By William Smith
Over the years, the members of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Burlington have weathered their share of storms together.
A fire tore through the original church building in 1939, rendering the congregants without a home of their own for two years.
The death of popular pastor Chuck Evans, who ministered at the church in the 1980s, brought the congregation closer together.
And in 2019, an unexplained explosion permanently put the building out of commission. Aside from some special church services held in the unheated remains, parishioners have been worshiping with their brethren at Faith Lutheran Church on Sunnyside Avenue.
On the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 10, the parishioners of Trinity paid their final respects to their former house of worship during a decommissioning service. Bishop Amy Current of the Southeastern Iowa Synod was also on hand to provide support and guidance.
Inside the fellowship hall, where the service began, there was no heat or electricity.
Instead, attendees held candles to counter the darkness. Damage to the sanctuary itself made worshiping there impossible.
Tears were shed, words of encouragement were shared, and goodbyes were offered.
“For this building that has sheltered Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church for 138 years, the memory of this place will continue to inspire devotion to the God who makes all things possible. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer,” said the Rev. Ryan Cosgrove, pastor of Faith and Trinity churches.
Cosgrove mentioned the life events hosted by the church — baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals — the cycle of celebration and mourning that defines a long-standing church.
Bob Maschmann, a 35-year parishioner at Trinity Lutheran, said he will miss the building.
“Our three daughters were all baptized there and went to Sunday school and married there, so it’s kind of sentimental,” he said.
But Maschmann is far more concerned with the people in the building rather than the building itself. Grief and denial have passed, leaving only the determination to carry on.
“Initially, I thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll just fix whatever was destroyed,’” Maschmann said. “But it (the building) was so perfectly blown out. So it was kind of traumatic to come to the conclusion of what we’re doing.”
It couldn’t be saved
To this day, no one knows why part of the church exploded on the morning of Saturday, March 16, 2019.
“They (police and fire departments) couldn’t determine a cause; there was too much damage,” Cosgrove said.
It was 10:37 a.m. on that Saturday, and Cosgrove’s wife, Amanda, sent him a text: “Did you feel/hear that?!?!” followed by, “Are you ok?!”
Cosgrove hadn’t heard the explosion but immediately rushed over to the church on Central Avenue. It was obvious the office windows had been blown out, and a police car was sitting in front of the adjacent parsonage by the time he arrived.
“After exiting my car, I could smell gas,” Cosgrove said.
While Cosgrove spoke with the police, Mike Whitson and Doug Streeter boarded up the windows, barricaded the basement steps, and braced the sagging office ceiling.
Cosgrove was able to lead a service later that night at Faith Lutheran Church on Sunnyside Avenue. He was already serving as the pastor at both churches, and there were talks of merging even before the explosion.
“What will happen is it will be Trinity’s identity that Faith will merge into, but we can eventually change our name,” Cosgrove said.
A long history
Kay Weiss loves Trinity Lutheran Church. But she loves the people even more.
Weiss joined the church in 1987 – the same year she moved to Burlington. She had just been hired as the director of the Burlington Public Library and broke her arm after slipping on ice during her first day at work.
Her new family at Trinity Lutheran Church reached out to her immediately.
“They were just very welcoming,” she said.
Weiss has worshiped at several churches over the years and has always held a leadership role. She followed suit at Trinity, helping to compile the church’s history.
“Trinity Lutheran is a big, formal kind of sanctuary,” she said.
Surprisingly, the imposing stone landmark is not as old as many might believe. The Trinity Lutheran congregation was founded in 1884 as a mission church, but they needed a building. On May 2, 1884, the general synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church purchased the Olivet Christian Church at 115. S. Central Ave., back when it was known as Boundary Street.
The first pastor’s wife wrote of her experience of arriving in Burlington, decades behind other established churches in town.
“Never shall I forget the utter sense of loneliness we experienced when the railroad train set us down in the city of Burlington, Iowa, at midnight, to plant a mission in that strange city, where all the other denominations had from 30 to 50 years the start of us. No church, no people, no home!” she wrote.
That original church burned down on Dec. 31, 1939, forcing the congregation to worship at Bethany Lutheran Church for a couple of years. A new church building, much larger than the original, was commissioned, built, and erected by June of 1941. The church bell survived the fire and was incorporated into the new church.
Though the congregation found themselves without a building again after the 2019 explosion, many of the church artifacts have been moved to Faith Lutheran Church — including a large, stained glass window that depicts Jesus with his arms extended in a gesture of welcome.
New church family
Doris Erlewine and the members of Faith Lutheran Church have made it a point to open their hearts to the congregation from Trinity Lutheran Church.
Erlewine has been a member of Faith Lutheran since 1978 and has been delighted to welcome new members into her church family.
“I think the people from Trinity are more comfortable coming in now that some of the things from their old church are here. I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I hate to see the church go down there because I think there’s a need for a church in that part of town.”
For now, though, there is no distinction between the people of Trinity and Faith Lutheran. They are one. The Trinity Lutheran building will be demolished sometime later this winter, and Faith Lutheran will be renamed in the future to represent the shared identity of the congregation.
Bishop Amy Current ended the final service at Trinity with the following words of thanksgiving and hope:
“With thanks to God for the work accomplished in this place, I declare this building to be vacated for the purposes of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May the witness of the people who ministered here in the name of Jesus Christ continue to live on as they leave these walls and begin life in a new place.”