By Myra Lee Adams Goff
Imagine that you are on the Texas Coast where you have just arrived on one of the Adelsverein ships. You left Germany three months ago. You are far away from the Heimatland (homeland) for the first time ever and it is Christmas time. Your whole life you have loved the traditions that you grew up with – the music and the decorated tree that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. On Hermann Seele’s arrival in Galveston, he wrote in this diary: “Memories, sweeten for me, lonely as I am in a foreign country, the hours with the balsam of a wonderful past.”
The year is 1844. The Republic of Texas is in the last stage of being an independent nation. Texas would soon become a state of the United States. The land was beautiful but rugged.
These immigrants would bring their culture and joyous traditions with them from Germany. The Adelsverein promised them land, supplies to help them get established and the provision of churches and schools. The immigrants brought with them the love of music, food and dance, strong family values, and the German traits of self-discipline and most of all, tenacity. These last two were important qualities because the whole venture was fraught with obstacles, but they persevered. In five years, New Braunfels was the fourth largest city in Texas.
Prince Carl hired Louis Ervendberg to establish a church in the new settlement of New Braunfels. Ervendberg met the first group of immigrants on the coast and conducted the first church service there on December 23, 1844. Prince Carl cut down a small oak tree for a Tannenbaum and decorated it with candles and candy for the children. This service on the coast is considered the first church service of the German Protestant Church. Prince Carl made this comment about the service: “The people, deeply touched, shed ardent tears of compassion and on Christmas, Holy Communion service would be conducted.”
German historian, Joachim Klenner, has done extensive research on Ervendberg and says this about the man:
He graduated August 26, 1833 from the University of Griefswald, taught school for four years, and then requested consent to immigrate to North America in1837. He gave as his reason for immigrating that a rich family from Hannover wanted him to come to North America to teach their children for five years. He was granted a permit with the stipulation that he could not come back to Prussia if he ever returned to Germany (no reason is given for that). He emigrated as Louis Ervendberg although his family name was Cachand. You have to wonder why he changed his last name.
Ervendberg settled in Illinois where there were others from Hannover, Germany. There was no pastor in the area so he organized a congregation. In 1838, he married Marie Luise Sophie Dorothea Műnch. They left Illinois in 1839 to come to Texas. After arrival in Galveston, they moved to the small settlement of Blumenthal in Colorado County. It was in Blumenthal that he was later approached by Prince Carl to handle the religious services for all the settlers, Protestant and Catholic. He accepted the invitation.
Ervendberg met with this first group of immigrants on the coast and accompanied them as they crossed the Guadalupe on March 21, 1845. This date is considered the founding date of New Braunfels as well as the German Protestant Church. He lost no time in organizing his German Protestant Church in New Braunfels. Prince Carl gave remembrance gifts to the congregation: a chalice, the twin of which is located in Germany, and two bells that are currently installed on the front lawn of the First Protestant Church.
In the settlement of New Braunfels, the first services were held outside at the foot of Sophienburg Hill until a log church could be built. Hermann Seele taught school in the same spot. Seele was chosen secretary of the church, a position that he held for 56 years.
Constant rain kept the Guadalupe River in a constant state of flooding that brought disease. The steady arrival of immigrants on the coast under these conditions played out a tragic drama of horrors. After Texas became a state, a war broke out between the United States and Mexico and the promised immigrant wagons were sold to the United States Army. There was no housing, no food, and no way to get from the coast to the settlement. In desperation, many immigrants tried to walk the 150 miles to New Braunfels. Hundreds died along the way and many arrived in the settlement sick, only to spread the sickness. A make-shift hospital was set up and Pastor Ervendberg recorded 348 deaths in one year. Sixty orphaned children were left and all but 19 were taken in by family or friends. The remaining 19 were taken in by the Ervendbergs. The Adelsverein gave Ervendberg land on the Guadalupe where he and Luise eventually set up what is believed to be the first orphanage in Texas.
For numerous reasons, Ervendberg’s career as pastor fell apart, as did his marriage to Luise. They decided to return to Illinois. She left with their three daughters, and he was to follow shortly with their two sons. Waiting for him in Illinois, Luise learned that her husband had intentionally met with one of the orphans and left for Mexico. She returned to Texas and he was gone. She never saw her sons again and she was granted a divorce in 1859.
Although the orphanage story is sad, the Ervendbergs provided a home where memories were made as well as old traditions kept and new ones formed for all who lived there. Many of the orphans and Ervendberg children grew up, married and had happy endings to their stories. Generations later, descendants of the orphans and the Ervendbergs gather at the old orphanage to celebrate the Ervendbergs and their ancestor’s survival in Comal County.
The German Protestant Church also survived and a stone church was built in 1875, with the tower added to the front of the building in 1889. This building still stands today.
In 1894, three new bells were installed in the tower (not the two small bells that you see now on the front lawn). Each bell has a significant name – Germania signifies the German heritage, Columbia signifies the immigrant loyalty to their new country and Concordia expresses the hope for harmony between the old and the new, not only generations, but ideas and traditions. The largest of the bells, Concordia, almost six feet in diameter and four feet high, has a deep mellow voice and forms the bass for the harmony of their blending. Columbia is forty-four inches in diameter and forty inches high. Germania is the smallest, three feet in diameter and thirty inches tall. Hers is the high tenor. These bells represent the struggles that the church and community have endured in its long history.
Henry Longfellow’s poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” tells it all:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
At least eight generations have been born in this new land of Texas with new memories made and old traditions harmonized with new. I heard the bells on Christmas Day.