiful and colorful art glass windows were designed, it is believed, by the John J. Kinsella Company.
The Neo-Gothic architectural style and art glass windows were popular in the years before World War I. The style reflects a desire to represent the strong traditions of the classical past, something the early German and Swiss founders probably wanted to project.
The Kinsella Studio, active 1872-1931, was popular for its use of “favrile” glass, colorful iridescent glass developed by the L.C. Tiffany Co., to depict Biblical scenes. Building plans and specifications for the 1915-16 design are not found at the church. Church historians, however, in comparing the Gethsemane window at St. James Lutheran Church, 2018 N. Fremont, Chicago, believed the Kinsella Company produced the windows. [Appendix 3]The fact that Worthmann & Steinbach also designed St. James supports this conclusion. Storm windows were placed over the stained-glass windows for protection in 1930.
Red bricks cover the exterior with a north-facing central gable embraced by two towers. The west tower houses the Carillon and two historic bells. Atop this tower is a conical slate roof on which sits St. Peter’s symbolic rooster. A concrete cornerstone built into the brick wall, Christus Der Eckstein, 1915, commemorates the building’s construction and purpose. The original exterior possessed north-facing steps directly entering the doors of the narthex. A later remodel, to accommodate additions in the basement/Fellowship Room area, replaced those front steps with side-facing steps. While the congregation improved their church property over the years, adding additional buildings, the basic Neo-Gothic structure remains intact. The iconic rooster weathervane, however, has been replaced several times over the years.
Of the two bells in the Bell Tower, one is from the original church and the second was added when the current building was constructed. [Appendix 4] The Henry Stuckstede Bell Foundry Company of St. Louis, Missouri produced the newer one. The bells can be heard before Sunday worship. One can also hear the bells toll when they ring to mourn the passing of a deceased member. Recorded music can be heard during patriotic and Christian holidays. A new Carillon was purchased in 1991 followed with an upgrade seven years later.
The interior of the church was remodeled in 1937. The statuettes in the reredos (wooden screen behind the altar) were carved by Anton Lang, a nephew of the Anton Lang famed for playing the part of Christ in the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1900, 1910, and 1922. The center steps to the chancel were added in the late 1930s to provide larger openings for organ in-take and more space for worship and programs. The alter, now located at the south wall, was once in front of the pulpit.
In 1923, the congregation purchased an Etsey organ. The Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro, Vermont was the largest organ (music) manufacturer in the United States at the time. A new Wickes organ was purchased in 1958. With sanctuary remodels and ranks added to the organ in following years, today’s organ plays beautiful music with a large variety of sounds.
Frankfort’s German heritage is clearly seen in St. Peter’s history as the cornerstone illustrates. Up until 1926, worship services were held in German. Pastor George S. Gerhold recommended a German and an English service each Sunday. The following year, English became the official language although German services continued for a time.
St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, an early church in the Village of Frankfort, deserves landmark designation because of its unique architecture and art glass windows and because of its contributions to Frankfort. Over its 100+ years, the church and its congregation actively participated in community activities which has included hosting Village Candidate’s Nights. Flags are flown to remember fallen soldiers during Memorial Day. In the past, the church was known for its “Beef Dinners” and in the pre-Fall Fest days during “Sauerkraut Fest”, the congregation cooked and served chicken dinners. Twice the church has been on the FAHS Candle-light House Walk. Former village mayors George Sangmeister and Glen Warning and current mayor Jim Holland plus U.S. Congressman, George E. Sangmeister regularly attended services at St. Peter’s. In the Historic District visitors and residents alike are reminded of the time and the holiday when the carillon rings. In 2016, the Frankfort Preservation Foundation awarded a plaque to St. Peter’s, recognizing its architectural contribution to the historic character of Frankfort.
Note: The Illinois State Historical Society officially recognized the religious, cultural, civic, and moral heritage of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, 1867, Frankfort as an Illinois Sesquicentennial House of Worship, September 26, 2020.