Our Story: Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church

In 1937, the family of J. J. Appel moved from Indiana to North Carolina, seeking help from the District Mission Board of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to establish a church in the Durham area. The mission board decided to send Missionary Rev. Herman Meier to Durham, who moved his family into a home on Shepherd Street. The Appel and Meier families began holding services in the Appel home, where, on occasion, students from Duke would join them for worship.


After three months, Rev. Meier was called to Augusta, Georgia, and Rev. R. L. Landeck took his place in Durham in September of 1937 to take over services. He rented a house at 2606 Englewood Avenue, which became the first “church” of the mission. After buying a piano, chairs, and a lectern, Landeck canvassed the neighborhood, trying to generate a congregation for the first official service. On Sunday, November 21, 1937, Landeck held the first service in the living room of his rented house. At first, the Appel family were the only congregants. For a while, Landeck was the liturgist, pianist, pastor, and custodian all-in-one. For many months after the first service, the church only added a couple more families to their group. That first congregation called themselves the “Synodical Lutheran Church.” This name stuck for about three months, eventually changing it to “Concordia Lutheran Church.” 


Rev. Landeck was soon recalled, and the house had to be given up as a meeting place, but the congregation was determined to continue what they had started. Through the cooperation of Professors Gehrke, Pennecamp, Kampschmidt, and Mibohms from the Lutheran college in Greensboro, services continued in the Music Hall and in the Library of Duke University on Sunday afternoons. The attendance was up to almost fifteen people. 


In June 1943, Dr. Hemmeter, the Director of Concordia Seminary in Springfield, IL gave Rev. Forest Friese a call issued by the Mission Board of the LCMS Southeastern District. The call instructed Rev. Friese to go to Durham and finish the work a few pastors had started with about thirty members in the Duke area and serve as the Duke University Chaplain; however, when he arrived in North Carolina, he was told by Duke officials that no Lutherans held services on their campus, so Rev. Friese was unable to find the thirty members he was sent down to serve. Instead, he rented a “dirty, dumpy, empty store next to a filthy grocery store” on Hillsborough Road, ordered lumber, and began work on his church. He built an altar, pulpit, lectern and pews--which had cracks that tended to pinch people if they slept during the sermon. The final touch was painting a sign that read “GRACE LUTHERAN CHURCH,” and he was open for business. 


Since Rev. Friese had no members, he wrote to the military personnel at Camp Butner and in Chapel Hill, urging Lutherans to support his effort by attending services at his church. After a few months, the Appel family with their eight children joined the church and started a Sunday School. Then the Barringers joined, along with others from Concordia Lutheran Church. The store had room for up to 50 to sit, but attendance grew with the soldiers from Camp Butner. Grace was beginning to burst at the seams. 


During this time, the first brass altar set was purchased. To help raise money for the hymnals that were needed, each child in Sunday School was given a church bank, and some of the hymnals purchased were used up until the early 2000's. The first communion set was a gift from our sister congregation in Hampton, VA. Chairs were given to the Mission from the LWML of the Southeastern District to replace the crude benches and a secondhand air circulator was purchased.

The Sunday School held its first Rally on September 30, 1945 with a special program by the Sunday School children. At this time, the banks were collected that the children had been given to raise money, and the total gathered was $59.50 from this offering. 


To have a more suitable place for worship and to support the growing congregation, Grace started a building fund, which held $446.45 by November 1945. With the help of the Mission Board, the congregation bought a lot at 824 N. Buchanan Blvd.


Rev. Friese left in August 1946 to deal with his wife’s failing health, and the church was left for a period without a pastor. During this time, Professors Gehrke and Kampschmidt from Greensboro served the church again. In October 1946, Rev. Gabbert accepted a call to become the pastor of the young church and continued the plans for a new building.


At the church meeting on October 21, 1946, the congregation let a contract to erect a new building. While the church was being built, the congregation met in Bowens Laundromat on Hill Street. On June 29, 1947, the doors were opened for the first service in the new chapel. By this time, pews, altar paramounts, lectern and flags had been purchased. The building was dedicated in a service on August 10, 1947.

Stained Glass of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church

By 1962, the congregation’s 20th anniversary, the membership had exploded to 180 people and Mission Board subsidies were no longer needed. Five years later, there was a growing concern as to whether the congregation should relocate or expand facilities on the original site, so several site selection committees were appointed. Another year later, Rev. Robert Brohm was called and served from 1964 to 1968. During Rev. Brohmn’s stay, Grace Church was incorporated in the Synod. 


Having had a string of short-term pastors, in 1970, the congregation, led by Herman Hecht, conducted an in-depth self study of demographics and membership to find the perfect pastor to call. Then in 1971, Rev. Paul Nelson was installed at Grace. With the arrival of Rev. D. Paul Nelson, a second worship service was added and the Wednesday evening education program began. The Wednesday services were intended to replace the Sunday School hour because the new church school literature demanded a longer time block than just one hour on Sunday mornings. Grace was one of the first Lutheran churches in the area to adopt the new material. 


In 1974, Mrs. Kathryn Lindsay donated her property next door at 906 Buchanan Blvd. for use as a parking space. A building program for addition and renovation in four phases which was set up to provide educational facilities and renovation of the original structure culminated in 1989 with a new sanctuary.


After a short vacancy period in 1990, Rev. James A. Knuth came to the congregation in April 1991.  The church developed vision and mission statements to outline goals. 

In 2003, Rev. Bryan Chestnutt accepted the call as Associate Pastor, serving in this position until Pastor Knuth retired in January 2007, when Pastor Chestnutt accepted the call as Lead Pastor. In 2019, Rev. David Brooks became the Pastor at Grace. Through all these changes, Grace Lutheran Church has focused on three keys: faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone.  We look to God for guidance as we step into the future.

Grace also has a preschool, founded in 2005, called Miss Mollie's School of Grace. Mollie Storck, from Michigan, was a patient at Duke receiving treatment of leukemia in the early 2000's. While she was in treatment, her family attended Grace. After Mollie’s death, her family held several fundraising events and wanted to do something in her memory. Since the Senior Center which had met downstairs moved and the Odyssey School which had also met downstairs closed, the time seemed right for the church to start a preschool. Mollie’s family sponsored Miss Mollie’s School of Grace which opened in August 2005. Initially, many of the children either had received stem cell transplants or were siblings of those children, for whom the church provided scholarships.


The preschool currently serves several Head Start families and families in the Durham neighborhood. Miss Mollie’s School of Grace has a vision to teach kindergarten readiness skills through play, hands-on experience, and learning through living. In the first year, the preschool began with four children and had grown to ten by the end of the year. Grace continues to enjoy the laughter of children as we support their learning and growth.