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Volunteers return this weekend to shore up Estonian church
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Volunteers will once again congregate at the First Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church outside Gleason this weekend.

Their mission? To continue their restoration efforts in hopes of reopening the small church and building an adjacent Estonian cultural center on the 40-acre property.

Led by Bill Rebane, a retired Independent Artists Pictures executive and former Gleason business owner, members of the small congregation have pooled their resources and purchased much-needed building materials and a generator to continue restoration of the more than 100 year-old church.

This marks the second weekend of restoration at the church this summer. In June, a group led by Rebane shored up the church’s foundation, cleared brush, and held a Lutheran church service in Estonian led by Rev. Velli Vahter.

This weekend’s work will include new footings on the rest of the building, beginning work on the final squaring up of the building, windows and doors.

Rebane now lives in Saxon, with his wife Barbara, two dogs and a cat, amid film memorabilia representing more than a half century in the movie business. Yet it was when they owned the Shooting Ranch in Gleason that they discovered the abandoned church and became interested in its restoration.

An Estonian himself, it was only after coming to Gleason via Chicago that Rebane learned his great-uncle was the first pastor of the First Estonian Church. Having lived with his countrymen through Nazi Germany and communism in the Soviet Union, Rebane understands the importance of freedom.

“It's more than a church,” Rebane said. “Its demise was a reminder and a monument to what ails America and the World. More importantly, its restoration effort is a symbol of hope.”

The building was constructed by Estonians who came to the Gleason and Bloomville areas in July, 1914 as the first Estonian Lutheran Church in the United States. It remains the only church in the nation devoted to the denomination, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 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. Rebane re-established it in 1994 in an effort to save the historical site as a landmark of Estonian immigration to America.

The first Estonians came to the United States around 1900, already chafing under the weight and oppression of the neighboring Russian empire and the Russian Orthodox Church. Encouraged and assisted by the Lutheran Colonization Co. in New York and the Wisconsin Valley Land Company, they flocked to the Gleason area, some from the eastern U.S., others from North Dakota and others direct from Estonia.

According to Rebane, land for the church was deeded to the congregation by Sig and Tena Heineman in 1907 with founding fathers Johan Wiltein, George Tutt and Albert Sommi.

Church membership slowly dwindled as the Estonian community dissipated, and the church’s fate was sealed when those remaining decided to support a new parish, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Irma, relegating the little church in the woods to a role of sheltering occasional picnics and gatherings.

At the time it was boarded up, all that remained at the church were the dead, with 11 members still buried in a tiny, ramshackle graveyard a few hundred feet from the building.

Rebane’s family is using new tools to help save the structure, turning to the Internet fund-raising site GoFundMe to raise awareness and funds.

The campaign has a goal of $40,000, Rebane said.

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

Anyone wishing to volunteer with the restoration project today and Sunday is still welcome to participate. For more information, phone Rebane at 715-893-2254 or e-mail  baje@centurytel.net


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Bill Rebane in the overgrown cemetery at the Estonian Lutheran Church near Gleason. More restoration is scheduled at the building this weekend.
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