History Mystery: Where did my Great-Grandmother Go to Church?

Some of you might already know the answer to this question, but when it’s 10 in the evening and you find a reference that needs chasing, you don’t wait around for people to wake up. I spent at least an hour trying to figure this out, and the next morning I realized that this would be a great opportunity to shed a bit of light on one of my favorite parts of the job: finding out difficult to track pieces of information and unveiling whole new worlds in the past.

Yet this is also one of the least appreciated aspects of researching and writing history. In my forthcoming horse stealing book there are countless little questions like this one, each of which required hours and in some cases days of research and oftentimes a special trip to a library or archive. Sometimes all I have to show for it in the final product is a single sentence or endnote. It could be said that a history book is less of a rabbit hole and more of a warren excavated out of many overlapping and knotted-together rabbit holes.

The Question: Where did Rose Luckett (my great-grandmother) go to church?

The Context: in his December 6th letter to his mother, Elmer mentioned that “Reverend Stock” of the “Trinity Church” sent him a New Testament Bible. He was not, by his own admission, much of a church-goer himself, but he greatly appreciated the gesture. As it happened, he wrote this letter the day before the air raid on Pearl Harbor and was topside mailing it when the bombs began to fall. Considering that he was not strafed by a Zero during these opening moments of the war, some greater force was certainly looking out for him.

The Relevance: I am writing a chapter about Grandpa’s neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s and, more broadly, community life during that era. I am hoping to paint a vibrant picture of what these neighborhoods were like.

It is difficult to imagine in 2020 how important community churches were a hundred years ago. With megachurches on one end of the scale and an increasingly non-religious population on the other, it is easy to forget that churches were once centers of neighborhood activity. They were not simply places of worship: they provided social programs, charity, language instruction, opportunities for neighbors and congregants to bond, and sometimes even schooling and child care. They also gave their neighborhoods a strong sense of identity. Therefore, Rose Luckett’s church could tell us a lot about her, about Elmer, and about their little corner of the city.

The Rabbit Hole: Historians (myself included) often romanticize the dustier places where we do our work. Some of my favorite horse stealing research stories involve traveling to remote courthouses in Nebraska and digging through back rooms, attics, and in one case a storage shed for 140-year old documents. However, the advent of the Internet, personal computing, and research databases have revolutionized historical work, making it possible to find out much more in much less time. So, instead of flying to Saint Louis and pulling out a bunch of local city directories, I went to Newspapers.com (where I have an account) and started searching. One of the reasons why I had to start here: St. Louis has a LOT of Trinity Churches.

There are several “Trinity” churches in Saint Louis, including seven within a five-mile radius of Grandpa’s address in 1941.

It did not take long to find an article containing both the name of the church and a “Reverend Stock.”

“Missouri Valley Synod Urges Protection of Civil Liberties,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 Apr 1953

“Paul R. Stock of Trinity Church.” Now we are getting somewhere. But during this first pass I missed an important detail: this church belonged to the Missouri Valley Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

After some more full-text searching through the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, I found an address for our church, and confirmed that Paul Stock was the Reverend there. It was located at 4700 South Grand Boulevard. That’s less than a mile away from Elmer’s home. Is that same building still there? Yes . . .

4700 South Grand Avenue, Saint Louis, MO. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

But now it is a Mosque:

The sign out in front of 4700 South Grand Blvd. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

There is some good news and some bad news. Obviously the bad news is that the church is no longer there. But the good news is that we can tie Rose Luckett’s church to a more recent historical narrative and connect it to the neighborhood’s ongoing evolution. In the early 1990s the Bosnian War displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees, and over 40,000 Bosnians moved to Saint Louis to start new lives in the American Midwest. I was in school in South Saint Louis County at the time, and I remember getting dozens of new classmates over the next few years, all of whom had hard-to-pronounce names. This influx of migrants shifted the region’s demographics and reshaped its religious landscape, adding on top of what had already been a diverse array of churches and synagogues a layer of new mosques. Some built new facilities, while others took over older buildings vacated by aging congregations.

This recently-opened corner market in Affton, located only a few blocks from where I grew up, demonstrates how the Bosnian migration of the mid-1990s continues to shape South St. Louis. When I was 12 I used to ride my bike to this building, which at the time was a memorabilia shop. I bought hundreds of baseball cards there. Given the collapse of the baseball card market in the late-1990s a Bosnian market seems like a more prescient and successful choice for the area. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

The decline of mainline Protestantism over the past several decades suggests that this is what likely happened here: the Trinity Church lost congregants and transplanted itself elsewhere, while this mosque moved into the larger building on Grand later. But that begs the question: whatever happened to the original church? This is where I realized I made a mistake easier by not understanding initially what the above article meant by the “Evangelical and Reformed Church.” I assumed (as someone who does virtually no church history) that this simply referred to an organization of Evangelical churches. Not so.

According to Wikipedia, “The Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R) was a Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It was formed in 1934 by the merger of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) with the Evangelical Synod of North America (ESNA) . . . In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

The Trinity Church on South Grand Boulevard belonged to this larger denomination. But what organizations had merged to create it in 1934?

Again we go to Wikipedia, which can on occasion be a historian’s best friend. The Evangelical Synod of North America was “centered in the Midwest, the denomination was made of German Protestant congregations of mixed Lutheran and Reformed heritage, reflecting the 1817 union of those traditions in Prussia (and subsequently in other areas of Germany).” As for the Reformed Church in the United States, we get a similar story: “Originally known as the German Reformed Church, the RCUS was organized in 1725 thanks largely to the efforts of John Philip Boehm, who immigrated in 1720. He organized the first congregation of German Reformed believers near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some of them descendants and German immigrants from the turn of the century.”

What does all of this mean?

The Answer: First, some background information: Rose Luckett was German. Her parents immigrated to the United States in approximately 1888, and Rose was born shortly thereafter. Rose’s sister, Frieda (Aunt Frieda in the letters) was actually born in Germany. But their parents died not long after immigrating here, and Frieda ultimately helped raise her younger sister.*

By the 1930s, Rose and her family lived in Carondelet, a largely German neighborhood at that time. Given the origins of the denomination and the neighborhood itself, we can start to make some suppositions about Trinity Church and the role it played in Rose’s life. For instance, according to grandpa his mother spoke at least some German, and presumably the church also claimed as members other folks within the German-speaking community. All this suggests that the institution played a central role in the Carondelet German community’s everyday life, and that Rose was a part of it.

Unfortunately, to confirm this we need more information about the church, which I do not yet have. So now we need to move in the other direction: did the Trinity Church close its doors, or did it move? If it closed then it would be very difficult to gather information on it. The church’s records might have ended up in an archive someplace, in someone’s basement, or, regrettably, in the trash. However, if it moved then we may be in luck. Protestant churches generally do a fantastic job of curating their own histories. While they might not always have tranches of archival documents, they often create anniversary brochures, yearbooks, commemorative histories, and other documents. So if the church moved, then the new location may have all of these materials on hand. To answer this question I went back to the original Wikipedia article: “In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

Is there a Trinity United Church of Christ in South Saint Louis? As it turns out, there is:

From http://www.trinityuccstl.org

This church has the same name, is over 120 years old, was once located on South Grand, has moved in recent years, belongs to the appropriate denomination . . . this must be it! The best part, at least for me, is that the church relocated to my hometown, Affton, a suburb just outside of St. Louis City proper and less than five miles away from where Grandpa grew up (it was one of the seven “Trinity”-named churches I pointed out earlier as existing within a five-mile radius of Eiler Street). In fact the building is located less than a block from where my fourth-grade babysitter, Sharon, lived. I grew up a mile and a half away.

The Follow-Up: This is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new rabbit hole. I need to contact the church and get a hold of any historical documents, pamphlets, brochures, yearbooks, or anything else it might have, and I will need to delve back into the newspapers and some other potential repositories to flush this story out. At one point after Pearl Harbor Rose gave a speech at this church – what did she say? How many people attended? I’d love to have this information. But in the meantime, we have a promising lead, and a little more insight into not only Grandpa’s world at the time the war started, but also my own.

I enjoy writing, and teaching is usually a lot of fun. But the best part of it all is the detective work. No doubt this project will have many more twists and turns as it develops, and I will try to write about some of them. Stay turned.

* I think this is what happened, but I’m not sure. I’d love for someone in the family to clarify this.

2020 Letters Preview

Hi folks,
I’ve started looking ahead through the remaining correspondence, all of which I hope to scan, review, analyze, and discuss before the summer.

Although the lead-up to Pearl Harbor naturally lends itself as a dramatic historical narrative, it is by no means the sum total of my grandfather’s experiences during the war. Here is a brief list of some of the topics the letters (and I) will cover over the next few months:

  • Grandpa’s adventures on the Chew, 1942-1943
  • Elmer’s train trip across wartime America in 1943
  • Officer’s training in Cape Girardeau, Missouri
  • The Lucketts on the home front
  • An introduction to Rose Schmid, Elmer’s future wife
  • Women in uniform during World War II, The WAVES program, and Rose’s service in Washington, D.C.
  • Elmer and Rose’s love letters
  • The USS Mink, an oil tanker and Elmer’s new ship in 1944
  • Grandpa’s travels throughout Australia and the South Pacific
  • Elmer’s experience during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  • The last months of the war and Elmer’s reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Grandpa’s eventful journey home at the end of the war

My grandpa and grandma’s war stories both shed light on some of the less often discussed pathways towards service: the Naval Reserve, the Navy engineering corps, destroyers, auxiliary ships (like tankers), and the WAVES program. However, despite not serving on the frontlines, both had critically important jobs while managing to take part in what Tom Brokaw once called “the adventure of their lives.”

I’m excited to tell their stories, both here and in my book. And I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens next.

Have a happy and healthy 2020!

Best,
Matt

December 24th: "It does not seem like Christmas Eve to me"

Things had quieted down a bit at Pearl Harbor by Christmas. The sadness, dread, and anger lingered over the still-smoking water, but each passing day that did not bring an invasion offered at least a small amount of relief.

Elmer spent the day thinking about his family, his faith, and an uncertain future. He channeled these reflections into the letter below, which would be his last of 1941.

December 21st: No Kisses or Hugs

Much of Elmer’s correspondence at this point is dictated by censor requirements. Letters must be short, they could not contain xo marks (which might be code), and they cannot reveal any information about what they are doing or where they are operating. Naturally this limited what Elmer could say.

The last image below is of a cablegram that Elmer sent on December 20th. The envelope in which it was stored was labeled “12/21,” suggesting that his parents indeed received it quickly. It may have also been the first indication that his parents received that he was alright.

Two hours spent worrying about one’s kid is an interminable length of time. Two weeks? I can’t even imagine.

December 16th: "Fighting Mad" with Japan

“You are all probably worrying your ‘heads off’ about me. I wrote as soon as possible.” Unfortunately for the parents back home, their intense anxiety over their sons’ safety coincided with exactly the worst possible time for their boys to write home. The rescue and recovery effort following the attack continued night and day for weeks following the attack as the Navy rushed to find trapped sailors, extinguish fires, recover bodies (and myriad body parts) from the scene, and fix whatever they could. The Chew spent these days on patrol, hunting for enemy subs and watching for a second raid – or worse, an invasion. Elmer worked 4 on and 4 off during this time, on account of the engineering crew being short-staffed. He did not have time to get a decent night’s sleep, let alone write a letter.

There was also the issue of content. Elmer did not know what to write because there was nothing he could safely say. The United States government did not want to imperil morale at home by revealing the extent of its losses at Pearl, and no one wanted to inadvertently admit to the Japanese just how successful – or unsuccessful, given the auspicious absence of the Navy’s three carriers – their attach had been.

Of course, as any parent will attest, the mere fact that he was writing at all and saying he was in good spirits was itself a relief. “Be brave for me,” he urged his worried parents, “and don’t worry.” Easier said than done.