The History of American Lutheran Church of Sun City

 

When Del E. Webb converted Arizona cotton fields into an active retirement area, with abundant living for seniors, he made provisions for spiritual needs as well as recreation. Webb also planned specific sites for churches and made them available to various denominations. Those churches are now prominent and important features of Sun City and have added immeasurably to the experiences of its residents and visitors.

In 1976, a group of Lutherans, pilgrims in the Valley of the Sun, established the first mission church in the new-concept retirement community; it would become American Lutheran Church.

It was the fervent desire of those early residents which moved the denomination’s Division of Mission & Service to actions which would make our church possible. Rev. Elmer Hjortland, who had retired from successful Wisconsin and Minnesota pastorates, held the first worship service, for 187 attendees, at Sundial Recreation Center on January 5, 1975. After some discouraging delays, an ideal site was finally obtained on Del Webb Boulevard and 107th Avenue. Formal organization took place on February 9, 1975; growth began almost instantly. Within eighteen months, attendance often exceeded 500, and membership had increased to 350. Hjortland, an outstanding preacher, was our first minister, and “the word was out”.

Committees were chosen for financing and building needs for the new campus. Rapid growth called for faster action than had been planned; members’ ceaseless efforts resulted in plans for a beautiful church, which were unanimously adopted by an enthusiastic congregation.

The congregation, at its annual meeting in January, 1987, approved the design of a new Education Building and plans for renovating the Fellowship Hall, including a new kitchen, library, and lounge.  The facilities were dedicated on December 13, and the first function in the Education Building was held on November 2. The Young at Heart Group and the Singles Club were organized.  Church membership had grown to 1,581 and remains at those levels today as one of Sun City’s major churches.

Congregation members Malcolm & Maybelle Estrem gifted the Grand Canyon Synod with the “Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center” in 1992.  Mr. Estrem and Pastor Wallace had visited many properties before purchasing the facilities at 7415 E. Elbow Bend in Carefree, AZ.  The Center now hosts conferences, retreats and other activities for many denominations. ALC remains a “partner in ministry” with Spirit and has always had a volunteer member serve on their Board of Directors.

In 1993, a Wednesday Night Alive program was launched to offer a mid-week fellowship opportunity and worship experience. A new columbarium was dedicated in September, 1994.

In 1996, Rev. Ervin Langholz became Pastor of Care Ministry. Pastor Wallace announced his retirement in 1998. Pastor Ellis “Bud” Eskritt came to serve as Interim Senior Pastor.  Membership at year-end was 1,642.

In 1999, Rev. Mark C. Huggenvik accepted a call to become the Senior Pastor of ALC.  When Rev. Otto Wedul retired, Rev. Charles Paulson assumed the duties of Associate Pastor.  New carillon bells were installed in December. The church’s 25th Anniversary was celebrated with a huge cookout in the parking lot. Pastor Wallace returned to participate in a mortgage- burning ceremony on February 26; many charter members and former clergy were present.

Plans were made, and funds were donated, for a new pipe organ. Designed and built by Casavant Fréres of Quebec, it was dedicated at a service in the newly remodeled sanctuary on February 3, 2002 and is now considered one of the finest in the Southwest. By 2005, church membership was at 1,526; membership remains at 1400-1600 levels.

Pastor Huggenvik tendered his resignation in January, 2007, to be effective April 30.  Pastor Rick Alpers arrived on July 2, to become Interim Senior Pastor. Thomas Ohnesorge was selected Director of Music and Organist and began his work on August 1. A new 32 passenger bus was purchased.  On February 12, 2008, the church presented its former bus to Martin Luther School on our annual visit to the school.

On August 1, Rev. Gary E. Benson was called to become Senior Pastor. New groups were formed: The Good Book Club, The Prison Support Group, ALC Singles, and Memory and Parkinson’s Support Groups. Pastor Bud Eskritt returned to ALC to serve as Pastor of Care Ministry.

American Lutheran Church, with a superb organ and acoustics, has now won recognition as a preferred venue for musical performances by groups such as Phoenix Boys Choir, Phoenix Chorale, Valley Chamber Chorale, Orpheus Male Chorus, Phoenix Girls Chorus, Phoenix Chamber Music Society and Arizona Masterworks Chorale.

In 2010, members participated in several “Walks” for various causes. The Sun City Chamber Orchestra joined our choir in presenting music for another stirring Annual Festival of Thanksgiving.

In spring, 2011, an addition to the columbarium was begun; it now has 432 niches. A renovation of the lounge was also completed. Vacation Bible School began again after a hiatus. Pastor Lane Knouse joined the staff as Assistant Pastor of Care in June. The gala November opening of Wednesday Night Alive was “Proud To Be An American” and featured Juilliard prodigy pianist Joey Chang. The dome on the Bell Tower was retiled during the summer. Wednesday Night Alive celebrated its 20th anniversary with the theme “20 Years and Still Going Strong”.  Russian musicians made a repeat visit for this major event.

Pastor Benson spent the month of May serving as the English Ministry Preacher at the Wittenberg churches in Germany. On May 11th. Pastor Gary Ulrich joined ALC as Visitation Pastor.

At the ALC annual meeting in January 2015, approval was granted to proceed with a “major renovation and additions” program as recommended by ALC’s Mission 2015 project.  The approximate total cost, $4,000,000, would involve the Sanctuary, Fellowship Hall, Kitchen, Courtyard, added Storage Building, and redesign of the Administration building. William Hansen assumed the position of Business Administrator on May 8th and spearheads 2016’s extensive renovations and additions and all church operations. In summer, 2016, our ministry team and congregation were saddened by the passing of Rev. Lane Knouse.

ALC’s exceptional growth would not have been possible without the help of numerous volunteers from among our active church membership and the community. Clerical, technical and maintenance staff have played important roles in the achievements and the fulfillment of the Christ-based missions of American Lutheran Church. We now, and all future participants and members, cannot, and will not, forget their outstanding efforts in the creation of what has become one of the outstanding church congregations of the American Southwest.

We are so very pleased that American Lutheran Church has risen to a position and reputation as one of the Valley’s premier religious organizations and looks forward to serving the needs of its member families, visitors and extended family members, and to adding new programs as needed. In 2016, ALC received the coveted “Best Places to Worship” designation and, from Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, was given its “Servant of Christ” award.  As American Lutheran moves toward its 40th anniversary, in 2017, we are proud to be “consistently and faithfully serving our Lord” and to be “moving forward with enthusiasm” to an even more vibrant future.

          We are an open, friendly, and welcoming congregation. Come . . Visit . . . Join Us!         

Click Here to view a time line of the church history.   

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