St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church has undergone many changes in its 140-year history. Our founding fathers emigrated from Prussia in 1839 to practice the Lutheran Faith. The rulers of Prussia had decreed that the Reformed and Lutheran Churches unite, and Lutherans were no longer allowed to use the Lutheran confessions in their public services (the “Prussian Agenda”).
Three Prussian pastors, Kinderman, Krause, and Ehrenstroem, petitioned the Prussian authorities for permission to leave Prussia to establish a new church in a land without religious persecution. Their request was granted, and all three congregations began preparations for the journey to the new world. However, Pastor Ehrenstroem was imprisoned for inflammatory remarks during a sermon, and was unable to leave with his congregation. The congregations arrived in the vicinity of Buffalo, NY, in late summer of 1843, where they were greeted warmly by Pastor J. A. A. Grabau, who had emigrated in 1839. An agreement was reached whereupon the congregations of Pastors Kinderman and Krause would continue west to Wisconsin, and the congregation of Pastor Ehrenstroem would settle in Western New York. They founded communities in Neu Bergholz, Neu Walmow, St. Johannesburg, and Martinsville, NY, all named for the hamlets in Prussia from which they had emigrated.
On November 19th, 1843, a congregation was officially organized and named the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Neu Bergholz in the Town of Wheatfield, and had a voting membership of 119. Frederick Ferchen and Carl Voelker were elected elders. Frederick Moll, Johann Williams, and Johann Sy were elected trustees. During the first year, Pastor Grabau came to Neu Bergholz from time to time to preach and to administer the Holy Sacraments. Eventually, Pastor Ehrenstroem was released from prison, and followed his congregation to Neu Bergholz, where he continued as pastor until 1845. He was succeeded by Pastor Heinrich Von Rohr.
The congregation worshipped in houses and large barns during the early years, but erected the original Holy Ghost Church in 1847. It was erected on a site that had been presented to the community by Governor Hunt. A parochial school and parsonage were erected during the same year. At this time, the congregation was aligned with the Buffalo Synod.
In 1866, dissension and discord rocked the Buffalo Synod, affecting the Holy Ghost congregation. In 1867 the congregation split into two factions, with 52 families retaining the name and property and affiliating with the Missouri Synod.
The minority group of 37 families remained with the Buffalo Synod and worshipped in private homes. A house and land were purchased later in the year, and the house was converted to a school. Frederick Hoffmeister was the school teacher. In 1868, a house of worship was erected and named Trinity Church.
On October 11, 1875, the majority group organized and was incorporated as the "Evangelic Lutheran Trinity Society", the beginning of the present St. James Congregation. There were 35 families and 100 communicant members. William DeVantier and Frederick Goerss were elected elders. William Wendt, Carl Meyer, William Zimmerman, Frederick Hellert, and Christian Ferchen were elected trustees. A parcel of land was acquired on the corner of Niagara and Rohr streets, and ground breaking took place in the spring of 1876 for a new church. The cornerstone was laid on June 30th, 1876, and on October 15th of the same year, the new church was dedicated to the service of God. It was named St. Jacobi Church.
The Reverand J. A. Grabau (of Detroit) was installed as the first regular pastor on October 27th, 1877, and served the congregation until his retirement, due to ill health, in 1911.
In 1889, the majority of the members of Trinity Church dissolved their congregation and applied for membership in the St. Jacobi Congregation. It was a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving for St. Jacobi when they were reunited with their brethren from Trinity Church.
In December of 1892, the name of the congregation was legally changed from Evangelic Lutheran Trinity Society (known as St. Jacobi Church), to Evangelic Lutheran St. Jacobs Congregation in Bergholz.
In November, 1911, Reverand Otto Bruss was called to St. James Lutheran Church and was installed in January, 1912.
On August 11, 1930, the congregation became a member of the American Lutheran Church. In 1933, the English hymnals of the American Lutheran Church were introduced in our church, and English services have been conducted every Sunday since 1941. Pastor Otto Bruss continued to conduct a German service every Sunday, with the exception of the English Communion Sunday.
A serious error was committed in the process of translation from the German language into English. The English translation of St. Jacobi is St. James, and not St. Jacob, as it was erroneously recorded by personnel in the County Clerk’s Office in Lockport, NY. This error was finally caught, and in 1950, when the church constitution was revised, the name was officially changed to St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church of Berholz.
On July 9th, 1952, additional property was purchased from the Voelker estate that bordered the church property, and ground was finally broken on Jun 19th, 1955, for a new, larger church building. The cornerstone was finally laid on September 26th, 1955. Members of St. James Congregation gathered for a farewell service in the old church on September 9th, 1956, and proceeded to the new church for a special dedication service. On September 16, 1956, Reverand Otto Bruss, pastor of St. James for 44 years, led the congregation in a processional to the new structure.
St. James is proud of its heritage and history. Much more can be learned via books and displays found at the German heritage museum, Das Haus und der Stahl which is located on 2549 Niagara Rd. in Bergholz.