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Our History

Winnetka Covenant’s story began with a group of working-class Swedish immigrants who decided in the 1920’s to meet in their employers’ homes in Winnetka to study the Bible and worship. Times were tough. But the energy and esprit of these hard-working Swedes—plus their strong belief that they were free to read the Bible and think for themselves—attracted a strong following. 

 

In 1932 they built a church on the corner of Oak and Birch in Winnetka, Illinois. “The Friendly Church on Oak and Birch,” was their home for 32 years (the building still stands as a private home). In the 1950s, families leaving the city for suburbia sparked new growth, and the need for a bigger church. Winnetka Covenant’s current site on Hibbard and Illinois was purchased in 1962. Two years later, the Fellowship Hall and Sunday School wing were dedicated. The sanctuary, with its soaring spire and Wicks pipe organ, was completed in 1973. Today, Winnetka Covenant attracts people from all ethnic backgrounds and denominations, and is one of the North Shore’s most diverse, welcoming places to worship.

 

Scroll down to read our story.

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Early Years

Clouds in the Sky

1927

The Early Years

The addresses of WCC’s founders read like a “Who’s Who” of leading Winnetka families—but church founders don’t own those homes. Instead, they work for Winnetka’s wealthiest families as chauffeurs, gardeners, cooks, and maids. Most are Swedish immigrants who grew up disliking the dictates of the Swedish state church. So they opted to join a Swedish church that gave them freedom to worship and think for themselves: the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden. Now, as newcomers to Winnetka, they aren’t able to attend a church on Sunday mornings because they work until mid-day dinner. So, they meet on Sunday evenings and Thursdays (maid’s day off) in different homes.

 

 

One lucky break: the headquarters for a U.S. affiliate of their Swedish home church is based right here in north Chicago. It’s called the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, and it encourages these Winnetkans to organize. So, on December 14, 1927, the Christian Fellowship Church is formed in Winnetka as an affiliate of the Evangelical Covenant Church. North Park College is also run by the parent church, and its president travels to Winnetka to speak at the founding ceremony, welcoming 30 members, 25 of them Swedish, who sign the church charter. With few resources but great determination, members start a building fund.

1930

Building a Church

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The Depression looms, and the Christian Fellowship Church renames itself the Evangelical Mission Covenant Church. It now boasts 58 members who still meet Sunday evenings and Thursdays. A nearby church—Christ Episcopal Church at 1061 Oak in Winnetka—lets them use its parish house for free because it is never in use when the fledgling group worships. 

 

As members try hard to connect with and serve their local community, they start a “School for New Americans,” enlisting bilingual students from North Park College and the University of Chicago to travel to Winnetka to help members learn English.

 

In just two years, they’ve raised an astounding $8,000, and in February 1930, they purchase a lot on the corner of Birch and Oak in Winnetka. Still, there’s no money for a building.

Then, an unexpected gift: the employer of one of the founders loans her $8,000—exactly what it will cost to build a new church. “In 1932, you couldn’t borrow a dollar anywhere,” recalls the pastor at that time, John Bengston. But the faithfulness of that one member, Josie Erickson, to her employer prompted their gift.

 

Photo: John Bengston (right) our second pastor, and his 1931 confirmation class.

1932

Our First Worship Home

The same North Park college president who came to Winnetka in 1927 to pray for the church’s founding now dedicates its brand new building, which features a cozy “Fireside Room” for members who have no real homes of their own. Pastor Bengtson is amazed at the thrift and tenacity of church pioneers, “Those people gave liberally. They lived for the church. Many didn’t have a home of their own. They were dedicated to the church.”

 

Photo: The Friendly Church on Oak and Birch

1937

The Lean Years...

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The church celebrates its tenth anniversary. But hard times are ahead. New and younger families want strong Sunday morning programs, which members can’t offer. The wave of new Scandinavian immigrants to Winnetka is also slowing. Still, members give generously, and pray for growth.

 

 

Photo: Two prayer warriors, Jenny Carlson (left) and Anna Nordwall, both chambermaids, fervently prayed for their church.

1944

...and More Lean Years

The thrifty congregation pays off its mortgage. But only a handful of people attend morning worship services. Evening services are still packed, but how can they become a thriving community church when they can’t offer what new members want: a strong morning worship program?

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1952

Still Praying for Growth

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The church celebrates its 25th year, with its lowest member count yet. “I can remember kneeling in front of the church, and saying to myself, ‘This is ridiculous!'" says Warren D. Swanson, pastor from 1949-1953, who wrestles with doubt as he listens to members pray that God send a flock of young families to help it grow and thrive. “They taught me faith.”

 

Photo: Pastor Warren Swanson (left).

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A Burst of Change

1952

Still Praying for Growth

Signs of change—and growth. More post-war families are moving from the city to the suburbs, and the church starts an aggressive growth campaign to attract young families. Members knock on doors of local Winnetka and Wilmette residents, making an offer: if they’ll “lend” their talents and attendance to the church for six months—not formally leaving their home church, but instead lending their time and talents for just six months—they can then decide what’s best for their family. The campaign works. Enthusiasm for "The Friendly Church on Oak and Birch" grows, and so does membership. The church’s Scandinavian heritage is not the big draw. What newcomers love is the freedom they’re given to build a vibrant community of faith. Also that year, members proudly open their first parsonage, after one of the founding members wills her home to the church and members restore it for their pastor.

1957

More Growth, Plus a New Home

A surge in new members. They say this church is different from others they’ve attended because it’s so open to fresh ideas and young talent—not as easy to find in older, established churches. “People came to help and

were hooked,” explains new member Bruce Johnson.  “It seemed more exciting to them than their Chicago churches. They stayed past their six months.” 

 

Also that year, a new committee is formed “to investigate the desirability of relocation.” But where should the new church be built? Just a few years earlier, while knocking on doors to recruit new members, Pastor Warren D. Swanson had suddenly pointed to an old house in a field of weeds and brush on the corner of Illinois and Hibbard, and said: “I feel the next Covenant Church of Winnetka will stand on that property across the road.”

 

The church also adopts its third and final name in 1957: Evangelical Covenant Church of Winnetka. And the biggest sign of change yet: the church discontinues its Sunday evening services. Morning worship and Sunday school are thriving, and drawing worshippers of all  backgrounds and interests.

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Photo: The church is bursting at the seams, holding Sunday school classes in the church kitchen, and adult Bible study in the court room at Winnetka Village Hall.

1962

Opportunity Knocks

The church hires its first minister of music, John Hanson, putting a new focus on the sanctity of music as part of worship. Also that year, after one Sunday morning service, a member tells the pastor that land on the corner of Illinois and Hibbard has just come up for sale. Another member quickly buys and holds the land, until the congregation can meet and decide whether to purchase it for a much-needed new building. “That began a new phase of the ministry of the church,” says the Rev. Charles Nelson, who led the church from 1959 to 1966.

 

Photo: Our first music director, John Hanson, with his wife Merle. 

1963

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Big Change for the Better

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In September, the church breaks ground on its new building on the corner of Illinois and Hibbard. The next month, it holds its last services in the old church on Oak and Birch, setting up temporary quarters at Harper School.

The first phase of the new building is complete. Fellowship Hall and a two-story education unit are dedicated in May 1964, with a sacred music concert featuring George Beverly Shea, gospel singer of the Billy Graham crusade team.

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1964

A New Era

1967

Seeking to Build a Sanctuary

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Reverend Arthur A.R. Nelson joins Winnetka Covenant, and plans for phase two of the new building—a new sanctuary—start to be discussed.

1973

The Church of Our Dreams

First services are held in the new sanctuary in May. A new Wicks pipe organ is donated by two members of the congregation, Mr. and Mrs. A. Harold Anderson.

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50 Year
Anniversary

1977

Winnetka Celebrates 50 Years

With membership close to 400, a nursery school is launched and Bible Study Fellowship meets weekly at the church. Winnetka Covenant is enjoying new visibility in the community, and members feel renewed reverence and celebration in their new church home.

1989

New Youth Pastor

Twenty-something Pete Hawkinson (left) comes to Winnetka Covenant to serve as youth pastor. He stays for three years while earning his Master of Divinity degree at North Park Theological Seminary. His roots in the Covenant church run deep.

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1996

Fro Winnetka to Wilmette

Our church property is annexed into the Village of Wilmette, resulting in a new address: 1200 Hibbard Road, Wilmette.

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1999

Our Church Expands Again

2011

New Memorial and Resting Place for Members

A new Christian education wing is added to support more congregational and community activities.

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2001

We Welcome Pete Back

Pete Hawkinson rejoins the church as associate pastor, and then steps into the job of lead pastor in 2005.

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The Gundersen Memorial Garden and Columbarium are added, creating a beautiful addition to the church grounds.

2014

Enhancing Our Play Area for Children

New playground equipment is installed, including a large lawn area, picnic tables and playhouse to serve member families and the community.

2017

Ninety Years and Strong

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The church turns ninety, strengthening its active partnership with Kingdom Covenant Church, an inner-city Covenant Church that serves the Roseland, Pullman, and West Pullman neighborhoods. WCC also welcomes a new pastor: Joel Brand, youth pastor, who has strong roots in the Covenant Church.

2018

Back to Our Roots

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The church unveils a new “diversity” welcome that reflects the changing needs of the North Shore community, and echoes the vision of its founders—that people must be free to think for themselves:  “We are a community of diverse history, ethnicity, viewpoints, gender identity and sexual orientation, status, ability and challenges. We invite you to join  us wherever you are on your spiritual journey and to participate with us in the life of the church.”

 

 

Those determined Covenant pioneers from the 1920’s—who fervently prayed their church might thrive and grow—could not have said it better.

Our Pastors

Albert Ernest Rohrbach 1927-1928

John Bengtson 1928-1935

Richard Swanson 1935-1937

Aaron Markuson 1937-1942

Samuel Carlson 1942-1945

Robert Bodin 1945-1948

Wallace Roseberg 1948-1949

Warren Swanson 1949-1953

Lars Silverness 1953

LeRoy Benson 1953-1958

Edwin Oman 1958

Charles Nelson 1959-1966

Glenn Anderson 1966-1967

F. Burton Nelson 1967

Arthur A.R. Nelson 1967-1986

Robert Dvorak 1987-1999

Steven Elde 2000-2004

Peter Hawkinson 2005-present

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