In the early 19th century, German immigrants who were settling in Illinois wrote letters back to their “friends and families encouraging them to leave Germany. They spoke of the rich soil and the vast quantity of farmland for sale in Illinois.”
Many of those friends and families chose to pursue the opportunities their friends described and relocated to northern Illinois. Along with their homesteads, over time, they established churches and schools. In the five-mile radius going out from the intersection of 22nd Street (Cermak) and Wolf Road in present day Hillside, an area which was known at the time as the “Greater Franzosenbusch (Frenchman’s Woods) Area,” Immanuel Lutheran Church and School were established. The structure which housed the school from 1910-1951 still stands on the intersection and is used today as the home base of Immanuel, Hillside’s Old Schoolhouse Community Garden, a ministry which is on mission to connect the community, grow relationships and nutritious food, and share the Gospel.
A document found by the Franzosenbusch Heritage Project and translated by Patricia Reaves shared that “in the year 1852, a few people had opened their hearts in the name of God and bought 40 acres of land for church and school.” In 2016, four congregation members of Immanuel, including Jayne Siou and Tom Czubernat, were motivated by the Holy Spirit to further their stewardship of the gifts the Lord gave their congregation with the 13 remaining acres of the 40 acres of land.
With over 160 years of history as some of the earliest settlers in their community, Immanuel, Hillside members were eager to use some of the acreage in a way which would not only preserve the land and the congregation’s history, but which would also be a helpful tool to serve and connect with the surrounding community which had grown up around them for over a century.
Immanuel, Hillside received a telegram from President Dwight D. Eisenhower congratulating them upon their centennial. The letter from the White House said, “over the past 100 years, by faith and work, your congregation has contributed much to the life of the Hillside community.” The congregation continues to contribute much to the life of the community. The Old Schoolhouse Community Garden shares on their website that, “community gardens improve the quality of life for gardens, reduce crime, preserve green space, stimulate social interaction and community development, encourage self-reliance, and beautify neighborhoods while providing nutritious food and reducing family food budgets as well as creating new recreational and educational opportunities outdoors.”
From the harvest of fruits and vegetables in the garden, Immanuel, Hillside is able to donate fresh, organically grown produce to their local food pantry. Jayne Siou shares, “while technically the church owns [the land], it’s all God’s. If there’s a way we can share it [and its fruits] and not waste it, let’s do it.”
While donating food which nourishes members in their community, the Old Schoolhouse Community Garden has been able to connect with various corporate organizations, school groups, and individuals who are interested in volunteering in the garden. Through these connection points, they’re able to build relationships which allow them to teach their community about gardening, but more so, their relationships are a segue which allow them to engage people with the Gospel in a personal way. They are able to share their lives as a testimony for Jesus.
When they began transferring this space behind the old schoolhouse into a garden in the spring of 2016, the Old Schoolhouse Community Garden team started small and with great fervency. Full of faith, they knew volunteers and members of the community would come. They just needed to begin. Today, the Old Schoolhouse Community Garden includes rows and rows of raised beds, a greenhouse, plots of land which are built up and nourished through permaculture, and even a section where one member has honeybees. Similar to the function of the first Immanuel, Hillside structure which was built in the 1850s to serve as a schoolhouse as well as a place where church services were regularly conducted, as they continue to grow, the Old Schoolhouse Community Garden team is looking forward to continuing to use the physical building of the schoolhouse, especially during the winter, as a tool to further educate the community, potentially open a soup kitchen, and most importantly, to serve as witnesses as they share the Gospel through relationships.
From even before they went out from the congregation that is now Zion, Bensenville in the 1850s in order to found Immanuel, Hillside, the members of Immanuel’s congregation have been committed to the engagement of their community and the sharing of the Gospel through relationships and actions. One of the nine original founding families, the Graue’s, even operated Graue’s Mill, which was both a hub of the community as well as one of the few authenticated Underground Railway stations in Illinois. Great volumes and depths of research from the Franzosenbusch Heritage Project reveal that even in the earliest days the pastors were “active in missionary work and organized new congregations in the vicinity.”
The Old Schoolhouse Community Garden is another way Immanuel, Hillside can continue their established presence in their community as a hub for people to gather, learn, and grow. They are able to share the Gospel as they invite people in, open up, and listen. Jayne Siou shares her passion for arriving at the garden with her hands open for the Lord to use her saying, “You never know what impact you have–you just don’t know. Christians should be on their knees in prayer, and there’s nothing more on your knees in prayer than working in a garden.”
If you would like to learn more about the Old Schoolhouse Community Garden, how you can garden with them, or how your congregation can start your own community garden, please visit https://www.icahillside.org/communitygarden.