Stringtown church honors veterans with wreath-laying

Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Jason Wade places his hand over his heart and takes a moment of silence after planting a wreath at the grave of veteran John Hoffman Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, at St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown, Mo. Jason was one of nearly a dozen children from the church's Sunday school to honor past congregation veterans with wreaths.

Nearly a dozen children bundled up Sunday to place wreaths at the tombstones of veterans buried at St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown.

What they often found were the graves of their ancestors.

"I saw Heinrich, which is on my mom's side, buried back in the back of the church," 11-year-old Alyssa Hall said. "And I made sure to tell my brother."

Alyssa said it was "a little odd" to see some of the family names she recognizes from church in the graveyard, but the experience overall was "really cool."

"I just really like learning about all of the history that's flowed through our church over the years because we have so many people in here that I didn't even know about," she said.

St. John's Lutheran Church, built in 1867, is one of the oldest in Cole County, said Jeremy Amick, a local historian and author who helped organize the wreath-laying lesson for the church's Sunday school. Before World War II, church service was regularly delivered in German, which he said many in the congregation spoke.

Sunday school children still perform Silent Night in German on Christmas Eve each year to honor those roots, Amick said.

Several of the tombstones still standing in the church graveyard have German etched into them.

Pastor Tim Meller, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1986-93 and has a family history of military service, read the list of veteran names for the children to find.

Meller said it was no surprise so many of the children found the graves of their ancestors.

"It connects a lot of the kids back to their families," he said. "And of course most of us all come from just a few of these families here. This is good to let them see this and connect them with it."

Upon finding a veteran's grave, the children would plant the wreath, take a step back and put a hand over their heart before moving on.

William Kautsch, whose family helped found St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown more than 150 years ago, helped the youngsters locate several of his ancestor's graves as Amick delivered small history lessons throughout the activity.

Amick spoke about a former pastor in the 1880s who designed the old Immanuel Lutheran Church at Honey Creek.

He also translated German on tombstones and explained that small tombstones marked the graves of infants.

"They need to learn about the past and what all the people have sacrificed for this country. I think it's good," Kautsch said. "We're getting so far removed from some of these ancestors that some of them don't have a clue."

Cathy Wade, one of the children's Sunday school teachers, said the lesson was a wonderful opportunity to teach the children about the history of the congregation and the sacrifices its members have made.

Wade said Sunday was the first time she could remember placing wreaths at the graves of veterans but her class had visited the cemetery to talk about members of the congregation that died before.

She said she hopes they took away the importance of honoring heritage and those who serve.

Brice Ziegelbein found the grave of one of his ancestors who served in the military.

"I think it's fascinating that these people died in the Civil War, World War II and World War I," he said. "And I think it's awesome that we're actually out here doing this. I've never done anything like this."

Several groups have been honoring veterans around the holidays by placing wreaths on their graves.

Russellville High School students partnered with Wreaths for Heroes to honor each of the veterans buried at Enloe Cemetery late last month. Wreaths for Heroes is hosting a similar event, and looking for volunteers to participate, around 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Jefferson City National Cemetery.

Seeing recognizable names helps the sacrifice sink in, Don Hentges, president of the Jefferson City Veterans Council and Wreaths for Heroes organizer, said after the partnership with Russellville.

Meller said he plans to make the wreath-placing an annual tradition for St. John's Lutheran Church.

The church also recognizes veterans in its 350-person congregation with a salute on Veterans Day, but Meller said the number of veterans is dwindling. Whereas before there were 20-30 each year, Meller said there's now maybe eight or 10.

"Keep them in your prayers," he said.

photo Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune Tristan Hall, 12, places a wreath at the grave of a veteran Sunday at St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown. Tristan and his sister, Alyssa, 11, found the grave of one of their ancestors during the Sunday school outing.
photo Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune Jeremy Amick, a local author and historian, translates German from a tombstone Sunday as a group of children placed wreaths at veteran graves at St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown. The church has a large German heritage and used to hold service in German before World War II, Amick explained.
photo Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune Nearly a dozen Sunday school children placed wreaths on the graves of veterans Sunday at St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown. The church, built in 1867, has a nearby cemetery with several veterans buried in it.