First Lutheran Church of West Barnstable – 52 Churches

There has been a small Finnish community on Cape Cod since the 19th century and I am too lazy to do the research to plausibly explain why in this entry in the 52Church series, but they apparently, according to one local history, had a penchant for drinking and so a temperance society was formed at the turn of the century to quell their dipsomania. That society eventually became a place of worship and since Finns — and many people of the Nordic and Teutonic countries — tend to be Lutheran, so West Barnstable became home to the first Lutheran church on Cape Cod, the Suomi, or Finnish Lutheran synod to be precise. According to Marion Rawson Vuilleumier’s Churches on Cape Cod, services were conducted only in Finnish until 1943, when a second English service was added and the church congregation grew.

According to the church history:

“The Finns, even in the Old Country, were known as quite heavy partakers of strong spirits.  When they immigrated to this country, because of the difficulty in getting acclimated and in response to the weary life of back-breaking work and the uncertainties of nature, drinking became rampant.

The Finns finally decided to do something about it so they formed a Temperance Society and built a building on Plum Street.  Everyone who joined the Society had to take a pledge to stay sober and if at any time they got caught breaking that pledge, they had to pay a fine of 25¢ which represented at least two hours labor at that time.

The Society was disbanded in 1913, having served its purpose but the building continued to be used for many functions including classes in English.  Religious services and Sunday School classes were also held there.

This was my first visit to a Lutheran church. I went in with some stereotypes and pre-conceptions about German protestantism, the church of the northern Midwest, of immigrant Nordic farmers who enjoyed lutefisk dinners. This was the religion of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, a severe Teutonic faith of austere churches, bleak landscapes, and all the humor of a religion born at the Diet of Worms. My friend and advisor Paul Noonan told me I would enjoy the Pastor, Rev. Jonathan Ahnquist, and so, on a grey Lenten Sunday, I drove across the Cape on Route 149, took a right at the Rooster Church onto Church Street, and made the 8:30 communion service with ten minutes to spare. The church is a handsome shingle style building, unpainted and weathered a silverish grey. The steeple was low and also shingled with cedar. The parking lot in the rear of the church backed onto what may have been the parsonage and beyond that a pond, newly freed of ice but flat in the calm morning air.

I entered, wearing a bowtie, and was immediately greeted by the pastor who complimented me on my cravat. Bowties nearly always elicit expressions of surprise when first sighted, especially anywhere other than the summer lawns of Cotuit and yacht club cocktail parties where they are abundant. I spoke to the Pastor, (erroneously addressed him as Father) explained my mission, and he welcomed me to his “table” as all were permitted to take Communion. He asked if I would introduce myself to the congregation, but I plead shyness. I took a starboard side pew, middle of the church, put on my reading glasses, and waited for things to begin.

The Service

As my friend Noonan explained one night this week, there are liturgical churches and there are non-liturgical churches. Essentially, the liturgy is the ceremony and the rites, or order of prayers, hymns, gospel, creed, collection of donations, communion, etc.. Communion is technically called the Eucharist, and the denominations that regularly offer a Eucharist service are the Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox and Lutherans (my devout friends are rolling their eyes, exclaiming, “Durrrrr,” but this is new stuff to me). Other faiths may perform a communion service once a month, quarterly, but Lutherans are part of the Big Four when it comes to that aspect of the liturgy.

The Pastor, dressed in a floor length white robe, commenced with some brief announcements delivered from a raised, octagonal altar. This altar was ringed with a railing for kneeling communicants. In the center was a large, carved wooden table draped with a purple cloth. Behind the altar, the apse consisted of two flanking green and blue stained glass windows and a row of chairs. The choir was adjacent on the port side of the nave.  The pews were very full at this, the first of two morning services.

A prayer of confession and forgiveness was given by the Pastor and people together: “Have mercy on us and turn us from our sinful ways.”

He retreated to the narthex and a girl entered as a procession of one with a staff topped with a flame. She lighted the two candles on the altar table. A hymn was sung: The church has a good organ and a good organist to play it. The pastor has a fine, ringing voice that filled the church. I am further convinced that the preeminent talent for becoming a minister, pastor, reverend, imam, rabbi or priest is a fine singing voice. Without it one is doomed. With it one definitely leads a flock.

The hymn ended and the pastor greeted the congregation with a prayer, followed by the singing of the Kyrie — that ancient Greek plea to God to have mercy.

The liturgy was very formal and formulaic – meaning it had multiple components and took up eight pages of program to describe. The first reading, given by a woman sitting to the right of the lectern, was from the first book of the old Testament, Genesis 15:1-12 about  Abram having a discussion with God about being childless. God told Abram to get a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. Abram sacrificed the animals (cutting them in half except the birds), drove the vultures away from the carcasses, and then the verse gets pretty bleak(er):

“…and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between these pieces [of dead animals, ed.]”

Powerful stuff. The second reading was was Philippians 3:17-4:1. The dark, Francis Bacon-image from the first reading didn’t leave my mind, and puzzled me until the “Good News 101” portion when the children in the congregation was called forward and talked to by Lynn Tozier, the associate pastor. She explained two things: she said things tend to get a little bleak this time of year in Christianity — it’s Lent and people are doing without, fasting, getting prepared for the holy days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Good Friday. She then described the origin of the pretzel — when a German baker prayed with crossed arms andwas inspired to invent the twisted snack .

The Gospel according to Luke 13:21-35 was read — about Christ being warned to feel Jerusalem because Herod wanted to hill him.

Pastor Ahnquist delivered a strong sermon that made me reflect and feel glad and comfortable with the visit. Here I need to admit that some sermons are either boring … and I either nod off or daydream; or they are obscure to the point of being nearly mystical; and others are too “familiar” or anecdotal for my taste. Ahnquist’s was none of the above and ranks among the better of the one’s heard to date.

Following along in the service. Another hymn was sung, the Creed was recited, and then prayers of intercession were delivered.

The basket was passed for the offering, the choir sang an interesting offertory song called Lonesome Valley, and another hymn was sung. The pastor prayed over the offering, and then a series of sung-spoken chants were delivered: a “dialogue” that went like this: “The Lord be with you.” And the congregation said “And also with you.” Another chant – Holy, Holy, Holy – was sung. Then the Lord’s Prayer was recited. And again, there was a special Lutheran twist to the familiar words:

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us/Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

(note to self, compile variations on the Lord’s Prayer)

Now, communion. I don’t take communion ordinarily. I view it as the main expression of faith and since I am agnostic, I think my personal participation would be hypocritical. Thus I sit back except in admittedly impulsive situations such as the opportunity to kiss the Patriarch’s ring in Istanbul at the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. I decided to take communion with the Lutherans for the simple reason that the Pastor made a firm point of inviting me to when I arrived. I’m glad I did, as I’m not familiar with the process.

Please excuse the digression into transubstantion and the sacrament, but it is a very interesting rite, definitely the climax of the liturgy, and for the devout, a real, immediate, and tactile connection with the faith where the words and music and sights become very tactile and real — after all what is more “earthy” than eating and drinking? Particularly when one is either believing they are literally consuming the body and blood of their Saviour or, participating in the symbolism of the Last Supper.

Two golden brass trays were brought forward by the deacons and placed on the altar table. The pastor stood behind the table and uncovered a bright red goblet or chalice which had been covered by a perfectly draped purple cloth. What followed is the mystery part — the preparation of the sacrament, the blessing, and the point where the ordinary communion wafers and wine are “turned into” the host. The brass trays were brought to the head of the pews and were filled with small shot glasses of wine. When the pastor was ready to give communion the deacons shepherded a group of about two dozen parishioners out of the pews and forward where they knelt around the octagonal railing surrounding the altar table. The communicants took a shot glass from the rack, brought it with them to the railing, and waited, on their knees, hands ready to receive the wafer from the pastor. The pastor placed a wafer in their hands, saying “The body of Christ” and he was followed by the associate with another cup of wine with a drip cloth neatly wrapped around it.

When it was my pew’s turn to go forward I sort of shrugged, followed the lady next to me, took a little container of wine with me, and knelt down and waited for the wafer. Along it came, I put it in my mouth, it was more like a slice of edible foam than bread, and I drank down the wine. Paused, then stood and followed the people next to me back around the long way, depositing the empty cup in a rack and taking my spot.

All in all it was a little bewildering and somewhat disingenuous to participate, but I’m glad I did as it gave me cause to think about the significance of the rite.

Once communion ended the service wrapped up with a prayer,a blessing, a final hymn, and the Dismissal:

“Go in Peace. Serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

I stood, I left, I thanked the Pastor and his offer of coffee and cakes, and drove off.

Random Observations

  • The “Aalto” architectural influence of the Nordic design gestalt was evident on the interior of the church. A little stark and very Scandinavian.
  • I need to find the time to read the Bible as this project goes along (same for Torah and Koran) especially given my ignorance of who was writing what and to whom. I’ve read it in the context of its literary impact on English poetry (pre-Romantics like Milton, Spenser, etc.) but not in terms of the liturgical ritual.
  • Close to half way and I am becoming humbled by the diversity I’m finding from one weekend to the next. I think a lot about the common points between the churches — not just Christian, but Jewish and Muslim — and the commonalities are very interesting anthropologically. More on that later, but patterns are emerging.
  • I noticed a lot of Finnish names in the congregation like “Aalto” and “Toivo” — Finns prefer adjacent vowels.
  • BMWs in the parking lot which is fitting for a Teutonic faith

This weekend: I need to head to Newport before Touro suspended orthodox services for the spring/summer season.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

2 thoughts on “First Lutheran Church of West Barnstable – 52 Churches”

  1. Very soon it will be time for a 52 Churches post on the cathedral of baseball and its regional tent revival reformationists.
    As usual, incredibly well written and extremely thoughful.
    Kudos and keep i up.
    jim Forbes

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