By Barb Mazarakos
Frankenmuth, Michigan has long been known as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria”. Set about 300 miles from Christ Lutheran, Frankenmuth is a town known for having the World’s Largest CHRISTmas Store and delicious chicken dinners. But it also is a town with deep religious ties that are evident throughout the area, and one we look forward to visiting every year.
The town of Frankenmuth is an idea that came from German missionary Frederick Wyneken while he was working in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan in 1840. Realizing the lack of schools, churches, and pastors for the German pioneers in that area he made a plea to the Lutherans of Germany for help. A country pastor by the name of Wilhelm Loehe felt called to respond and organized a missionary society to come over which is still active today. With the help of Pastor Loehe and Pastor August Craemer (who was chosen to be the mission pastor and leader), Frankenmuth grew as families and friends of the original settlers came over and cleared land to build their own homes.
Among the first things built was St Lorenz (pronounced like the man’s name Lawrence) Lutheran Church, which remains an active congregation today. Churches in three towns near the original settlers’ hometowns carried the same name, so the name was chosen to remind those who had moved of their homeland. St Lorenz became not only a place of worship for the settlers, but a “church-school-parsonage” which was dedicated on Christmas Day 1846 and served as one of 14 charter congregations of the LCMS as well as a participant in its worldwide mission program. St Lorenz continues to have regular worship services (including one in German at 11am on the second Sunday of each month), multiple Bible studies, and a laundry list of additional activities. You can also take a self-guided tour to see the church for yourself (and I highly recommend you do if you are in the area).
Another must-see while in Frankenmuth is the Silent Night Memorial Chapel at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, which was modeled after the original Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria where “Silent Night” was first sung on Christmas Eve 1818. As the story goes, the little church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf had a broken organ which wouldn’t be fixed before Christmas. After seeing a Christmas play in a private home, assistant pastor Josef Mohr was feeling meditative, and wrote a poem about the angels announcing the birth of Christ. He thought it might make a good hymn to sing at Christmas service the next day, but the broken organ was an issue. Bringing the poem to church organist Franz Xaver Gruber to get help with the music, Mohr hoped they could find a way to make his words into song. By that evening, a guitar rendition of “Silent Night” was composed, and the broken organ was no longer a concern (at least for the moment). Nearly 50 years later the song originally sung in German was translated into English. Today, more than 300 translations exist, and the first verse of many of these can be found on the grounds of the chapel replica in Frankenmuth.
Of course no trip to the area would be complete without a stop at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland. A store on grounds covering 27 decorated acres (yep- Christmas decorations all year!), Bronner’s was the dream of founder Wally Bronner, who wanted to keep his focus on Christ while “decorating hearts with peace and love.” While at Bronner’s be sure to wear comfy shoes and get ready to peruse the thousands of ornaments, gifts and trimmings the store has to offer for every style and budget. Whether looking to add to your collection of personalized ornaments (they add some new ones each year) or your holiday decorations, Bronner’s has what you need 351 days a year (they close for New Year’s Day, Easter, U.S. Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as from noon-3pm Good Friday). With nativity settings, beautiful collectibles, and Christmas music playing throughout the store it is easy to get lost in the cheer of the holidays, even in the middle of summer. And while there are plenty of secular decorations to choose from (cookie ornaments or a Griswold glass collection, anyone?) there is never any doubt that Jesus is the Reason for the Season every day at Bronner’s.
The next time you are heading up through Michigan, consider a trip through Frankenmuth. Pick up some new ornaments at Bronner’s, take time to enjoy the peace of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, and head over to see the beauty of St. Lorenz before unwinding over chicken and schnitzel with your family at Zehnder’s. This trip has become a tradition we now share with my kids AND my dad. And the memories are priceless