The Estonian church near Gleason, WI, in the woods. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

Restoring an old Estonian church depends on volunteers and donations

In the middle of the US state of Wisconsin, in the outskirts of a town named Gleason, almost in the middle of nowhere, stands a piece of history: a small Estonian Lutheran church that has been there over a century; now, it’s in the process of restoration, but that takes time, volunteers and donations – all of which are hard to come by.

The church is so secluded that if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t find it. Even looking on Google Maps, the best thing that comes up is Estonian Church Road – a narrow unpaved trail that leads to the church from Lincoln County Road J. It’s not visible from the county road, but if you find the unpaved trail, then you’re greeted with a big sign that says, “Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church. Founded July 16, 1914.”

This sign greets people who visit the church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
This sign greets people who visit the church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

According to the church’s website, early Estonian and Latvian immigrants to America chose the Gleason area in Wisconsin because it resembled the countryside of their homelands. That is also true for Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes – many of the people today in Wisconsin, but also Minnesota and Michigan, are the descendants of Scandinavians. 

The plans for building a church for the local Estonians started already before 1907. The community purchased a small amount of land – 3.5 acres or 1.4 hectares – and the church that still stands today, was built.

Vandalism a major problem

The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

After a while, however, the Estonian community in Lincoln County declined and the church was at one point abandoned. Then, in 1964, the Estonian movie director, Bill Rebane, and his family moved to Lincoln Country from Chicago, without knowing that the Gleason area used to be an Estonian settlement area. In the mid-seventies, Rebane became aware of the church, only to find out that by this time, it had been vandalised – the bell, the pulpit and the furnishing had disappeared.

In 1992, after numerous attempts to restore the furnishings, doors, windows and maintain fencing, Bill Rebane and his family retained legal counsel and filed reorganisation documents with the county, reinstating the church to the “Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church” to become a landmark for Estonians in America and all those who had to leave their homeland to escape from communism and religious suppression, the church’s website says.

The restoration efforts have been going on to this day. And, surprisingly, these efforts are still hindered by some of the same problems that left the church in its sorry state during the years it was abandoned.

The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

“The doors were ripped off three times in a row, and I just had them replaced by a friend of mine in Gleason,” Bill Rebane tells Estonian World. “People are using the church as a drop-off for their garbage, that is the biggest problem right now.”

A pentagram drawn on the church’s wall

Vandalism against the church has even taken epic proportions. In the summer of 2018, someone threw a large amount of paint on one of the church walls. And then a big pentagram was painted on another one.

The Estonian church is located on Estonian Church Road. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The Estonian church is located on Estonian Church Road. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

“Little vandalism may be done by teenagers or drinking parties that go out there,” Bill says. “They find it secluded enough to go out there and do their drinking or smoke pot. The pentagram and the big vandalism were on purpose.”

“Last year, we had some visitors there. They appeared from nowhere, and I had a work crew there at the time, and two people, dressed in black, claimed they were in the area visiting some friends. And then they started to talk about Islam, how Islam was better than the Christian religion. From there on, we didn’t hear anything until the church was totally vandalised. Oil paint on the walls. So, we spent a lot of time cleaning that up again and redoing everything.”

Bill is confident this wasn’t a local, casual vandalism, it had to be done on purpose. “A huge pentagram painted on one wall. It seems to be today’s society that we’re getting into hate and these kinds of activities, and religion is somehow going out of the window these days,” he sighs.

The inside of the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The inside of the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

The land of the church and the adjacent cemetery (100 feet behind the church, with some 11 gravesites, it’s not very visible if you don’t know where to look) is owned by a non-profit organisation, the Estonian Evangelical Martin Luther Church, which is basically Bill Rebane and his family. And Bill has big plans for the church – the only issue is the lack of volunteers who’d help, and the lack of money.

Campsites and nature trails

“My plan is to create campsites for people to come and visit, have nature trails throughout the acreage there, in the woods. I want to make it a special place, because everybody seems to come away from there with a spiritual effect of some kind. They find it tranquil and soothing, very conducive as a spiritual retreat. I don’t think we will get too many people in the Gleason area to join the congregation,” Bill explains.

The greeting sign when you approach the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The greeting sign when you approach the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

Last year, he bought a 32-foot camping trailer. “It’s beautiful, practically brand new, with a pop-out, and I was going to put it there for families who’d want to spend a weekend there, Estonians from anywhere, or other people to come there and visit and be able to rent that out and put eventually a little log cabin for a Baltic information centre.”

“So, the plans are big, volunteers we’re short on. And money. The roofing – we purchased the roofing, all the materials are sitting there, but I can’t get insurance on the property because it’s not completed. It’s dangerous to send volunteers on the roof and do the roofing because if somebody gets hurt, I don’t want to be personally liable for that. That would put the church in a jeopardy.”

The inside of the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The inside of the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

“The solution is to attract a contractor who would find it in their heart to provide the labour to reshingle the roof,” Bill notes. “Or, we can prepare a letter to Menards or other building supply houses to make donations. We need to have the money or any other way to pay somebody.”

New windows before the winter

But Bill says progress has been made in all areas concerning the church. “The foundation was the most important thing. You can’t have a new roof and redo the church unless you have a solid foundation. That was a big-big job and mostly one guy did it, one volunteer. Lifted the whole church up and put the natural rock under it. That will stand another hundred years. Now comes the fine finishing.”

“I finally got all of the windows for the church, which are still sitting here (in Saxon, WI, where Bill lives – editor) because I can’t get a carpenter to get down there and put them all in for the winter. I just have to get the labour to do it. That’s the next big chore. The roofing and the nature trails is the plan for the next spring.”

The benches in the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The benches in the Estonian church. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

“I found some fencing, old iron fencing, beautiful stuff. It’s in the Green Bay area. I’m trying to see if I can get it for a decent price that I can afford, personally, and then we could make it tougher for people to get in with their pickup trucks and dump their garbage,” Bill hopes.

There was a time when he was thinking of getting a mobile home and siding it with half-log siding, and move to live there, next to the church. “But at my age, I wouldn’t want to be there by myself. That would be a gross mistake,” the now 82-year-old movie director says.

Renew the entire effort

The entire restoration effort is in a desperate need of money and volunteers who would help do the things Bill himself can’t. “I think we’ll do a campaign, send out letters and renew the entire effort. It’s so hard to get people with equipment come in and do a job,” he explains.

The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.
The Estonian church near Gleason, WI. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

Bill notes that in the beginning of the restoration, he also reached out to the Estonian embassy in the US. “They said they cannot help the church, but they could consider helping set up some kind of an information centre there – an Estonian information centre. That’s still an option. I don’t think we should use the church for the information centre, but we could create a typical Estonian log cabin, and at least keep it open for weekends.”

If you’re interested in visiting the old Estonian church, then it’s about a five-hour-drive (about 300 miles) from Chicago, in mid-Wisconsin. Its rough coordinates are 45.290607, -89.476676, but Google Maps will find it also as Estonian Church Road, or Estonian Cemetery.

Everyone who’s interested in donating to the cause, the church’s website has the option to do that via PayPal.

Cover: The Estonian church near Gleason, WI, in the woods. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

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