First English Lutheran Church is a stunning survivor.
Stunning, as the structure at 53 Park Avenue West was built at a time when Victorian opulence was at its peak, and no expense was spared in its construction. A survivor, as it remains one of the only remaining large downtown churches that actually houses its original congregation.
In 1831, the year that 26 year old Rev. Francis Ruth began his time church planting in Ohio, there were only six known Lutherans living in Mansfield. By the next year, they had formed their own congregation, which they called First Lutheran Church.
Eighteen years later, the English and German speaking members separated, each forming a distinct congregation. The German speakers formed St. Paul’s Lutheran, and the English speakers re-formed as First English Lutheran Church on May 4, 1850. Lutheranism in north central Ohio was on a true growth spurt, so much so that by the early 1890s, there were over 2,000 Lutherans in Mansfield.
The cornerstone was laid for the magnificent Romanesque church building at the corner of Park Avenue West and Mulberry Street in September 1891, and the structure was dedicated on October 21, 1894.
The account of the opening by the Mansfield Shield underscored the quality of the construction and the strength of the congregation. It noted that the parish was the largest within the bounds of the Wittenberg Synod, and was the largest of any Lutheran organization in the state. As the congregation grew, it eventually was credited as being the largest Protestant church body in Ohio.
The cost of the new church was $40,000. Those giving interior furnishings read like a “who’s who” of Mansfileders in the late nineteenth century; the pulpit, chairs, and altar table were given by M.B. Bushnell, for instance, with the west opalescent glass window of “Christ walking on the sea” being the gift of Peter Bissman.
The new church had worship seating for 1,600. It was apparently built along what is known as the “Akron Plan,” which was popular with Protestant congregations in the Midwest. That plan featured a worship space with a rear able capable of separation (typically with a large folding wall of some sort). While not often used in Lutheran churches, this interesting article on the Building the Social Gospel website speculates that First English Lutheran Church members may have been influenced by their German ancestors.
A visit to this website is a must, as it shares an outstanding photo view of the interior in its near original condition. When you reach the site, be sure to click on the thumbnail image.
First English Lutheran Church’s rotating neon cross was a fixture of mid to late 20th century Mansfield. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Sources: Wikipedia, Building the Social Gospel, FELC website, Mansfield Shield