In 1897 St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church began in a home on Shepherd Avenue. Immigrant German families were moving out to this new suburb and wanted to start a congregation. They worshiped exclusively in German.
In 1902, the congregation had organized to the extent that they purchased land and built a church at 94-98 Hale Avenue. Soon after, their founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Arthur Brunn arrived. He remained until his death in 1949, and by God’s grace built one of the very strong Lutheran congregations in New York City. Dr. Brunn also served for thirteen years as the President of the Atlantic District, and as a Vice-President of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The church was at its membership peak throughout this period, receiving many members by transfer, through immigration, and from the neighborhood. English and German services were both held. He was ably assisted by Pr. Graesser, who later also served as Atlantic District President, and by Rev. Louis Mayer, who served as New Jersey District Mission Executive for many years.
Pastor Robert Riedel succeeded Dr. Brunn, and brought a gift for choral direction, supervising an area-wide Bach choir. He later served as President of the New England District, LCMS. He was the last pastor who preached in both German and English.
Pastor George Kraus arrived in the early 1960s as the neighborhood faced transition from its historic German/Italian heritage. He and strong lay leaders (Tramm, Schurmann, Bernt, and others) determined to remain in Cypress Hills, and to forge the trail toward future mission in Brooklyn from the historic home base. They built a new sanctuary directly behind the original church at 105-109 Highland Place. It was dedicated in 1967, complete with the transfer of the stained glass windows to the new building, plus modern stained glass. The former sanctuary became the Parish Hall.
In the early 1970s the neighborhood transition began in earnest. After a productive interim pastorate served by Rev. Carlos Hernandez, who later became a national mission executive in the LCMS, Rev. David Benke was called to be Pastor of St. Peter’s.
Pastor Benke and wife Judy arrived in 1975. They had moved to New York in 1973, when they taught in Lutheran schools (Martin Luther High School and Grace Lutheran in Astoria). That same year, the congregation determined to begin a Pre-School. Judy Benke became the first school teacher and director, with a class of five students.
Meanwhile, the church began to face the emerging community with an array of neighborhood, family and children’s programs. By the early 1980s full summer Vacation Bible School, Spanish services and outreach, and relationships with the wider church brought major change to the worshiping congregation at St. Peter’s. Elders Paul Freno, Gerald Holder, Gil Ramirez and Abdul Aziz Gafur were visible signs of the congregation’s diverse membership and desire.
St. Peter’s was also an early participant in the East Brooklyn Churches organization. In late 1981, a meeting with national Missouri Synod leaders in St. Peter’s undercroft brought commitment for a one million dollar interest-free loan that spurred on the Nehemiah Plan, which has eventuated in over 4000 single family homes in Brooklyn, including elder Gerald Holder’s home. Pastor Benke received his Doctor of Ministry degree from New York Theological Seminary in 1983, with a thesis on the carrying out of the Nehemiah Plan.
Pastor Ricardo Schuller arrived in the early 1980s as Associate Pastor for Spanish ministry, and assisted that mission in growing by God’s grace from 1982-1984.
In 1991, Pastor Benke was elected as President/Bishop of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He and Judy left the parsonage on Norwood Avenue for Queens.
Within a year Pastor Derek A. Taylor was installed as the congregation’s shepherd. With wife Julie, Pastor Taylor impacted the lives of every parishioner with joy and energy. He remained at St. Peter’s until 1997, when he accepted a position at Concordia College, Bronxville.
At the same time in the early 90s, St. Peter’s Pre-School needed a new leader. A trusted assistant teacher was chosen for the position, which involved high responsibility with tuition-paying parents, the City of New York and the continuation of strong early childhood education. The selection for that position was Clara DelValle, a congregant since 1984. She has remained the durable force for early childhood education at St. Peter’s Pre-School ever since! From its highest enrollment of 140 children from age 3 to 8, the school has since 2012 become a provider of full-day Universal Pre-Kindergarten for 83 students, plus those who arrive early or stay after school. Clara has assembled a quality staff of durable service, with most capable administrative associate Jackie Hernandez in the office.
During the time of seeking a new pastor in the late 90s, Dr. Benke was filling in. In a rare event for District Presidents in recent Missouri Synod history, he returned to his parish call at St. Peter’s in addition to the Presidential duties in 1998. He retained both roles until his retirement from the District President/Bishop position in 2015.
The most wrenching period during Pastor Benke’s return to St. Peter’s occurred after the events of September 11, 2001, when he was accused of committing the heresy of syncretism and the sin of unionism by praying at Yankee Stadium on September 23, a civic event commissioned and organized by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The accusations developed into formal charges and eventually led to his suspension from the ordained roster of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He could not serve as the District President/Bishop during this time, but by rule was permitted to continue as Pastor at St. Peter’s while his case was in appeal. This led to rallies and events at St. Peter’s and around the country, including the formation of the concept “It’s OK to Pray,” which has always been a hallmark of the ministry of God’s people at St. Peter’s.
While Pastor Benke was under suspicion and in suspension, which ended in the lifting of the suspension in spring, 2003, and for the duration of his terms as District President, supporting spiritual leadership was critical for St. Peter’s. Two important avenues were taken:
Moving forward into the 21 st century, the desire of all members of St. Peter’s and its Pastor is to present Jesus as the center of life together, as received in the Word, in the Sacraments, and in the consoling love of the Body of Christ. The story continues to unfold!
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