A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST. PAULUS LUTHERAN CHURCH (1867-2016)
Written and edited by Daniel Solberg
Saint Paulus Lutheran Church was founded on May 15, 1867 by 23 year old Pastor Jacob M Buehler, whose diligence and hard work has earned him the title of ‘Father of Lutheranism on the Pacific Coast.’ Upon his arrival in San Francisco, this Missouri Synod Lutheran had assisted in the establishment of a Lutheran church community which was to become known as Saint Mark’s, but conflict over Pastor Buehler’s strong theological preaching and practice soon forced his resignation. Thereupon, Buehler and a small following immediately founded Saint Paulus Lutheran Church, mother to all Missouri Lutheran Synod churches on the West Coast.
The church grew rapidly, and within two years moved twice to larger accommodations, finding itself for the next 25 years on Mission St. between 5th and 6th St (the Mission district). By its 25th anniversary, the congregation had grown to a baptized membership of 1400 souls. In 1872 the Saint Paulus Lutheran Day School was founded and for 118 years, until 1990, provided education and Christian training to thousands of young people. It was the first day school west of the Rocky Mountains. In addition to schooling the young of San Francisco, Saint Paulus Lutheran Church embarked on a steadfast missionary outreach. Its first missionary pastor was called to service in 1879. The fruit of Saint Paulus’ missionary zeal was to include four congregations in San Francisco and congregations in Modesto, Napa, Livermore, Stockton, Watsonville, Redwood City and Oakland.
By the beginning of the 1890’s the congregation’s membership had outstripped the facilities at the Mission district, yet the purchase of a parcel of land at Eddy St. and Gough St. provided a future course for the congregation. In 1892 the cornerstone of its landmark church building was laid and at the beginning of 1894, Saint Paulus took possession of a towering new house of worship, patterned on European cathedrals, with three slender spire reaching up 175, 125, and 100 ft. The structure, costing $65,000, was to remain the iconic presence of Saint Paulus for more than a century, gracing the skyline of San Francisco and wedding itself to the life and growth of the city.
The first major threat to the building happened on the occasion of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Pastor Bernthal, the second pastor of the congregation (following the death of Pastor Buehler in 1901), was credited with having saved the building. This miracle came about as he convinced the firefighters, who were preparing to dynamite the building in an effort to create a firebreak to stop the advancing flames of the fire, to once again try the fire hydrant directly in front of the building. It worked! In gratitude, the congregation provided its “saved” building as a hospital and shelter for thousands of victims of the earthquake and fire.
This German immigrant church felt the pressures of WW1 to open their community to the English language, and in 1920 began providing services in both German and English. Not until 1936 was English established as the dominate language of the church administrations. It was in 1940 that the second threat to the building was engaged due to a fire that broke out in the main spire and spread quickly. Although there was question about its salvageability, after nearly $50,000 reinvestment, the building was restored and ministry continued. The years during and immediately after WW2 saw the advancement of the educational mission of Saint Paulus. Two new educational buildings provided an expansion of the school into a K through 9th school program.
The turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s affected Saint Paulus in significant ways. In 1976, this “mother of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches” in the west, citing the need to remain free from institutional controls, left the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in protest, and helped establish a predecessor Lutheran body (AELC) which would eventually (in 1987) form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. These tumultuous years also affected the geography around Saint Paulus, subjecting it to redevelopment, housing developments and population turnovers. The school adapted to these dynamics by reaching out into the changing Fillmore, a predominately African American neighborhood adjacent to the church. But even so, the declining membership and difficulty in sustain operating budgets finally forced the 118 year old parochial school to close its doors in 1990. In 1900 Saint Paulus hosted the extraordinary ordinations of three gay pastors who in turn served congregations in San Francisco churches. The people that the congregation served came to reflect its challenging environment, that is, homeless, HIV/AIDS and the poor. Most notable in its ministries was a weekly supper called the Friendship Banquet, in which host congregations and service organizations were given the opportunity to provide a restaurant quality dinner for HIV/AIDS guests. The program was suspended in 2006. It reconvened shortly thereafter and has run ever since, aside a mandatory hold due to shelter-in-place from Covid-19.
Then in 1995, disaster struck the congregation, when its 103 year old cathedral building was destroyed by fire, erasing its spires from the San Francisco skyline, and casting the congregation into the shadows. The congregation moved into its refurbished former elementary school building adjacent to the burnout church site as its church center. Though blessed with an insurance settlement, the ability of the congregation to plot a future course from the ashes was limited. After a call was extended to Pastor Daniel Solberg in 1999, there was movement toward an affirmative future. During the years under Pastor Solberg’s leadership, ministries to the homeless and impoverished continued to intensify. There was a significant effort to develop the Saint Paulus property into a multi-million dollar Alzheimer-Church complex but HUD funding fell through at the last moment. Efforts were made to develop the church’s property into workforce housing, making itself a resident in the complex with a built out 10,000 sq ft sanctuary-office condominium on the site of its historic cathedral. However, the economic crisis of 2007-2008 saw the project grind to a stop with the bankruptcy of the designated developer. Development on the vacant lot was not to happen.
In a remarkable and risky move in May 2007, Saint Paulus picked up its communion ware, its banners, its history and left the safety of its church facility. It left behind the old elementary building of its closed day school, recently sold as part of its failed development strategy and ventured into the neighboring Fillmore district. It secured a rental storefront property for both its business office and for its worship life. Saint Paulus has become a “church without walls,” heading its ministry in cafes, restaurants, local parks, community meeting rooms, the street and wherever God was operating in our community.
The sojourn in the Fillmore provided for the members of the congregation deep appreciation for the freedom and vitality which comes from being untethered from a church building, both financially and “mission-focused-wise.” Partnering with a local nonprofit called Welcome Ministry (a communal response to poverty), the property on which the old church once stood was transformed into an urban Free Farm, giving life and opportunity to the notion of urban gardening in the city. In addition to Welcome Ministry, the congregation developed collaborative relationships with San Francisco Night Ministry and Faithful Fools (called SF CARES), all designed to provide more effective engagement of undeserved people in San Francisco. The Friendship Banquet, suspended in 2006, was resurrected using the facilities of a neighboring Lutheran congregation at Saint Marks church. Over the courses of the past few years, three congregations partnered with SF CARES in ministry to relentlessly help the homeless and restore their faith in God. Additionally, the congregation committed itself to a ministry of music by recognizing the vital part that music (both traditional and contemporary) plays in witness, on Sunday morning and in its outreach to city residents.
During this period of church “homelessness,” the congregation grew numerically and spiritually. Its inclusive and welcoming spirit became a haven for many from the troubles streets and harsh realities of homelessness. However, the storefront quickly became too cramped and too restrictive. So once again the congregation took a leap of faith and searched out another arrangement. As a result, the congregation moved its operation from the Fillmore/Western Addition to Russian Hill’s Polk St (Polk Gulch), a highly concentrated business district about a mile away. The move served to challenge Saint Paulus’ ministry functions, and provoked a new edge for ministry growth. Its collaborative spirit continued to engage additional partners in service to the marginal and homeless, providing more than 1000 pairs of free prescription glasses to those who lack resources and are in need via SF CARES Vision Event; expanding food programs for HIV, seniors and homeless with SF CARES weekly Friendship Banquet; making food once a month for the San Francisco Night Ministry’s Open Cathedral event; sponsoring SOS (Singers of the Streets) a band of current or former homeless folk (and homeless advocates) coming together to rehearse every Monday at Saint Paulus and sing both for themselves & various diverse audiences; and providing volunteer opportunities for hundreds including No Butts/No Needles street clean up programs.
At the same time that the Polk St. ministry turf was being re-cultivated, a decade-long hope was being renewed. An agreement with a local developer, inked in 2012, finally made its way to fruition – a new home for Saint Paulus on the historic site of its memory-ladened iconic church building destroyed by the 1995 fire, back on our original launch spot of 999 Eddy Street. After many bureaucratic delays, entitlement process neared completion years later and construction started to follow. Saint Paulus’s plan was to sell the remaining land owned by our church so that the developer would build a housing complex of condos. Ultimately, the entire plot of land hailing back to 1867 would include a church facility on the same site as the old church, to be received by the congregation free and clear, thus providing a secure home and an endowment for the ministry decades to come. The construction finally began and is expected to be completed for church move in during 2021. There is much to be thankful for, including Saint Paulus celebrating the 150th Anniversary of its founding in 2015 and the 2020 milestone of Pastor Dan Solberg heading Saint Paulus church for the past 20 years. We are also eternally grateful to the Lord Almighty that has opened the door for us to return back to our beloved 999 Eddy Street church, so we may continue another 150+ years of ministry work.
Saint Paulus may be one and a half centuries in, but we really have just begun!