A Snapshot of Bethlehem's History
In 1884, the Synodical Conference of the Missouri Synod sent a missionary to the New Orleans area to establish a mission in what was then the fourth district. Reverend August Burgdorf devoted much of his time engaging the community by providing catechetical instruction to some of the adults in the neighborhood in an effort to build enough interest to start a new church.
Reverend Burgdorf chose the corner of Washington and Dryades to purchase a dilapidated two story framed building. The vision was to serve families by developing a faithful community of leaders. The mission was to develop a school supported by the church to serve the African American community. The purpose of the school was to provide the neighborhood children with an alternative to the segregated Jim Crow public school system of that era. It gave children an opportunity to be educated in an environment that was nurturing and promoted excellence. The goal was to instill the knowledge and benefit of Christ’s redemption through an evolving confidence in God’s grace. Bethlehem Lutheran Church was dedicated on the second Sunday after the Epiphany in 1888 and is recorded in the church history as Bethlehem Chapel. The first teacher, E.W. Rischow was installed on the 15th Sunday after Trinity.
In 1895 Reverend Burgdorf passed the torch to the Reverend J.W.F. Kossmann who remained until 1906. In 1907 Reverend G. M. Kramer entered the mission on the 12th Sunday after Trinity. The Church documented 65 members and had approximately 65 enrolled students.
The Bethlehem School flourished and was a vital link to quality education for students. By 1914 the enrollment had grown to over 300 students. The Church school produced students who became educators, nurses, and public servants.
The mission to educate and teach the Lutheran tradition of giving time, talents and treasures developed individuals who shared these values throughout the New Orleans community. To date, alumni and their families remain members of the church. Teachers of note include the late Professor Aaron Wiley, his wife Eugenia Wiley, Osborn Williams, Eliza Dotson Francois, Mercedes Vanderhorts, and Frances McCants, Gloria Mills and Lois Horn. The Church school closed in 1962 when public schools integrated, allowing neighborhood children increased opportunities.
Bethlehem continued its commitment to children by opening its doors to a Special Needs School which operated for more than 10 years. They were also known for its robust Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School. Children attending vacation bible school often became members of the church along with their parents. Under the leadership of Reverend John Flaxbeard, Bethlehem left the Missouri Synod to join the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The church is also known for its history of music ministry. Ministers of music have included Dorcas Thompson, Gloria Thompson Scott and Angelique Scott Richard. Our current pianist is Jocelyn Breaux. Previously the music ministry included a gospel choir and a children’s choir, led by Angelique Harrell and the Rev. Lois Dejean. In the early 2000’s the church housed a high school jazz band that included Jonathan Batiste, Trombone Shorty, Michael Ballard, and Kris Royal and Stephen Harrell.
Although the congregation lost half of its membership following Hurricane Katrina, the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA has continued to support our redevelopment generously. Bethlehem is proud to call ELCA churches around the country family, especially after volunteers came in droves to help the New Orleans community in the rebuilding process after Katrina. We will always have a connection to the hundreds of individuals who came to lend a helping hand. Bethlehem has a long history of serving the Central City community. The community knows the church for their hospitality and embracing the culture of New Orleans. and for providing services to those in need including HIV education, assistance for immigrants, and mentoring for youth.
Ministers serving Bethlehem throughout the years include Theodore Cooper, Bethlehem’s first African American Pastor, John Skinner, Orville Miller, John Flaxbeard, Kenneth Stump, Lester White, Ron Unger, Dr. Patrick Keen, Dr. Julius Carrol and Interim Pastor Rev. Nancy Andrews. . Rev. Ben Groth currently serves as Pastor and Redeveloper of Bethlehem.