The chapel was built in 1852 by settlers who had emigrated from the various German Principalities in Europe. These settlers came mostly from the provinces along the Rhine River.
Among the early pioneers were the Stephan Family (which came in 1836), Mahr Family (1839), Jacky Family (1840), and Noe Family (1842). Some years later, Germans known as the 48ers, started arriving. These inlcuded the Fink (1846), Franke, Rodel (1847), Griese (1848), Berg, Baum (1849), Honadel (1849), Meyer, Knoell (1850), Kling (1851), Immisch, Dittmar (1852), and Rohr (1853) Families among others.
In February 1851, a group of these settlers purchased a piece of land from Michael Jacky for $60. They had decided to form a non-sectarian Christian fellowship. During that year, they wrote a Constitution, Statuten Der Freien Gemeinde, in which they organized themselves as the First Free Christian Congregation of Franklin Township.
With $370 the Congregation collected in donations, they built the present woodframe assembly hall. The architect was Henry Roethe, a carpenter who had resettled here from New York. His expertise is reflected in the dignified Colonial-style of the Chapel. The hall is 26' x 36' and originally rested on four large field stones.
The Congregation was Christian but did not want a minister to choose or direct their religious beliefs. Instead, they wanted a Speaker to guide discussions about Scriptures and Christian Living.
The Civil War Years 1861 - 1865
The verbal-history among the local residents was that the Chapel was a stopover on the Underground Railroad which moved runaway slaves from the South to freedom in the North and Canada. Though there are no surviving records to substantiate this, but it may well have served as a refuge to their runaway Black Brethren because the Railroad's northwestern route from the slave States of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi ran along the shores of the Mississippi River directly to Wisconsin. There the route split west towards Minnesota and northeast through Beloit, Milton, Burlington, and Milwaukee towards Canada. A stop at Oakwood would have been convenient and necessary before entering Milwaukee after a long trek on foot from Burlington.
Local historians say that the Chapel served as a mail-drop for families of the conscript and volunteer soldiers who served from both Oak Creek and Franklin during the War. After the War, it is said to have also served as a mustering-out facility for the returning soldiers.
The Freethinker Period
During Speaker Schroeter's 33 year tenure, the Free Congregation evolved into an independent but identifiable Freethinker organization. This was due in some part to his leadership in the 1870s and 80s, but also because the changing attitude of the memebership was taking the Congregation in a different direction. At the same time, nationally, the Freethinker Movement was enjoying a measure of popularity.
A New Philosopy, A New Constitution 1872
In 1872 the Congregation voted to write a new Constitution based ont he one used by the Freethinker Society in Milwaukee. At the same time the name of the group was changed to the Free Congregation at Painesville. The Congregation had chosen to name their Chapel after Thomas Paine because his philosophy closely paralleled their new focus on freethinking.
Services at Painesville
The services at the rededicated Painesville Chapel had also changed substantially since the earlier days. Speaker Schroeter reported that they consisted of biweekly lectures which began at 10 am. They included the distribution of two German weekly papers, the Freidenker then edited by Michael Biron and Carl Doerflinger and the Pioneer edited by Karl Heinzen. A couple of handwritten song books have survived and show the importance the members attached to singing as part of their services.
Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809) was one of America's early Freethinkers along with Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790) and Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 - July 4, 1826). He used Freethinker values to accentuate the oppression the American Colonists were experiencing from the English Monarchy. His first book, Common Sense, earned him considerable esteem and respect through-out the Colonies. His last book, The Age of Reason, was to become the bible of Freethinkers and Rationalists.
Beginning around 1880, the Painesville Congregation started experiencing a decline in membership. This was because the Germans coming to Milwaukee were city dwellers, not farmers. Also the offspring of the original emigrants had become culturally assimilated German-Americans and less interested in the old ways of their parents. More significantly, the Freethinker Movement which had flowered in the early 1870s had waned.
The Painesville Memorial Chapel
As the older generations passed on and the Freethinker Movement faded from memory, the Chapel fell into disrepair. By 1936, it appeared the Chapel would also fade from memory. The hall which had once been the home to Freethought, had become home to sparrows and insects which had invaded its weather beaten exterior. The Congregation was by then known as the Painesville Cemetery Association, which maintained the cemetery where there was a burial from time to time. It was decided by a committee of the Congregation's descendants that the Chapel should be razed in the Fall of 1936. It is likely the dilapidated building would have fallen victim to a controlled-burn fire by the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department had it not been for a miracle of fate!
A government architect, Alexander Guth, who was conducting a survey of historical structures in Wisconsin, reported that "if there is any building in the entire county which is worth preserving, it is the little cemetery chapel."
Ms. Ella Louise Fink, Patroness of Painesville
In 1937, Ella Louis Fink (1874 - 1948), took the lead in the painstaking task of restoring the Chapel to its original dignity. The roof was repaired, broken window panes were replaced, and the exterior was given a new coat of paint. Inside, electricity was installed and the walls were replastered and repainted. The furnishings, such as the organ, oil lamp, and portraits were preserved in their original condition.
The restoration was completed five years later at a cost of $1200. On July 19, 1942 the 90th Anniversary of the Chapel, a ceremony was held to rededicated the Chapel. It has since been included in the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public on special occasions and by appointment.
The Chapel was moved back on the lot when Ryan Road was widened. A field stone and cement block basement was then added.
This page was last updated February 22, 2003