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Worship, hymns rise from relic of the past
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For the first time in decades, Psalms and hymns rang out from the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church on Sunday.

Volunteers from the Chicago Estonian community, including Honorary Vice-Consul Siim Soot, spent the weekend shoring up the crumbling structure, located off Highway J just outside Bloomville, and capped their successful project by holding a service under the trees.

“It’s a beautiful time to come worship together,” Rev. Nelli Vahter, who ministers to Estonians across the Midwest as a commuting pastor, said.

Although conducted in Estonian, the service was universal in appeal, and there are hopes that more may be held there in the future.

Future plans are even more ambitious, with hopes of constructing a cultural information site of Estonian life, history and the arts.

The building was constructed by Estonians who came to the Gleason and Bloomville areas in 1914 as the first Estonian Lutheran Church in the United States. It remains the only church devoted to the denomination, which Rev. Vahter explained is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in the nation. Canada also had a single outpost.

The congregation was never large or prosperous, and the church was only used occasionally, and then not at all after 1964 when its 50th anniversary celebration drew Estonians from across the nation.

Time and vandals swiftly took their toll, and the congregation boarded the structure up in 1970.

Filmmaker Bill Rebane, whose great-uncle Hans Rebane, was an early traveling minister for the congregation, re-established the congregation in 1994 in an effort to save the historical site as a landmark of Estonian immigration to America.

Rebane, who now lives in Saxon, was on site Saturday and Sunday, clearly pleased that work was getting underway.

“I’m really proud of my countrymen,” Rebane said. “When I saw them go into action, it was just like clockwork. It truly was amazing. You could build an empire here with a crew like that.”

Project foreman for the weekend was Silvi Pirn, who contacted Rebane after hearing about his restoration efforts.

“Once I visited the site, I knew I had to do what I could to keep the building standing,” she said. “We consider it a landmark, a testament to the Estonian people here before us.”

Rebane’s family is using new tools to help save the structure, turning to the Internet fund-raising site GoFundMe, which garnered enough money to bring the volunteers north and purchase the needed supplies to begin squaring up the building, a vital first step in any restoration effort.

“We’ve got to figure out where to proceed from here,” Rebane said.

The campaign has a goal of $40,000, Rebane said, adding that he hoped recent publicity spurs future donations.

To make a donation, visit www.gofundme.com and type in “First Estonian Church” in the search box.


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Rev. Nelli Vahter leads services, the first in decades, at Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church near Bloomville on Sunday.
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