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Medford church to close after 125 years

Mail Tribune/file photo Zion Lutheran Church undergoes a $200,000 renovation to repair the damage caused by someone throwing a Molotov cocktail at the church in this 2013 file photo. The church will celebrate its 125th anniversary Saturday and hold its final service Sunday.

After more than a century surviving everything from city ordinances restricting German language services to a 2013 arson attempt, Medford’s first Lutheran congregation is saying farewell.

The congregation of Zion Lutheran Church will meet inside its historic Gothic sanctuary at 516 W. Fourth St., in Medford, two more times: once Saturday for a celebration of its 125th anniversary, and again Sunday for their final worship service.

The building is in escrow, with Pacific Bible College set to buy the sanctuary. The closing is scheduled for May 23, according to Nancy Swan, Zion’s council secretary and historian.

“Hopefully this deal will go through,” Swan said, adding that the new owners intend to preserve the stained glass in the 1927-built sanctuary designed by prominent local architect Frank Clark, who also designed such local buildings as the Holly Theatre and the Craterian.

The church was founded in 1897 by German missionaries from Michigan, according to Swan. English services started in 1913, following a wave of anti-German sentiment during the first World War and a local ordinance prohibiting German language services.

At times during World War I, the sheriff would sit in on services to ensure nothing nefarious was being planned.

The church rose to prominence after World War II. Swan remembered ecumenical marches to Hawthorne Park, and participating in the church’s bicentennial float in the 1976 Pear Blossom parade.

The church last made headlines in July 2013, when an arsonist used an incendiary device similar to a Molotov cocktail and extensively damaged the church roof. Repairing the damage cost about $200,000, according to news reports at the time.

Church membership started falling in the latter 2010s. The gradual decline was exacerbated by coronavirus fears with the aging congregation.

“Let’s face it, we’ve aged out,” Swan said. “I’m pushing 84.”

The Southern Oregon Historical Society will keep detailed written histories the church compiled in the 1970s and 1990s, along with some of its “huge treasury of photos.”

About 100 current and former members will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at the church for a celebration that will include opening time capsules. The final service will be at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, March 13.

Swan said some in the congregation are interested in trying different Lutheran, Episcopal or Presbyterian churches, but they’ll always have a bond.

“We’ll still be in contact as a family,” Swan said. “We want to remain as much of a family as we can.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.