History of Our Church
FirstFree has a 135+ year history in Chicago, and has been in Andersonville since 1925.
First Free’s roots go back to a religious revival swept through Sweden starting in the 1840s. Small groups of Swedish Lutherans gathered in homes to read religious tracts and sing hymns. Influenced by German Pietist and English Wesleyan theology these small groups encouraged people to have a personal relationship with Jesus. They were devoted to scriptures and were famous for challenging church tradition by asking “Where does it stand written?” Although initially a renewal movement within the Lutheran church in the 1880s these house groups began identifying as independent congregations.
First Free’s founders were among the first to establish an independent Swedish mission congregation. In the fall of 1880 a group of 17 Swedish immigrant believers who were meeting for prayer, Bible study and singing in a house on the near north side of Chicago (near the present Chicago Avenue and Clark Street) decided to publicly advertise services. They held their first communion service on Feb. 11, 1881 with about 150 people attending. They continued to meet in various facilities — from the basement of a print shop to rented halls — and began a Sunday School for about 40 children.
By 1888-9 they adopted the name Oak Street Svenska Fria Missions Forsamling (The Oak Street Swedish Free Missions Congregation) and constructed a building with two halls, two stores and four apartments. The early congregation took the mission part of their name seriously. They sought to evangelize the incoming Swedish immigrant community and were active in foreign missions. In 1887, Hans Jensen von Qualen, a young Danish Immigrant and member of First Free sailed to China with several Chinese-Americans to establish the Evangelical Free Church work in Canton. In 1910 the first member of our congregation went to India. In 1924 two couples went to Africa from First Free
In the following 10 years, under Rev. Axel Nordin’s leadership, the Young People’s Society, confirmation classes, a missionary paper, Ladies Aid Society (now WMS), and the first classes of Svenska Bibelinstitutet (now Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) were founded.
As the congregation grew under several pastorates, members gradually moved farther north to the city’s outskirts, requiring a ministry site in the Summerdale community. So in 1910 three lots were purchased (for $3,250!) at the corner of Berwyn & Ashland (our present site now known as Andersonville). A nearby vacant church was purchased and moved to that location. For some months they tried to maintain worship services at both the Oak Street Mission and at Summerdale. Eventually, in 1912 they sold the Oak Street Hall and concentrated their ministry at Summerdale.
From 1913-47 Rev. Frank W. Anderson guided the congregation through many changes. In 1914 the official church name became the First Swedish Evangelical Free Church of Chicago. To accommodate a growing congregation, in 1926 a new church sanctuary building was erected and dedicated following a 7 year building fund drive. The Sunday School and Young People’s work grew, and the First Swedish Evangelical Free Church transitioned from Swedish to English. At the end of Pastor Anderson’s ministry the church had 372 member and a Sunday School enrollment of over 500 people.
To adapt to growing ministries, the following years saw completion of the gym (1948), the purchase of the parsonage in Edgebrook (1952, eight miles northwest), and the Christian Education wing (1956).
But the people of Chicago were changing too. In the early days at Berwyn & Ashland, the surrounding community was virtually all Swedish. But in the 1950′s – 70′s, many people moved north and west of Chicago. Daughter churches were spawned in the suburbs (North Suburban Free Church and Glenview Free Church).
During the flight to the suburbs, First Free remained committed to ministering in the city. In 1961 Pastor Arley Bragg (1952-1970) wrote: “We are in this area to stay. We have no intentions of leaving. This is our field. It is a mission field and we must not leave it and we must not fail it.”
Pastor Milo Lundell (1972-82) oversaw the transition of the church from a predominantly ethnic Swedish congregation to one that more closely approximated the new diversity in the neighborhood. Pastor Lundell found an aging church when he came with 80-90% of the leadership over 55 years of age. A building renovation plan and fund were initiated to make better use of the ground occupied by the two 3-flat buildings adjacent to the church. It would have included an expanded gym and more suitable classroom and office space, but was not implemented. Dan Mutschler developed a young adult program that helped to compensate for the loss of older members.
During Pastor Richard Ahlberg’s tenure (1982-6), two nearby properties, the house at 5243 N. Ashland and the 3-flat at 5239 N. Ashland, were purchased as part of a long-term plan to provide for church parking and future ministry needs. Outreach Pastor Scott Lemanager and his wife Polly helped draw students and young adults to adult education and fellowship activities.
Pastor Carl Sutter and his wife Arloa came in February 1988 and faced several long-term issues, including a large administrative board structure, personnel issues, deficit spending reaching back a dozen years, and opposition to change. Their commitments to God and to people was shown as they worked to meet the needs of a broad scope of people, to proclaim the Gospel in this community and to provide an open and supportive environment for ministry and service. The Sunday morning services (with a blend of contemporary and traditional), and the plethora of ministry opportunities and fellowship activities drew and reached many young adults from diverse backgrounds. In 1992 Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Inc. began its ministry to the homeless utilizing the facilities of First Free, with Arloa Sutter as its Executive Director. Breakthrough grew tremendously and moved their operations to Garfield Park in 2008.
In 1993 the renovation of facilities continued with major work on the sanctuary and the nursery. Changes and development of new ministries continue following a church consultation and review of First Free in May of 1993. Pastor Sutter resigned in July of 1997 and Pastor Bob Moeller served as interim from August of 1997 thru June of 1999. Attendance at the church dropped significantly after pastor Sutter left. Under Pastor Moeller’s leadership a 3-flat at 5241 N. Ashland was purchased for future ministry needs.
Pastor Bill Shereos accepted the call to come to First Free in the summer of 1999, and he and his wife Wenda began their ministry here in December of 1999. Under Bill’s leadership, First Free has embraced a new vision for the Christian life – Sharing God’s story through compassion and conversation. These focal points have led us in a plan to expand our facilities to include a new Family Life Center, which was completed in 2008. The later building was also a response to a baby boom in the church as the Lord brought a number of families with young children into our congregation.
First Evangelical Free Church’s purpose is to glorify God by making disciples who celebrate God’s presence, nurture one another to maturity in Christ, and reach the world through evangelism and service. We have remained in the city and are committed to the city. Now the once homogeneous Andersonville — the heart of Swedish Chicago — has become a diverse mixture of nationalities and languages. We find our ministry in this community to be strategic. We are determined to be a caring community bringing Christ’s hope and empowerment to the city! As “the world” continues to come to us, we must build on our strong heritage to reach these people with the life changing message of Jesus Christ. First Free has through the years ministered to thousands of people who have entered its doors. Through these people, we continue to reach out to the city as well as to the ends of the earth with the gospel of Christ.