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German congregation keeps the spirit of Grace Lutheran

The Rev. Harold Popp served Grace Lutheran Church for 14 years before he left in January 1980 to lead a German congregation in Trieste, Italy. After four years, Popp went to Fort Myers to serve Messiah Lutheran Church. Sunday, Popp plans to be back at Grace to help the congregation celebrate its 30th anniversary. He will speak at 8:30 and 11 a.m., using a colonial liturgy translated in 1748 from a German liturgy.

Popp also will speak during a German service at 3 p.m. Sunday. The German ministry, which began under Popp's leadership, is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

An Oktoberfest picnic is planned at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on the church grounds at 1812 N Highland Ave., Clearwater. The events Sunday will end the congregation's 30th-year celebration that began with special activities in March.

The church also is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the Rev. Douglas Langholz, who has served Grace as senior pastor for 10 years.

Langholz said the congregation of Grace Lutheran Church, which numbers about 1,000, has a strong commitment to community service.

Grace supports the Religious Community Services umbrella program of about 60 congregations offering assistance to the needy and supports a mission for farmworkers and Urban Young Life for youngsters.

The congregation is participating in Mission '90, a denominationwide Bible study program, and has participated since 1985 in the Stephen Ministry, a program to train lay people to work with pastoral staff. Many groups are active within the congregation, including the "Gophers" who care for the church grounds.

Quite a few community organizations use Grace Church's buildings for meetings, including alcohol and drug addiction awareness programs, an emotional health support program, Scouts, stop-smoking programs and the Sons of Norway.

"We try to use our building as an on-going community resource," Langholz said. "We see ourselves as very much partners in the community around us."

The Rev. Henry Krikau has been at Grace Church for eight years. Along with his other pastoral duties, he conducts German services monthly at Grace. He said about 150 usually attend, some coming from as far away as 50 miles. The German services are broadcast locally on radio station WLVU-AM (1470).

Fellowship follows the services. Krikau was born in Canada but is the son of German parents and speaks German. He provides pastoral care for the German people who attend his services.

The Rev. Stephen Roepken joined Grace's staff in 1987 as director of Christian education and youth programs. He has concentrated on building youth groups, he said, planning special activities and regular Bible study, particularly during the summer.

He also conducts regular Bible study and other programs for adults. Roepken said he uses many pictures in his Bible study presentations.

"A lot of the congregation is older, and it is hard for those members to read the print or keep up," he said. "With pictures, they can learn."

Grace Lutheran Church began at its present site on Highland Avenue and Otten Street as a mission of the Board for Home Missions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, according to a history compiled by members. A sign was placed on the property announcing the formation of a Lutheran congregation, and interested people began to call.

Clarence Solberg came from Illinois to serve as Grace Church's first pastor. He and others canvassed the neighborhood, and the first service was Nov. 15, 1959. More than 100 people attended. The congregation officially was organized in March 1960, with 233 people attending.

Ground was broken for the original building in September 1959. The current sanctuary was dedicated in September 1975.

Joe and Helen Skodje are charter members of Grace. They recall the small, intimate congregation of about 30 whose members socialized frequently and would go to the beach together after services, Skodje said.

He recalled that once, after a heavy rainstorm, the sanctuary flooded, and parishioners gathered to sweep the water and debris out and rake rocks off the driveway.

In those days, church members presented plays for the community. The Skodjes recalled a performance of Murder in the Cathedral when props were borrowed from a nearby Catholic congregation.

Mrs. Skodje remembered that choir members would gather at someone's home to socialize after choir practice.

"It was a small community, and we knew everyone," she said. "As we grew, the tight community remained but splintered because we have more groups.

"We are so community-minded. That's the thing I think is so great about this church."