In the weeks before Christmas 1886, a Swedish pastor who’d recently arrived in Oakland, scoured the streets of the young city, searching for followers. Oakland was home to a growing community of immigrant Swedes looking for cheap land, jobs and opportunity. The pastor, an evangelical Lutheran, was determined to round up as many as he could. But few seemed to heed his call. Newly arrived immigrants — even devout ones — apparently had more on their minds than salvation. “We must first call a mass meeting to learn if the people really want a Lutheran church,” one new Swedish-American quipped.
But the Rev. Axel Magnus Le Veau knew that where faith flourished, a flock would surely follow. After one makeshift service with only 13 people and no promise of more in the future, Le Veau nonetheless put down $100 for an abandoned wooden church on Ninth and Clay streets, promising the seller that his burgeoning congregation would provide the remainder soon. The St. Paul Lutheran Church officially opened its doors on Jan. 23, 1887, with a somewhat larger group; this time, 33 people came and signed on as charter members.
But when the collection basket consistently fell short and a letter-writing campaign came to naught, Le Veau packed his bags and hit the lecture circuit. A natural raconteur, he regaled audiences up and down the East Coast with sanguine stories of the French Revolution, including those of his unlucky ancestors who had met the guillotine rather than the escape boat to Sweden. Eventually, the money was raised, Le Veau returned and, 125 years ago this January, his small flock found a permanent home in Oakland.
St. Paul Lutheran Church (today on the corner of Excelsior and Woodruff avenues) is one of the oldest surviving evangelical Lutheran churches on the West Coast. It was around to help survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Church members dispensed free food and medical help during the Great Depression, resettled refugees from Southeast Asia from the 1970s through the ’90s, set up AIDS advocacy groups here and abroad, and became one of the first Lutheran churches to openly welcome the gay community.
“The church has always been about social justice and serving those in need,” says today’s pastor, the Rev. Ross Merkel.
To commemorate its 125th anniversary, St. Paul Lutheran Church is holding a series of concerts throughout the year and, in a bow to its origins, a traditional Swedish smorgasbord in December to commemorate the Feast of St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind and martyred. During the feast, a young girl will don white robes along with an elaborate crown of burning candles, and then — very carefully — move among the guests, serving them Swedish cookies and coffee. It’s a scene that the Rev. Axel Magnus Le Veau would have been proud of.