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A church grows in Shorewood

Congregation can look back to its humble beginnings

Jim Bender, pastor of North Shore Presbyterian Church, inside the church's sanctuary.

Jim Bender, pastor of North Shore Presbyterian Church, inside the church's sanctuary. Photo By C.T. Kruger

July 10, 2012

Shorewood - As the story goes, the North Shore Presbyterian Church found its beginnings when Arthur H. Bartelt and his family were driving through the area on a Sunday morning in 1921.

While en route to nearby Westminster Presbyterian, they saw children playing in the streets, which left them wondering why those kids weren't in church or at Sunday school.

Harry Norton, then 8 years old and now the eldest member of NSPC's congregation at 99, reckons he may have been one of those children in the street.

"From that, that's how the church developed," Norton recalled.

Bartelt eventually realized that parents weren't willing or couldn't afford to send their children on street cars by themselves to Westminster Presbyterian, and so he banded together with two members of his church to create a "mission" Sunday school in Shorewood.

The mission began in an old store building on the corner of Atwater Road (now Capitol Drive) and Stowell Avenue. Bartelt and his committee from Westminster Presbyterian laid down the first $10 in monthly rent, and the Sunday school was in session for the first time on Oct. 9, 1921.

A few bumps in the road

The little store building, though dilapidated, held 54 people that first day, and by January 1922 attendance had doubled, despite the conditions.

"The basement was full of stagnant water," wrote Bartelt in a reflection of his time with the church. "The floors were always damp and more or less decayed and when the stove got real hot, the odor in the building was not the most fragrant."

As the congregation grew, so did the certainty that the old store building wasn't enough. With the permission of the Village Board, Sunday school moved into Village Hall, where the children found at least one amusing diversion.

"We would go sit in the jail cell from time to time," said Nortion, chuckling, "and we thought that was quite a thrill."

Their 'little white church'

By the spring of 1922, members of church knew they needed their own building.

They purchased a lot at Kenmore and Oakland while setting out on a fundraising campaign, dreaming of the "little white church." The congregation grew and, in the summer of 1923, a tent was installed on the building site to serve as a campaign headquarters and temporary sanctuary for services. That had its drawbacks, too.

"I think the mosquitoes outnumbered the people," Norton said.

In March 1924, members of the church marched in celebration from Village Hall to their new, little white church.

The church, however, was in for trying times. As the Great Depression came upon the nation and the Bank of Shorewood closed its doors in the early 1930s, the church nearly had to do the same, and was forced to sell off property to pay its debts.

Norton was among those responsible for keeping the church afloat and finding money during those hard years.

Growing with the village

As Shorewood continued to grow into the suburban community it is today, the church kept pace. The dedication of NSPC's current site and building took place before 1,000 residents in 1952, and the educational wing was built between 1958 and 1959.

A patio and elevator have since been added.

The current pastor, the Rev. Jim Bender, remembers the time he stayed with the Nortons while interviewing for his job with a selection committee over 20 years ago. They needed to pause their dinner so that Norton could check his lottery ticket against the numbers on television.

It was his hope, Bender recalls, that he would be able to furnish the church with a tall steeple if he won.

One man's key role

Norton was an active member of the church - a patriarch of sorts - before taking his leave to move upstate in recent years, according Bender. He was a source of knowledge and inspiration for the younger members of the congregation.

"We would often go and have kids talk to him about his life and the history of the church," said Bender, noting that when the kids had an opportunity to choose from the congregation's elders, "they always fought to get Harry."

Norton, like the church itself, is determined to help those around him. As the church has grown, its focus has moved outward into the greater community, with efforts like its participation with the Peace Learning Center of Milwaukee, which specializes in teaching non-violent conflict resolution.

The church certainly owes a measure of its success to Norton, though he doesn't see it that way.

"I believe that I had a duty to do what I could," said Norton. "The church was very important to us, and has been all these years."

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