Special thanks to Rev. Bill Moorhead for his contributions to this article.
There have been many churches in the Near North Side neighborhood since its establishment in the earliest years of the city of Omaha starting in the 1850s. Some stayed throughout the decades and changing demographics. However, many churches left the neighborhood when their congregants moved. One such congregation is St. Paul Lutheran Church, and this is its history in North Omaha.
Forming a Church
North Omaha’s St. Paul Lutheran Church was founded in the Near North Side neighborhood in 1887. Arriving in the city to work for the Union Pacific Railroad and in warehousing, Germans had their own language and longtime Lutheran roots, and believed they needed their own congregation to serve them close to their homes. First meeting in the Norwegian Lutheran Church at North 26th and Hamilton Street, this initial location was in the neighborhood of many other congregations belonging to Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and even other Lutheran congregations. The church’s first minister came in 1888, and was Rev. J. Herr.
Growing and Moving
For the reason that the neighborhood was too packed, in 1892 a new church and parsonage was built at North 28th and Parker Streets on the outskirts of the Near North Side. Focused on extra land at the site, the First Lutheran Church of Omaha built a school here as well and sold it to the St. Paul congregation. The church was dedicated in December of that year.
On Easter Day, March 23, 1913, a massive tornado swept through North Omaha after church services ended and a wedding happened in the building. There were eight choir members rehearsing in the basement of the church when the monster attacked, but nobody was hurt. However, the church was completely obliterated by the tornado. Without insurance on the building, the congregation expected to have a hard time raising money to recuperate. However, a collection was held in Lutheran churches across Omaha, and more than $32,000 was raised.
Growing and Moving Again
Soon after, the congregation decided to move northwards, and in December 1913 they laid the cornerstone of their new church and school and parsonage at North 25th and Evans Street in the Kountze Place neighborhood. This address was more prestigious and reflected a middle and upper-middle class bearing for the congregation; it also preceded the white flight that struck St. Paul’s old neighborhood starting immediately after the lynching of Will Brown in September 1919. Their new location was in a neighborhood with strict redlining though, and its location likely seemed insulated enough to keep the white congregants feeling “safe” from the African Americans who lived nearer to their former location. Shortly after they moved out, the building became home to the Clair Memorial United Methodist Church and stayed that way for several decades. In the 1940s, the church was added onto because of its growing congregation.
The End of St. Paul’s
For more than 40 years, St. Paul Lutheran Church and its school flourished.
By the late 1950s though, the congregation faced the integration of the neighborhood surrounding the church. In 1958, they began moving further west by building a new school at North 50th and Grand Avenue. After several years of the church meeting in the school’s basement, in 1966 they broke ground on a new church building at the site. Operating in a growing neighborhood for the next 30 years and the congregation’s membership peaked in the late 1970s. However, in the 1980s the surrounding demographics changed again. Church attendance started to decline and never recovered, with many families left the congregation for other churches in west Omaha.
Determined to appeal to the new African American neighbors, the church stayed open in the area and accepted non-Lutheran students in the school. The school’s population grew, and by 1996 was nearly double from four years earlier.
After 132 years, in 2019 the St. Paul’s Church closed permanently. The congregation merged with several others and is now called the River of Life Lutheran Church.
The unique and beautiful building at North 25th and Evans Street has been empty for several years and continues to languish without attention.
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