An anniversary 125 years in the making

Hannah Burlingame/Review The current location of First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul, on 20th Avenue and Congress Street, was dedicated in 1959. The church, which was founded in December of 1893, has a 125th anniversary celebration planned for next month.

First Presbyterian Church in South St. Paul will be celebrating its 125th anniversary on Dec. 9. The church invites former members and friends, along with the South St. Paul community, to celebrate the milestone from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Historic Concord Exchange on Grand and Concord Exchange. The event will include a hot appetizer buffet, beverages, cash bar, raffles, live auction, holiday treats, a wine wall, dessert auction and swing music played by the Red Rock Swing Band. Pre-paid reservations, which cost $25, are due by Nov. 15 and can be obtained by calling the church office at 651-451-6223. Money raised by the anniversary celebration will go toward the church’s legacy fund. “We’re putting all that in with this celebration of history to say the church goes on after you,” says church co-Pastor Katie Estes.

Although all of the children pictured in this confirmation class from the 1930s have now passed, some of their descendents are still active members of the church.

courtesy Rein Werner The original First Presbyterian Church was located at Fifth and Marie avenues. The congregation would outgrow that location in the 1950s, causing the need for the move to the church’s current location.

South St. Paul church prepares to celebrate milestone


While some churches struggle to fill the pews, First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul is going strong and getting ready to close out the year with a bang by celebrating its 125th anniversary. 

Lois Glewwe, a local historian and congregant of the church, says its story began long before the date that’s being celebrated.

In 1846, a Presbyterian missionary doctor came to South St. Paul to work with the Kaposia band of the Mdewakanton Dakota. The doctor succeeded a Methodist who had been there earlier. 

In 1853, the Dakota people were forced out of the area and the doctor and his family went with them.

“There was no Presbyterian presence at that point,” Glewwe says. “He had left behind a group of white settlers who were Presbyterians.”

For the next roughly 30 years, the group continued to meet in homes and have gatherings whenever they could, even though there was only a handful.

By 1890, the group started to have Sunday services. Glewwe says people met in a school, which was on the grounds of what is now South St. Paul High School. 

There were 29 in attendance for their first official worship service. Glewwe says that by 1891, they had 70 people in attendance and a pastor who came and went, a Rev. Hawley.

In February of that year, he got permission from the city to move the meetings from the school to City Hall, because the group had outgrown the space.

A new pastor, Rev. Darling, was assigned in 1893 and started to offer Sunday school and Sunday evening services.

“By the end of that year, they were ready to actually establish a Presbyterian church,” Glewwe says.

On Dec. 13, 1893, the group came together to officially organize — Darling was hired with a salary of $175 a year. 

It took three years to raise the money to build the first church building that was located on the northeast corner of Fifth and Marie avenues. The church was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1896. 

Some 60 years later in 1957, the church was so crowded it couldn’t accommodate all its congregants at its original location.

Glewwe says a capital fund was started and the church bought property on 20th Avenue and Congress Street, where it resides today. 

All said, Glewwe says she thinks First Presbyterian is the third oldest church in the city. It’s 125th anniversary celebration is planned for Dec. 9 at the Historic Concord Exchange.


A celebration

Katie Estes and Tom Watson, co-pastors at First Presbyterian Church, say the quasquicentennial anniversary is a big deal for the congregation.

“It’s a congregation that loves celebrations and likes the excuse for one, so there’s great energy around ‘Oh, we’re going to look at all of our history’ and celebrate all of that,” says Estes.

Watson, who grew up in a western suburb of Minneapolis, says he knew nothing of South St. Paul prior to landing there. He says he’s only discovered in the last 16 years the rich history that the city has, adding there is a sense of pride with South St. Paulites when it comes to their past.

“That trickles down and is embodied by the congregation itself. Even though less than half of [our] members ... live in South St. Paul, the identity of being a South St. Paul church is still strong,” says Watson. 

Estes adds that while those in the church may not be residents of the city, they are tied to their South St. Paul church and the history that surrounds it. 

There is a lot of enthusiasm about the celebration coming and what those in the congregation can do to hold up pieces of history.

“I see that beginning to bubble,” Estes says.


Keeping the doors open

“We’ve been through a lot. I mean, boy, there’s history and hard times and low times,” says Estes says. “Then something like this comes along and you say there’s a lot to celebrate.”

Being a vital and viable church after 125 years is big deal, she says.

There are still four-generation families associated with the congregation, something Estes says is unheard of in this day and age.

Glewwe points out that traditionally Presbyterians were wealthy people, which meant members of First Presbyterian Church, when it was founded, included many influential people in the community. 

“In those years, for most churches, families went to church together ... This was passed down from generation to generation,” Glewwe says.

Some current members were baptized in the original church and are now in their 90s.

Glewwe adds she thinks the church has done a good job of keeping its finger on the pulse of what the community needs. For instance, First Presbyterian helped found Neighbors, Inc. 

“It was kind of setting the tone for community involvement in a different way. We became a presence in the community in that sense, as well,” says Glewwe.

Asked how the church has managed to still be around for this anniversary, Watson’s response was “sheer will power.” Estes adds that in hard times it does feel like that’s all it takes to make it through.

Having served in a number of churches, Estes says something different about South St. Paul and First Presbyterian is the strength of the community. 

“Members of the congregation are connected to each other, whether they’re a brand-new member or a third-generation member,” she says. “I think that gets you through a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? When you’re looking out for one another.”

Watson says many feel First Presbyterian Church is their spiritual home, and those who have been around for a while want others to feel that way. 

Estes says her fear is that upon hearing a church has been around a long time, some will assume it’s stuck in its history or is old fashioned. 

“We’re trying hard to celebrate our 125th and also look ahead to the next 125 years,” she says. “We’re really saying ‘Yes, we’ve come a long way and isn’t that amazing?’ but even as we celebrate our history, we’re planning for the future of the church.”


–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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