Suburban Bethlehem Lutheran Church (SBL) began with a vision of their founding fathers that would lay the foundation of how they wanted to live their lives, of how they wanted to worship and be in fellowship, and how they wanted their children to be taught. However, with a closer review and reflection, it would be evident to the members of SBL that the Lord laid the foundation and “that it is by His will that they are led to continue accepting the challenges He puts before them.”
In 1883 several families from Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Fort Wayne asked permission to build a school for their children since they were living 5 or more miles by buggy ride from the church. Receiving permission, they started a school known as the Columbia Road Lutheran Church and School Association. By 1886 it soon became evident that the school was an “outreach tool” for the Lutheran church because it was “resolved to assess yearly tuition for non-members.”
The school grew and more families homesteaded further from Emmanuel. That led the members to again petition their mother congregation in 1897. This time the petition was to start a church. Receiving permission, the congregation called H.C. Jaus to be the first pastor/teacher in 1898. The church was first known as the Washington Township Congregation, but at the first voters meeting it was decided to name the church Bethlehem, using most of the constitution of Emmanuel. They decided to join the Missouri Synod. However, through unknown circumstances the incorporation did not take place until 1950 although suggestions were made in 1899, 1918, 1943, and 1945. By that time, a larger and more prominent church on Anthony Boulevard in Fort Wayne was already incorporated under the name Bethlehem. This church was not interested in changing their name, so the congregation out in the farm county became known as Suburban Bethlehem.
In 1901 the first mention of building a church is recorded. The plan was to have a sanctuary seating 250, but it was later reduced to 200. The final vote to build was October 19, 1902 and by December a contractor was chosen with a bid of $665 to erect the building with the assistance of the congregation hauling the sand and 40,000 bricks. The cornerstone was laid May 31, 1903 with reference to Isaiah 28:16 “a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation.” Time would prove to be favorable to the congregation with increased attendance and the need for two services. The growth would lead to remodeling in 1928 and 1948, and eventually additional chairs would be added to the aisles and in front of the first rows of pews to handle the number of worshippers.
In the 1960’s growth was exciting but also uncomfortable. In fact, it was noted by the chairman of the evangelism committee in one meeting “that it was embarrassing to invite prospects to services, only to be unable to seat them” and for late comers to arrive only to return home for lack of seating. By 1963, services that had larger attendance, like Christmas, Easter, and Confirmation, were conducted in the gymnasium of the school. It wouldn’t be until December 23, 1979 that the overcrowding would be solved. On that particular Sunday the congregation would start their worship service in the first church, have an organized procession, and end their service in the new much larger church that would seat over 300.
The membership climbed to over 650 in the 1990’s. A Monday Night Service in the summer was added to accommodate the summer attendance. Seven generations from its founding, Suburban Bethlehem Lutheran Church and School continues to thrive and have an impact on the community and throughout Fort Wayne. Today Suburban Bethlehem is blessed with a wide variety of ministries. Over 1,000 baptized souls call SBL their church home and we celebrate the joy of welcoming new individuals into God’s grace in Jesus through this ministry.
By the late 1990s, the Lord had blessed enrollment growth at the school to the point that an individual classroom was required for each grade, and another building project began. The plans remodeled existing spaces into a new school library and a computer lab, and an enlarged gymnasium floor. A two-story addition provided space for a new kitchen and food storage area, a common area with two adjoining bathrooms and equipment storage, and four new classrooms, plus a music room and student locker area. The project was completed for the 1998-99 school year.
Nearly twenty years later, a long-held dream was realized when the most recent building project not only added needed space to the church, but for the first time connected the church building to the school. The two-story 12,000 square-foot addition, dedicated in 2017, provided a larger church entry with new first-floor church offices, a fellowship hall and women’s ministry kitchen, and new restrooms to the ground level, with a new elevator leading to the balcony and new upper-level church library, conference room and youth room. Existing space was remodeled to expand the church music area and to connect the church and school, which gained both a new science lab and two additional classroom spaces.