The History of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church

For over 100 years our name has been Immanuel: God with us. This name, also one of the biblical names for Jesus, has been treasured by the people of Immanuel since its inception. The Immanuel story is a story of 2 languages, 3 countries, and 4 denominations.

The name, Immanuel, was chosen by German immigrants who came to Fort Collins by way of Russia. So it's with them that we begin to tell the Immanuel story.

Catherine the Great, an ethnic German came to the Russian throne by way of an arranged marriage to the Russian heir, who she then "removed" opening the way for her assumption of the Russian throne.

In 1762, she issued an invitation to the people of Western Europe to settle in Russia. The key enticements of her invitation were that the people would be free to follow their own religion, would be exempt from certain taxes, and would not have to serve in the military. While the invitation went out to many countries, it was primarily people from the German states who responded.

Once settled in the Volga River region in southern Russia, they fiercely maintained their German language and identity. Each village was organized by religion, primarily Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite and Catholic. Within 3 years, they numbered over 27,000 persons in over 100 villages.

Despite the favorable agreements that brought the settlers to the region, they faced hardships, including attacks from the nomadic people of that region. Typhus also took the lives of many of the villagers.

In this climate, strict discipline was highly valued. In one village in the early 1800s, a minister was highly praised for his uncompromising dealings with his own people: when a married couple quarreled and came to him seeking a divorce, he would hear them out. Then, judging that both parties were generally at fault, he took the whip down from his wall and promptly disciplined them. Requests for divorce, a story written in the 1920s glowingly reported, decreased dramatically.

In 1863 the Russian Czar, Alexander II, eliminated the special benefits afforded these German villages, and forced their citizens to assimilate. The Mennonite communities especially felt the bite of these changes, as conscription to the military clashed with their strongly held belief in pacifism. A severe drought placed added pressure on these communities. By 1900, some 100,000 Volga Germans had emigrated to the United States and Canada, settling primarily on the Great Plains and by WWI, the number had grown to half a million.

Many immigrants came to Northern Colorado. For a time, Volga Germans constituted the largest ethnic group in the northern Front Range, from Denver up to the Wyoming line and eastward. Most were involved in farming, and in the Fort Collins area, the sugar beet industry attracted many.

Three main groups of German Christians were part of the Volga German group.

German Lutheran, German Reformed, and German Evangelical churches. The German Evangelical churches began in Germany from German Christians who had tired of the doctrinal disputes between the Lutheran and Reformed pastors. The German Evangelical church placed a greater emphasis on piety and diaconal ministry.

In 1903 a German Protestant Congregational Church was planted in Fort Collins, the church that today is known as Plymouth Congregational Church.

Later that year a group split off after a disagreement and formed a church called Evangelical Congregational Immanuel Church. 3 years later, in 1906, they patched up their differences and rejoined the German Protestant Congregational Church. But 6 years later, in 1912, they had another dispute and left again, this time calling themselves Immanuel Evangelical Church. Thus our illustrious beginning.

The following year Immanuel joined the Evangelical Synod of North America. Also in 1913, the small congregation bought a church building, originally built in 1887, from First Presbyterian Church located on the corner of Remington and Olive in Old Town Fort Collins.

As in Russia, the intent of the congregation was to maintain its German identity. All that had changed was the location, from the Volga River to the edge of the Rocky Mountains.

In the early years of the congregation, pastors succeeded each other in rapid succession, staying anywhere from half a year to three years. Rev. David Maul was a noted musician and trained an excellent choir, setting the stage for the deep love of music that has permeated Immanuel ever since.

The congregation grew and shrank over the following years. It added members--all from Volga German families--but also lost some due to members moving away, seeking better work than the difficult farming and factory jobs that were available in the area. Anti-German sentiment during World War I and the difficulties of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl all created difficulties for Immanuel. The Great Depression especially led to financial struggles, and the denomination, which had loaned the church the money to purchase their building, canceled the loan when the church couldn't pay it.

In 1936, a denominational merger took place and Immanuel was now part of the new denomination, now called the Immanuel Evangelical and Reformed Church.

The following year, the congregation called Rev. William Reitzer, from Flint, Michigan, to be its pastor. A historical pamphlet was published to commemorate the church's 25th Anniversary, and Rev. Reitzer emphasized the truth of the church's name: Immanuel, God with us. He would serve as Immanuel's pastor for the next 22 years.

The Frauen-Verein (German for Ladies' Aid) held meetings in German, for the older women of the church, and contributed much to improvements in the church and parsonage buildings. At the same time, a group for younger women, the Women's Guild, organized. Among the many things they accomplished, they were active in supporting the United States service members during World War II. Over the course of the war, 29 members of the church served in the military.

When a German P.O.W. camp was established in Greeley, they realized that their knowledge of the German language put them in the right place to minister to those prisoners. Other prisoners, put to work on farms throughout northern Colorado and in factories such as the Fort Collins Sugar Factory, led to opportunities in Ault, Loveland, and Brighton, as well as right here in Fort Collins. Rev. Reitzer led services for these prisoners, assisted by the congregation, and members also provided them with dinners.

Rev. Reitzer was a strong and very gifted leader, excelling in preaching, teaching, administration and pastoral work. He was as respected as we was both loved, and at times, feared. He was a tireless promoter of the gospel and his love for children was a window into this true pastor's heart.

In 1957, a second denominational merger took place between the Evangelical and Reformed denomination and the Congregational and Christian Church. The new denomination was called the United Church of Christ. At the same time, Immanuel made the change from German to English services. The stress of this change and dissatisfaction with the new denomination led to much unhappiness in the church family.

Two years later, Rev. Reitzer retired. Disagreements quickly escalated in the congregation and Immanuel experienced two splits in the following years. Many joined the church they were originally affiliated with, now called Plymouth Congregational Church (part of the UCC denomination) and others joined various Lutheran churches around Fort Collins that were also planted by Volga Germans in the early 1900's.

Within 2 years, in 1962, at her 50th anniversary, Immanuel had no pastor, few resources, and only twelve remaining families. It seemed likely that the church would soon close its doors.

Yet God remained with Immanuel. One summer Sunday, in 1962, the few people attending the church learned that they would have no pastor the following week and would not be meeting. It was, however, one of those moments that God arranges, just so.

A student from Colorado State University, Martin Van Dyke, was worshipping with Immanuel that day with his young family. He had been attending periodically when he couldn't make it back to his home church in Denver. He had noticed the word "Reformed" on their sign, and found Back to God Hour devotional booklets on their literature table. He belonged to Second Christian Reformed Church in Denver and offered to call his pastor, Rev. Archie Bazuin, and ask him to preach for them the next Sunday. He agreed and thus began the relationship between Immanuel and the CRC.

Martin Van Dyke and family became members of Immanuel after moving to Fort Collins. Martin served as an elder and their family offered a warm welcome to everyone who came to Immanuel in the years they were here.

When Immanuel expressed interest in the CRC, they had a lot of questions about CRC doctrine, but the CRC also had a key question for them. If they became CRC, they would be considered a Home Mission Church and would need to commit to being deliberate about welcoming new people to their church, not just Volga Germans and not just Dutch Calvinists but everyone who was open to receiving the gospel.

It was a drastic change in focus for what had been a fiercely ethnic church. Sensing God's purpose and presence, though, they forged ahead as Immanuel Christian Reformed Church, merging their two worship styles and liturgical traditions, welcoming everyone who wished to be a part of Immanuel's present and future, regardless of their past. The one non-negotiable for the Volga Germans was their practice of coming forward to receive Holy Communion. What CRC folks considered a bit contemporary, the old Germans reminded them that they had always done it that way and weren't about to change. And so it has been ever since, a tradition warmly embraced by the Immanuel family today.

Soon after the decision was made to join the new denomination, Rev Jerry Zandstra was sent to Fort Collins to serve Immanuel as an interim Pastor. Immanuel then called Rev. Gerrit Boerfyn to be their pastor. Rev. Boerfyn was a mission-minded leader and guided the church in opening its arms to the community.

In 1969, Rev. Boerfyn accepted a call to serve to serve the with the denomination's Home Missions board, assisting new church plants.

In September of 1969, 2 key events took place. Members of Immanuel living in the Greeley area were sponsored by Immanuel to be a new church plant. That same month, Rev. Larry Van Essen was installed as Immanuel's next pastor. Larry and Betty Van Essen and their young family also brought a strong mission focus to Immanuel, together with a passion for preaching and encouraging the church to bring the gospel to friends and neighbors and everyone in need of the message of salvation though Jesus Christ. In those years Immanuel hosted many summer mission teams of high school students from around the denomination as well as seminary students serving as interns.

That same summer Immanuel broke ground on this present site to build a new church home for the congregation. The church on Remington and Olive was now more than eighty years old. Despite the work of many generations to keep it beautiful and in good repair, it became clear that a new building would be needed. Despite efforts to preserve the historic building, the church on Remington and Olive was demolished to make room for a hotel and convention center which was never built.

The new building was not yet ready, so for the next year Immanuel held services in the gymnasium at Bauder Elementary School, just west of us on West Prospect, the very school that 33 years later Immanuel would return to serve through our Kid's Hope ministry. The new church building incorporated the old church's stained glass windows, located behind us as well as the cross that is before us each week in worship. The old church bell was placed in a new open tower built on the lawn.

After Pastor Van Essen accepted a call to a church in Riverside, California, Immanuel extended a call to Rev. Al Helder, who began his ministry with Immanuel in January of 1978. During the next 11 years, Pastor Helder led Immanuel even deeper into its mission of "calling people to faith and equipping them for ministry."

New ministries included the introduction of the Bethel Bible Series, Stephen Ministry, Immanuel Day Care Center and a food pantry. Many persons from the greater Fort Collins community found Immanuel to be a place of grace where they could hear the good news of God's forgiving grace and be challenged to find their place of service in his kingdom.

In 1979, a decade after planting the Fellowship CRC in Greeley, Immanuel planted a second church in Loveland which took the name Calvary CRC. Again Immanuel had to bid farewell to a number of families.

In 1979, a new building was constructed to expand the Sunday School and the following year the Immanuel Christian Day Care Center began here on the church's campus.

During the 1980's the music ministry of Immanuel expanded through the numerous presentations by the church choir, as well as the Real Life Singer, and the Reflections. Immanuel's cantatas were well known and well attended throughout the Fort Collins community.

In 1982, Immanuel called Rev. Paul Jorden to join their pastoral staff. Paul's passion for evangelism, preaching and discipleship was a welcome addition to the church's desire to continue to call people to faith and equip them for ministry. Soon after a second morning service was necessary to accommodate all who desired to worship at Immanuel.

Immanuel gained some notoriety during those years for its commitment to honor and use the gifts of both men and women in the offices of the church, a decision that eventually was supported by the denomination. During these years Immanuel also began a Children and Worship ministry and encouraged children at a young age to acknowledge their faith in Jesus Christ and be welcomed at the Lord's Table.

In 1990 Immanuel called Pastor Art Stienstra to join Pastor Jorden in leadership. After serving together for several years, Pastor Stienstra retired in 1992 and Pastor Paul accepted a call in 1996 to serve as Senior Pastor of the Family in Christ Community CRC in Westminster, Colorado.

In 1997, Immanuel began a new chapter in ministry. A major remodeling was approved greatly expanding the current facility. That same year Joy Nyenhuis was hired to serve as our full-time youth pastor.

Before the dust had settled from the building expansion, Immanuel called Rev. John Terpstra to serve the next pastor of Immanuel. John remains our Senior Pastor and plans to continue his service at Immanuel until his retirement, most likely in 2017.

Joy Nyenhuis served until 2003 when Immanuel invited Joe Vasiliauskas to serve as our Director of Youth Ministries. Joe served until 2008 when Immanuel called the Rev. Zach Vandenberg to bring his love of youth, preaching and music to our congregation as a full time Associate Pastor. Pastor Zach served until 2013 when he accepted a call to First CRC in Bellflower, California.

The more recent story of Immanuel is still being told in the various ministries that are mentioned in other places. If you have lasted this long, we are most grateful for the time you took to become familiar with the wonderful story of grace that is ours at Immanuel through the working of God's Spirit.

To him be the wisdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.