The Church at Gnadenthau
by Sue Kottwitz
My great grandfather George Peter Schreiner was a builder of church steeples,
as was his father and his father’s father. Peter was born 6 April 1850 in Huck
to Johannes Schreiner and his wife Maria Lohmeier. While working on a church
steeple in a rural area on the Wiesenseite, Peter met Katherina Margarita
Spengler, daughter of Fridrich Spengler and Elizabeth Lochmann, who lived in
Wiesenmuller. In 1873 they were married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
Gnadenthau, which steeple Peter had built. Though they owned land and lived in
Gnadenthauy, Peter continued with his carpentry. Their first two sons, Jakob and
Frederich were born and baptized in Gnadenthau. Katherine’s sister died and
Peter and Katherine adopted her two orphaned daughters. Sometime before 1885 a
diptheria epidemic hit. All four children died and were buried in Gnadenthau.
Peter and Katherine left Gnadenthau for Baku. There Peter worked as a Master Carpenter for Noble Brothers Petrolium Company, a British firm, in their furniture manufacturing plant. Three sons were born them in Baku. Alexander Jacob, Frederich August, and Oscar Karl. In 1892 they immigrated to America, first to Russell County, KS where they stayed with their sponsor, a maternal uncle of Katherine’s (a Mr. Lochmann) and later settling in Nebraska. My grandfather, Robert Herman, was born 23 July 1898 in Stanton, NE. When they sold their farm in Pilger, NE in 1910, Peter and Katherine moved to Lincoln. They owned 2 homes. 1139 and 1137 S. 7th in the South Bottoms. Later 1139 S. 7th would become the offices of AHSGR and until recently it was the AHSGR museum.
My second cousin Lou Schreiner remembers Peter’s tools. 8 to 12 block planes which were made entirely of wood except for the blade. The depth of cut was regulated by moving the blade up and down in the block and were wedged solid with a tapered flat peg. The blades were of varying sizes as small as ¼” wide. The surface of the block of the plane had different grooves to get the particular groove wanted on the woodworking project at hand. Given the fact that most of the wooden structures, particularly the churches, of the Volga Deutsch contain no nails, Peter must have been a skilled craftsman.
In spite of all the stories of the destruction of our German churches, in fact our homeland in general, I still dreamed of one day seeing a steeple built by one of my Grossvaters. It was with this dream that I traveled to Russia last year.
Our time in Saratov was all too short; visits to villages were whirlwind tours. The first day Beideck = such desecration. The body of the church stand, but the steeple my Schreiner Grossvater built is gone. Huck - after turning the church into a dance… they bulldozed it. Norka - utterly vacant land. Grimm - again, nothing left of the church. The second day: Brunnental - the church was gone; Marian burg - the Catholic Church stands, a wreck. They had tried to bulldoze it but it would not completely succumb. The third day: Wiesenmuller - once again the church was long gone, a medical clinic was built behind where the church once stood.
We piled into the van to head for our final destination: Gnadenthau. My last chance. The next day we would leave the Volga region for Kazahkstan. Leaving Wiesenmuller the driver of our van stopped several times to ask directions. Each time the advice ended with “you will see the church steeple.” My heart was in my mouth. Yet after what we had seen in other villages I dared not let my hopes soar too high.
Roughly a mile outside of Gnadenthau we saw the church steeple. There are no words to describe my joy.
In Gnadenthau. Where my Peter married owned land, worked, and buried 4 children. Where I met and visited with my cousin Jakob Winter and discovered that my dear traveling companion, Marie (Schafer Houser) and I are cousins. They had tried to bulldoze it; torn the clockworks out in the 1970’s; used it as a granary and now as a barn.
In Gnadenthau, I ignored the cows lazing where once church pews stood and said a prayer of thanksgiving that I had been allowed to see this church and the steeple my greet grandfather built.