Trinity Lutheran remains 'miniature cathedral'

buildings downtown historic

Three men met on a street corner one Sunday afternoon in 1909, and a church was conceived. The men were Thomas M. Wells, a stonemason; Dr. Henry Schade, an optometrist; and Allen B. Caughman, a bookkeeper. The corner was Washington and Main streets in downtown Greenville. And the church was Trinity Lutheran, which celebrates its centennial this year.

Germans brought Lutheranism to South Carolina, planting it well before the American Revolution, but the old mainline Protestant denomination hadn't made it to this bastion of Scots-Irish Baptists and Presbyterians. It was thriving in Newberry and Walhalla, but the one attempt of Greenville Lutherans to house traveling missionaries in the late 1880s had failed to establish a mission.

In August 1909, however, the time was right. The street-corner planners, with Mrs. Kate Eargle, whose father had been president of Lutheran Newberry College, plotted their strategy carefully. Wells ordered Sunday school literature and notified Lutheran publications; Dr. Schade arranged to use a meeting hall in the Mauldin Building; and Caughman placed an announcement in The Greenville Daily News inviting local Lutherans to attend a meeting set for 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29.

But the Rev. T.B. Epting, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Walhalla, got here first. After reading the announcement in the Greenville paper, he contacted the men and offered to hold a vespers service on Saturday, Aug. 28. They gratefully accepted that offer, as well as his help in organizing the new church and serving as its first pastor.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 12, the church was officially constituted with nine charter members, soon increased to 27, and a Sunday school with six adults and three children.

In April 1911, they took the first step, buying a lot with an eight-room house on North Main Street opposite Park School for $10,000. Half the money came from the Home Mission Board of the synod; the rest was borrowed. The second step was hiring the Rev. C. Luther Miller as the first full-time pastor.

The Rev. Miller hired architects Frank and Joe Cunningham, who had just completed the Imperial Hotel (now the Summit), and who began designing a "miniature cathedral" for the location. In early October 1912, The Greenville News reported that "Lutherans expect to erect a $25,000 church on their recently acquired N. Main lot." The fledgling congregation obviously had big plans, but in the meantime, they continued meeting in the Mauldin Building and saving their dollars to pay off the lot loan and construct their church.

They moved the existing house on the lot -- it had become the parsonage -- to the rear of the property before construction could begin. By the end of July 1913, the move was complete, and in August, just four years after their first meeting, excavation began on the church basement.

Money, though, was hard to come by. They couldn't float another loan, and they soon exhausted the resources of the small congregation. The synod helped, and so did other Greenvillians, but their dollars weren't nearly sufficient. So they thought creatively.

The footprint of the church was blocked into squares of 10 stones each, with a stone costing 50 cents; each square was $5. The Cunningham brothers prepared cards with a sketch of and facts about the proposed church that the congregation sent to every Sunday school superintendent in the synod and every Lutheran publication in the east. More than 600 people and congregations from Maine to Georgia responded with contributions.

So work began on the basement walls, and on March 1, 1914, the cornerstone was laid. Building proceeded steadily; by June the walls and front steps were completed, the roof was on and an insurance company had agreed to a loan to complete the sanctuary. But soon afterward war was declared in Europe, the insurance company canceled the loan and construction suddenly stopped. Door and window openings were covered with tarpaper and plywood, and the congregation continued meeting in downtown lodgings.

In March 1915, though, even that borrowed space was no longer available, and after raising $1,500 for chairs, walks and grading, Greenville's First Lutheran Church began services in the finished basement of its future edifice.

The same war that brought a halt to construction led to its completion. After Camp Sevier opened in August of 1917, Lutheran soldiers began flocking to the Service Center the church established in its basement. The National Lutheran Commission for Soldiers and Sailors sent two chaplains to town to assist the pastor in tending to his suddenly enlarged flock. The resulting over-crowded conditions led the national body to donate $4,000 to complete the nave.

But in wartime Greenville, building materials were almost impossible to come by, and the church was not completed until 1921. After paying off its indebtedness, the church was dedicated in June 1922. By then, the congregation had changed its name to Trinity Lutheran, and owned an elegant stone church costing $35,000.

Awash in biblical symbolism, its atmosphere was and is worshipful.

Today, after nearly 90 years of expansion and refurbishment, it remains the "miniature cathedral." With a parish center, large education building and socially active ministry, Trinity Lutheran proclaims old truths from its small but mighty fortress.

Judith Bainbridge