History of the First Presbyterian Church in Dubuque, Iowa
In the summer of 1846, Rev. Peter and Mrs. Sophie Flury arrived from Switzerland in the village of Dubuque—in the territory of Iowa—and ministered to German-speaking immigrants. The Flurys lived in a house on Seventh Street between Bluff and Locust Streets. They invited children into their parlor to learn German and English, writing and singing, and the Christian faith. Adults were invited into their home in the evening for a similar experience of learning.
Iowa became a state on December 28, 1846. The German Evangelical Church was organized on December 25, 1847, with thirty-five members, including Rev. Flury as the pastor. In the summer of 1848, the congregation built a small brick church at the southwest corner of Ninth and Iowa Streets, a site now occupied by the headquarters of the Dubuque Fire Department. Since Rev. Flury came from Switzerland, and many of the original members were Swiss immigrants, the church was commonly known as the “Swiss Church.”
Sophie Flury became ill and died on November 25, 1848 and, after a short stay in Milwaukee, Rev. Flury returned to Switzerland. He was succeeded by Rev. Jean Baptiste Madoulet who served for two years. There is no evidence that he continued the informal school begun by the Flurys, but he did tutor Johannes Bantly, a Swiss immigrant, in preparation for the ministry.
Meanwhile, Adrian Van Vliet, a Dutch immigrant traveling from New York to St. Louis to Galena, pursued his vocation as a tailor and cap maker. His wife died in Galena and, after her death, the grief stricken Van Vliet walked to Platteville where Johannes Bantly was a pastor. It appears that Van Vliet and Bantly had become acquainted when they lived in Galena. Impressed with Van Vliet's gift of teaching from the Scriptures, Bantly encouraged him to prepare for the ministry. Van Vliet was tutored by Bantly and Rev. John Lewis, and was ordained by the Congregational Association at Mineral Point in 1851. He became the pastor of the German Evangelical Church in Dubuque in the spring of 1852.
In late 1852, Van Vliet began tutoring two young men for ministry to German-speaking immigrants. Then, a few more young men became students in the home of Van Vliet. In 1854, Van Vliet persuaded the German Evangelical Church to join the Presbytery of Cedar Valley, and it became the First German Presbyterian Church. Two years later, the church property was sold for $4,500, and land at the corner of Seventeenth and Iowa Street was acquired on June 21, 1856 for $2,000. The remaining funds were used to construct a church.
It was a two level stone building, measuring 40’ x 60’, with the interior and exterior walls covered with plaster and painted blue, reflecting the Dutch background of Van Vliet. The church was commonly known as “Die Blaue Kirche” or “The Blue Church.” The upper level was the sanctuary and the lower level accommodated the pastor's apartment and classrooms. This lower level became the setting for the expanded tutoring and apprentice program which might be described as “Van Vliet's School”. The congregation purchased two houses next to the church as living quarters for the growing number of young men who wishd to study with Van Vliet.
“Van Vliet’s School” was organized as the German Theological School of the Northwest in 1864. Adrian Van Vliet died on May 9, 1871, and was succeeded as pastor and professor by his fourth student, Rev. Jacob Conzett. Under Conzett’s leadership, the school expanded and obtained property on the hill across from the church in 1871, and the close connection between the school and the church continued.
On March 4, 1894, Rev. Ernest Kudobe, the pastor, led 51 members to withdraw to form the Independent Presbyterian Church. His successor, Rev. E. Schuette, encouraged the remaining 71 members, and another 17 members were added to the congregation within a short period. In less than two years, the congregation assumed responsibility for building a new church to replace the small and deteriorated building known as “The Blue Church.” It was razed in early 1896, and the present building was dedicated on November 13, 1896. Its design is “Gothic Revival”, an architectural style developed in England in the eighteenth century, which became popular in America during the nineteenth century. The engraved stone above the main entrance to church indicates:
First German Presbyterian Church
Organized 1847—Erected 1896
The architect was Fridolin Heer, a Swiss immigrant. The contractor was Ulrich Willy, another Swiss immigrant and member of the First German Presbyterian Church. The building and its furnishings, without the organ, cost $9,613. Except for the additions of the baptismal font and the communion table, the original furniture—pews and pulpit furniture—remains in use today. The original organ cost $986 and, although it was updated later, it is still in use today.
Adrian Van Vliet is remembered in the present building in two ways. There is a memorial plaque in stone in the narthex, a plaque preserved from “The Blue Church,” installed there in June 1876. His name is cut into the large stained glass window facing Seventeenth Street. Four other stained glass windows have names cut into them—all laypersons—Maria Conzett Hoerner, Christian Sutter, Fred Schloz, and Ulrich Willy. In 1974, names were painted on nine windows: Peter Flury, Jacob Conzett, E. Schuette, William C. Laube, Arnold Buol, Christian Loetscher, John R. Sturman, William Boleyn, and Wilma Finer.
The present building was registered by the Presbyterian Historical Society as an “American Presbyterian and Reformed Historical Site” in June 1978.
The First German Presbyterian Church, through students trained in the school so closely associated with the church, was directly and indirectly responsible for beginning more than one hundred German-speaking Presbyterian churches in the Upper Mississippi Valley, by the end of the nineteenth century. There was an inseparable connection between the church and the school, located on the hill overlooking Seventeenth and Iowa Streets, 1871-1907. The school moved to a new six-acre campus in 1907, and emerged as the University of Dubuque in 1920.
The word “German” was covered with cement, presumably during World War I. During the pastorate of Dr. William C. Laube (1921-1927), the First German Presbyterian Church was renamed the First Presbyterian Church on January 9, 1924. During this same period, the widow of Christian Loetscher donated her Victorian mansion at 1005 Lincoln Avenue to establish the Bethany Home for the Aged. Dr. Laube became the second superintendent in late 1927.
The cement covering the word “German” was chiseled out in 1985 as a symbol of the rich heritage of the church. The First German Presbyterian Church gave birth to more than one hundred German-speaking Presbyterian churches, the institution named the University of Dubuque in 1920, and the Bethany Home for the Aged in 1927.
Joel L. Samuels (August 16, 2008 [Last edited April 7, 2011])