SINCE THE EARLIEST FRENCH MISSIONARIES and explorers found a waterway through northern Illinois by way of the Great Lakes and the Chicago Portage, the history of the area has been closely allied with religion. The intensely Germanic roots of the modern village of Skokie can easily be seen through the stories of its oldest Protestant and Catholic churches, which began with German language services that continued until the early years of the 20th century.
In the decades that followed those first pioneers who moved into the area, more Christian congregations were organized. Houses of worship were constructed, and sizeable religious schools were maintained, most of which were entirely detached from the German heritage of Niles Center and its early religious institutions.
The influence of European culture was felt again, in the early 1950s, when large numbers of Jewish families, many of Eastern European heritage, moved from Chicago and elsewhere to suburban Skokie. The Niles Township Jewish Congregation, founded in 1952, reflected the growing Jewish population. Just five years later, in 1957, three different synagogues were in the blueprint stages.
By the middle 1980s, the village of Skokie had 12 Protestant churches representing all the major Protestant denominations; 10 Jewish congregations, in-eluding traditional, orthodox, conservative, and reformed; and three Roman Catholic churches. This wealth of spiritual resources took more than a century to create.
German Pioneer Heritage
In the early 1860s, most of the German Catholics who had settled within the present-day boundaries of Skokie walked or rode in buckboards to St. Joseph’s Church in Gross Point (Wilmette) to attend mass. At the time, the limited development in the area necessitated that St. Joseph’s serve a wide parish area, extending from Waukegan at the north and southward to Buffalo Grove and Des Plaines.
German Protestants also faced the dilemma of traveling far to attend church services, or attending none at all. At the wedding dinner of George Klehm and Eliza Harms, the groom expressed his dismay that there was no church in the settlement.
The situation, for Protestants and Catholics alike, was altered in 1867, however, when Peter Blameuser, Jr., provided land for both groups to construct houses of worship.
In his sermon of July 23, 1967, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, Reverend Arthur Sauer, the visiting priest from St. Peter’s Catholic Church, described the circumstances of the birth of both churches.
“Fortunately, there was a man present upon the scene who was ecumenically minded. I refer to Peter Blameuser, the elder. He and his brother had purchased this large tract of land. He was interested in a community, to become Niles Center. He knew the people of this area and he knew their needs, so he staked both groups with a site for a church.
“This was what we call today a true ecumenical spirit, for he belonged to the other St. Peter’s group. There may have been other motives in his mind but the fact remains that this ethnic group got along very well, and they appreciated his generosity so much they named their churches St. Peter.
“This spirit of mutual respect has always characterized the relationship of these two congregations. The word of Scripture can be applied to past and present:
‘O how happy it is to have brothers dwell together in unity.’
Official records for St. Peter’s Catholic Church began in early 1869. The initial entry in the parish books noted the baptism, on January 25, 1869, of John Joseph Witt. A frame church, which faced west toward what is now Lincoln Avenue was completed the same year. The first mass in the new building was celebrated on May 6, 1869.
The present church building, which stands at the sham-cornered intersection of Lincoln and Niles Center Road, was built in 1894. New school facilities were completed in 1927, the same year that Father Charles Eckert became the parish priest. During his tenure, the gradual transition from German to English as the official church language was completed.
In the 1950s, extensive additions were made to the church, the school, the rectory and the convent.
Like their Catholic counterparts, the Protestant members of St. Peter’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church lost little time taking advantage of Peter Blameuser s ecumenical gesture. The congregation was officially organized on May 5, 1867. A two-story, 32-foot by 50-foot brick church, popularly known in the German tongue of the time as the “Brickkerk” was built and dedicated the following year.
Among the early members of the Lutheran church were Henry Harms, George Klehm, John Tess,
Ernest Galitz, Henry Rohr, and John Ahrens.
Although Peter Blameuser’s deed stated that no part of the original land could be used as a cemetery, three new acres were purchased for that purpose in 1878 along present-day Harms Road north of Lincoln Avenue.
The first full-time pastor, Rev. F.W.E. Werner, quickly developed plans for a church school, and within a year, 80 students were enrolled. Reverend Werner was succeeded by Reverend H. Wolf, who resigned in 1889, citing the lack of a good parsonage. Structural problems were encountered July 4, 1901, when lightning struck the bell tower and virtually destroyed it. Some members of the congregation regarded it as a divine sign that a new building was needed.
The present sanctuary, at the intersection of Oakton and Laramie, was completed in 1903 at a cost of $17,220. Electric lights and a new organ were installed in 1908. In 1956, the cornerstone was laid for the Memorial parish Hall adjoining the original sanctuary. The following year, as a result of a denominational merger, the new name of the church became St. Peter’s United Church of Christ.
The two St. Peter’s churches, one Protestant and the other Catholic, are familiar landmarks in the downtown area of the village. Both are fitting testimony to the ecumenical spirit of one of Skokie’s founding fathers.
A severe test of strength for the old St. Peter’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church arose little more than a decade after it was organized. Among various members of the congregation, differences began to arise over the conduct of the church’s Sunday School, notably the liberal use of the rod by Reverend Werner, and the overall affiliation with the German Evangelical Synod. With iron-fisted determination, Reverend Werner staunchly opposed those who sought affiliation with one of the American Lutheran Synods, especially the Missouri Synod, some of whose members had approached congregational leaders.
Finally, the leadership of Reverend Werner itself became the greatest issue in the growing feud that culminated during the annual church meeting in the autumn of 1880. In a close vote, it was decided to retain Reverend Werner, but within a month, 27 members of the church resigned. Although Henry Harms and George Klehm sided with the pastor, other influential members of the church, including Ernest Galitz, William Eggert, Henry Rohr, and Christian Langfeldt left, forming a new church enrolled in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church.
Under the leadership of Reverend Frederick Detzer, pastor of the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, two meetings were held in December 1880 with members of the newly forming church. Interestingly enough, the religious legacies of Peter Blaumeuser persisted. The first services were held in Blameuser’s Hall, at the corner of Oakton and Lincoln on December 26, 1880.
The congregation was formally organized as St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in February 1881. Henry Rohr, one of the charter members, donated a half-acre of land along what is now Niles Center Road just south of Galitz Avenue. A narrow frame building was constructed at that spot the same year, which remained in parish use until it was demolished in 1954.
Long before the 1950s, however, the St. Paul’s congregation grew too large for its original sanctuary. In 1910, the old building was moved intact to the center of the grounds to serve as a school, and a new church was built on the exact site of the old, at a cost of about $22,000.
For many years, extending well into the second half of the twentieth century, St. Paul’s offered both German and English language services, although the number of German services gradually decreased.
One of the unique facets of St. Paul’s, Skokie’s third oldest church, has been the longevity of its pastors. The church’s first minister, the Reverend Frederick Detzer, served for half a century, from 1881 to 1931. He was succeeded by the Reverend Otto F. Arndt, who served as pastor of St. Paul’s for the next three decades, until 1962. It was under Reverend Arndt’s direction that construction of the new grade school building at St. Paul’s was completed and opened in 1955.
The original Protestant St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which was dedicated in June 1881 and replaced in 1910 by the present church which is at 7870 Niles Center Road
The earliest English-speaking church in Niles Center did not survive the passing years. For a time starting in the early 1870s, English services were conducted by Methodists in the old Fairview School building. By the turn of the century, the Methodists were gone.
For the first three decades of the 1900s, Niles Center had only three places of worship: the two St. Peter’s churches and St. Paul’s. But during the early 1930s, the number doubled.
Central United Methodist Church, organized in 1930 as the Niles Center Community Church, has no direct ties with the Methodist services of a half century earlier. Instead, its organization was prompted by a survey of the Church Federation of Chicago, which cited the need for another Protestant church in the neighborhood of the Dempster train station. Accordingly, the first Methodist meetings were held in the Bronx Building on Dempster.
Within a matter of months, the congregation purchased a large log structure on Lucille Court (later renamed Concord Lane). Starting with a membership of 99 and a part-time minister, the first service was held in the log chapel on January 4, 1931.
After nearly a decade of financial struggle and revised building plans, the first service in the current sanctuary building on Kenton was held in February 1953. A separate church school building was completed four years later. On October 18 and 19, 1980, the congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary. Four years later, it helped to celebrate the bicentennial of Methodism in America.
Despite the fact that Niles Center and the nation were in the depth of the Depression, religious facilities in the community grew rapidly during the early 1930s. Trinity Episcopal Church began services about a year following the organization of the Methodist Church. Meeting in the offices of the Chamber of Commerce at Lincoln and Oakton, Episcopal services were first held June 21, 1931.
The current church building at Cleveland and Karlov was built a few years later. The use of tile on the building’s outer facade is considered of great architectural interest. Later, the status of the church was raised from that of mission to parish, and the official name became Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
In March 1930, a handful of villagers who were members of Christian Science churches in other communities began meeting in homes to read lesson sermons. With 16 charter members, the Christian Science Society, Niles Center, was organized on November 26 of the same year. In July 1944, members succeeded in establishing a reading room open to the general public. On September 28, 1944, the Board of Directors of the Christian Science Mother Church granted permission for the members to form an official Christian science church. The present church building on Niles Avenue was constructed in 1962.
Although three new churches were organized around 1930, the years of the Depression followed by the war years took their toll, both in terms of the population growth of the village soon to be named Skokie and in the growth of its religious facilities as well. Lincolnwood’s St. John’s Lutheran Church was founded in 1942, the consolidated Lutheran school four years later. But a new church in Skokie was not organized until 1947.
- Carter Westminster Presbyterian, 4950 Pratt Avenue
- Central United Methodist, 8237 Kenton Avenue
- Crawford Avenue Baptist, 9800 Crawford Avenue
- Includes these missions: Grace Chinese Southern Baptist, Skokie Korean Baptist Church, Grace Korean Baptist
- Evanshire United Presbyterian, 4555 Church Street
- First Church of Christ, Scientist, 7800 Niles Avenue
- Holy Trinity Episcopal, 8201 Karlov Avenue
- North Shore Assembly of God, 9779 Gross Point Road
- Northwest Christian Church-Disciples of Christ, 8013 Laramie
- St. Paul Lutheran, 7870 Niles Center Road
- St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, Oakton and Laramie
- St. Timothy’s Lutheran, 9000 Kildare Avenue
- Trinity Lutheran, 3637 Golf Road
Today’s Carter-Westminster United Presbyterian Church has its roots implanted in the year 1947, when the Carter Memorial Presbyterian Church was organized. The congregation began as a mission project and met in the village pump house. The present sanctuary at Pratt and Lavergne was dedicated in 1952.
On May 3, 1931, the church merged with the Carter Memorial Presbyterian Church, an organization composed largely of Christians of Assyrian background from Chicago.
Around the same time that the Presbyterian church was being planned and built, the village enjoyed a rapid growth of other Christian houses of worship, as well as a boom in its general population. Groundbreaking ceremonies for Evanston’s Trinity Lutheran Church, which for a brief time was headquartered in Skokie, were held on September 9, 1951. The church, founded in 1891 as the Trinity Norwegian Lutheran Church (the Norwegian designation was dropped in 1946 to reflect the congregation’s increasingly diverse ethnic background) has had a sizeable number of Skokians in its congregation throughout most of its history.
From 1869 through 1950, the settlement that became the village of Niles Center and then Skokie had been served by a single Catholic parish. But the fast- growing population of the area prompted Samuel Cardinal Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, to direct the establishment of two new parishes in 1951 to help serve the Skokie area.
St. Joan of Arc, under the guidance of its first pastor, Reverend Francis P. Galvin, was dedicated July 2, 1951 and the first mass was held in August of that year. In September 1953, St. Joan of Arc’s school was formally opened with classes from kindergarten to grade six. With the building addition of 1964, the school extended its classes through grade eight.
Also in 1951, Reverend Francis J. Trainer oversaw the establishment of St. Lambert’s parish. The first mass was celebrated in the Cleveland school gymnasium in September of that year, and services were held there until the modernistic new church of St. Lambert’s was completed in 1960.
Roman Catholic Churches
- St. Joan of Arc, 9248 Lawndale Avenue
- St. Lambert’s, 8148 Karlov
- St. Peter’s, 8116 Niles Center Road
In 1951, the same year that St. Joan of Arc and St. Lambert parishes were created, another Lutheran church, named in honor of St. Timothy’s, was also established in the village. Lutherans had always enjoyed an important role in the history of Niles Township. The first Protestant church in Niles Centre, of course, had been St. Peter’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, which had been organized in 1867. Even older is St. John’s Lutheran Church in neighboring Niles, which was established back in 1850 and stands as the oldest of all churches in the township.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the most spectacular growth in houses of worship in the village belonged to Jewish synagogues, although a few other Protestant churches have been founded in relatively recent years. With 36 charter members, Evanshire United Presbyterian Church was organized in 1955 as a store-front mission run by the United Presbyterian Church of Evanston. The name Evanshire was selected as a short form of the worlds Evanston and Devonshire, the name of the surrounding district.
In 1957, Evanshire became a self-supporting church, adding a wing to the building at the intersection of Church Street and Kenton. After surviving declining membership and financial difficulties in the 1970s, the church enjoyed a strong resurgence in the 1980s.
Today’s Crawford Avenue Baptist Church was born in the 1950s, when a small congregation was organized as the Evanston Baptist Chapel. On October 15, 1961, the congregation voted to move its services to the Highland School, and to adopt the name Crawford Avenue Baptist Church. The current church building was completed in 1965. Under the leadership of Dr. Lee Gallman, Jr., the church developed a wide-ranging mission program aimed especially at people of Asian heritage.
North Shore Assembly of God, 9779 Gross Point Road, is the village’s youngest Christian Church. It was founded in June 1964.
St Joan of Arc Church at 9248 Lawndale Avenue
The decades following the end of World War II saw a rapid growth of many suburban areas of Chicago, especially Skokie and Niles Township. During the middle 1950s, more than half of the newcomers to the village were Jewish families. The movement of large numbers of people away from the congestion of Chicago as well as other large American cities soon resulted in a distinct need for religious facilities in Skokie and its surrounding areas to serve people of the Jewish faith.
During 1951, a number of parents began operating a Sunday School for the growing number of Jewish children in the area who had no local source of religious training outside of the home. By mid-January of the following year, the same group sent out a questionnaire to the approximately 150 families in the township known to be of the Jewish faith, asking if any would be interested in organizing a synagogue. The result of an overwhelming response, a meeting was held in April 1952 in the Skokie Village Hall. Harold L. De Love, a village resident, was elected first president of the synagogue and the name Niles Township Jewish Congregation was adopted. The first Jewish service in the history of Niles Township was held May 16, 1952, at Village Hall.
Niles Township Jewish Congregation’s first office was a windowless basement beneath a real estate office at 4840 Dempster, where Rabbi Sidney J. Jacobs often asked telephone callers to describe the weather, so he would have at least that much contact with the outside world. For most of the remaining years of the 1950s, the congregation worshipped in a number of different places, wherever sufficient space could be found for the rapidly growing membership, including the Fairview School, the Glenview Community Church, Niles East and Niles West High Schools and, starting June 24, 1955, in a serviceable but modest building erected by members of the congregation at 4420 Oakton.
During most of this time, the synagogue’s membership, which grew from about 40 families in 1952 to nearly 700 six years later, worked to establish and then nourish a campaign to finance a permanent synagogue.
After years of planning and hard work, the dream became a reality when the stone and brick building at 4500 Dempster was completed in the autumn of 1959. But in the meantime, the ever-expanding diverse Jewish population of the village had grown too large for a single congregation.
In 1953, little more than a year after the Niles Township Jewish Congregation was formally organized, a group of 18 families met to found the Skokie Valley Conservative Synagogue. The congregation held its first Sabbath services on April 30, 1953, at Lincolnwood School.
By the following year, ground was broken for a permanent structure at 9131 Niles Center Road and the name of the congregation was changed to Bnai Emunah, meaning “children of faith.”
During a period of five years, between 1954 and 1959, the size of the congregation grew from little more than 20 families to more than 600 families, threatening to cause the original sanctuary and classrooms to burst at the seams. A daily chapel, eight additional classrooms, and a youth hall were added. But even that was not sufficient. In the spring of 1962, ground was broken for a second addition for eight more classrooms and an enlarged community hall as well as other facilities.
Temple Judea Mizpah, which gained national attention for its measured leadership during the threatened Nazi march in the 1970s, evolved from a Sabbath service conducted by Rabbi Herman Schaalman April 2, 1954 in Skokie’s Holy Trinity Church. The fledgling congregation continued to worship under the spiritual leadership of a number of different rabbis from the Chicago area.
Following a Sabbath service May 29, 1954 at Lincoln School, the congregation adopted the name Temple Judea of Niles Township. Rabbi Karl Weiner, who served the congregation until his death in 1980, was chosen as permanent spiritual leader.
The land for the present synagogue was donated by the congregation’s Nydick, Edelman, and Conrad families. A building fund was started immediately and work on the new temple on Niles Center Road proceeded quickly enough to allow services for the congregation’s second High Holidays to be held in the new synagogue. It was a struggle, though. Temporary stairs had to be built and the incomplete roof was covered with tarpaulin. Temple Judea members kept Rabbi Weiner away from the new house of worship for several days before the holidays, fearing that the thick dust might cause him to lose his voice.
Temple Judea was consolidated with historic Temple Mizpah of Rogers Park in 1977, resulting in the name Temple Judea Mizpah. At a gala dinner dance at the North Shore Hilton October 28, 1984, the congregation celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.
The village’s Persian Hebrew Congregation, sometimes known as the Iran Hebrew Congregation, was founded in Chicago in 1910, but moved to Skokie during the late 1950s.
Over the years, the list of synagogues in the village grew longer to serve the rich varieties of Jewish culture. One of the most unusual houses of worship was organized around 1970. Congregation Bene Shalom of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf was established, at first, to serve a predominately deaf congregation. But under the longtime spiritual leadership of Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, many hearing people have joined the congregation as well.
In the downtown district and the neighborhoods, churches and synagogues are some of the most distinguishing features of the village of Skokie. For a century, village settlers built houses of worship almost as soon as they secured roofs over their own homes, helping to enhance the quality of village and family life alike.
By the mid-1980s, there were 10 synagogues in Skokie, including conservative, orthodox, traditional, and reform.
- Congregation Bnai Emunah, (Conservative), 9131 Niles Center Rd
- Kol Emeth Synagogue (Conservative), 5130 Touhy Ave
- Niles Township Jewish Congregation (Conservative), 4500 Dempster St
- Congregation Or Torah (Orthodox), 3740 Dempster St
- Persian Hebrew Congregation (Orthodox), 3820 Main St
- Skokie Central Traditional Congregation, 4040 Main St
- Skokie Valley Traditional Congregation, 8825 East Prairie Rd
- Temple Beth Israel (Reform), 9129 Skokie Blvd
- Temple Judea Mizpah (Reform), 8610 Niles Center Rd
- Congregation Bene Shalom of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf, 4435 Oakton St
The Jewish Congregation Bnai Emunah at 9131 Niles Center Road