In January of 1927 Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church was born out of the merger of two smaller congregations. The new congregation bought property on Bennett Avenue and laid the cornerstone for a Parish House in 1928. Original plans had also included a Lutheran hospital to be constructed on land extending to 187th Street, but the hospital never came into being.
The building project coincided with the completion of a subway route - the A train - into the area. Many churches in Washington Heights were built that year, and many, like OSA, were never completed. The stock market crash of 1929 dashed plans for a gothic sanctuary. Completed in December 1928, the Parish House turned out to be the only building the congregation would ever know. This meant cramming organ pipes into the linen closet of the parsonage and permanently transforming the stage into the chancel.
Yet, the Parish House itself was quite grand: sturdy f ieldstone with a slate roof, full gymnasium, bowling alley, sewing room, seven-room parsonage, and separate apartments for a sexton and a deaconess. Members of the congregation came from Harlem, the Bronx, New Jersey, and Washington Heights (primarily east of Broadway). Names in the parish register convey the German heritage of the founding congregations, although some Irish and Scandinavian names had already begun to appear. With about 600 baptized members, Our Saviour's Atonement entered its new building and looked ahead with thanksgiving and great anticipation.
From 1930 to 1960; Two Pastors, Plenty of People
The three decades after the merger were heady days: strength for mission; many involved not only in worship but also in service and social groups; a vital Sunday School; and Luther League (for high school, college, and older youth). The Lutheran Messenger, a parish newsletter, was filled with announcements about programs for all ages. Two pastors led the congregation: Pastor Cecil Hine (1932-1951 ) and Pastor Franklin Schweiger (1952-1966). Long-time members have fond memories of those years - Luther League plays staged in the gym and fashion shows put on by the Knubel Service Group. Music was always a strong part of worship, with Elizabeth Eilert serving as organist and choir director from 1900 to 1958. Although the sanctuary wasn't always filled, many can still remember when the balcony was overflowing on Easter and at Christmas.
During the 50's, the east side of Broadway (always an immigrant community) changed radically; Germans and Irish were replaced by Cubans and Puerto Ricans, later by Dominicans. Spanish became the primary language on Wadsworth and St. Nicholas, even as German had become common west of Broadway during the 30's and 40's. (The west side of the Heights was known as Frankfurt-on-Hudson as German Jews fleeing Hitler settled there before and during the war.) Down in the valley, between two steelp hills OSA struggled to keep a foothold and discern its mission.
Difficult Decades: The Sixties and Seventies
Washington Heights continued to undergo change during the next two decades. After Pastor Schweiger resigned in 1966, Pastor Ed Gibbs (1966-1971) faced not only a changed community but also a turbulent time in the nation as a whole. During his pastorate More community groups began to use the building (as ever fewer members were on hand to stage plays or go bowling). Rose Wyler remembers attending meetings at OSA of the Citizens of Conscience, an early anti-Vietnam War group. During those stormy years the pastor preached against war and was an activist in several community organizations. Many began to wonder if a Lutheran congregation could (or should) survive on Bennett Avenue.
When Pastor Gibbs accepted another call and moved to Queens in 1971, OSA was vacant for more than a year. Then in July Of 1973, two young pastors arrived to share one call: Frank Barth and John Keating, fresh out of Gettysburg Seminary, accepted the challenge of campus ministry in New York City with one day a week at OSA. The congregation provided housing; and Lutheran Ministries in Higher Education, most of the salary. In 1975 Pastor Barth accepted another call, but Pastor Keating stayed on through Easter of 1980.
Cornerstone Center: A Vision Born of Necessity
As Gertrud Seifert reported on the occasion of OSA's 90th anniversary: "In January of 1975, because of its inability to support a full-time pastor and the upkeep on the building, the church council (under the leadership of Arthur Hagemeyer and Walter Jensen) and the congregation voted to turn the building over to the synod for $ 10.00 (which was never paid so that the "sale" was not actually consummated)." But how would about 25 people maintain such an enormous building and do ministry?
Lutheran Ministries in Higher Education (LMHE) along with Lutheran Community Services (LCS) envisioned a center for Lutheran ministry in northern Manhattan. This vision included a center for campus ministry (with a live-in community of college students), a ministry with deaf persons (through LCS), and a space for performing artists.
Jeff Bush, a graduate student active in campus ministry, became a key leader to realize this dream. Although financing never came through for ministry to the deaf, other pieces began to fall into place - and some surprises came along. Jeff Bush moved into the parsonage and served as building manager. Pastor Al Ahlstrorn, director of LMHE, moved the campus ministry office uptown. Soon, Mike Havrilla (handyman and later building superintendent) was building walls to close in the balcony and the bowling alley. Christian Herald Youth Organization moved into office space in the former balcony. Arts Resources in Collaboration (ARC) transformed the bowling alley into a video studio and the gym into a dance/performance space. St. Matthew's Lutheran Kindergarten occupied the north end of the first floor, and St. Mark's Lutheran Church (or the Deaf began worshipping at OSA on Sunday afternoons, In 1978, a Reform Jewish congregation called Beth Am, The People's Temple, moved here after their temple on Thayer Street was sold. Late in the 70's, a bright red banner appeared above the front doors, proclaiming the space as Cornerstone Lutheran Center.
Reclaiming the Building, Moving into the Future
The Cornerstone partnerships enabled OSA to maintain the church building and to provide pastoral leadership for the tiny congregation. By 1980 a few younger people had joined the congregation, accepting the immediate challenge of membership on the church council and long hours of volunteer work!
In 1980, OSA moved out in faith to call a pastor half-time and pay for it! OSA and LMHE called Pastor Barbara K. Lundblad to serve half-time in the parish and half-time in campus ministry. The congregation continued to develop into a wondrous mix of people over 70 and under 30! Lay members kept the Sunday School going (although children were few). In 1983 ARC studio was asked to leave so that the gym could be restored to the community and so that the parsonage apartment could become housing for church staff. From 1983 to 1992, twenty-two students from Union Theological Seminary and other schools brought their talents (and cleaning skills) to OSA. New partners became part of Cornerstone: the Institute for Home Care Services for the Elderly; and the Urdu Seventh Day Adventist Church (later, Washington Heights SDA Church). Cornerstone Pottery Studio took over the garage workshop originally built by Kathryn Keating. The kindergarten and Christian Herald left, but Right Start and Citizens Advice Bureau moved in. Two AA groups, Al Anon, karate, yoga, aerobics, dance, violin classes, and a host of other community groups found a home at Cornerstone Center.
In 1986, with support from these partners and growth in the congregation, the congregation called Pastor Lundblad full-time. OSA also regained ownership of the building-"buying" it back from the synod for $10! From 1992-1995, the Horizon Internship Program of the ELCA provided three full-time vicars: Katrina Foster, Marilyn Olson, and Brian Hiortdahl. Music has always been a vital part of OSA's ministry: Organists Andrew Violette and Sue Turner have filled the sanctuary with their music, and in 1995 Richard Stout as Choir Director, and in 2000 Paul Kirby as organist, joined the staff enhancing our music ministry.
In 1997, Pastor Lundblad accepted a full time position as Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary. Vacancy Pastor Mark Wilhelm, now Associate Director for Theological Education for the ELCA, prepared the way for the congregation to call the Rev. Fredi P. Eckhardt. Pastor Eckhardt faithfully shepherded the congregation to the new millennium.