Links to the past

The past means plenty in the present.

The Rev. Art Schwenk and other members of Columbus’ St. Paul Lutheran Church understand that as well as anyone.

Throughout the past few decades, Schwenk has helped a number of St. Paul members and others trace their German roots to Columbus’ sister city of Löhne, Germany.

The German government presented Schwenk with the German American Friendship Award in 2010. Schwenk recently earned another honor for his volunteer efforts to connect people with their ancestry as the City Council of Löhne presented him with the Medal of Honor.

“I was overwhelmed to receive the (latest) award,” said Schwenk, a Hope area resident. “I did not expect this at all. I just got involved 40 years ago to help my late wife Marcia and others find their family roots.”

The official relationship with Löhne stretches back to 1994, representing the oldest of Columbus’ agreements with its four sister cities. Löhne and Columbus are linked through genealogy by the migration to this country in the 19th century of hundreds of Löhne families. Many settled in Bartholomew County, and some were founders of St. Paul Lutheran.

The 69-year-old Schwenk, retired chaplain of Seymour’s Trinity Lutheran High School, initially struggled to make connections because a vital piece of the puzzle was missing.

“People of German descent knew their ancestors had sailed over here from Germany in the spring of 1847,” he said. “But we didn’t know where within Germany they came from. Meanwhile, over in Germany, people were asking the opposite question. They knew their ancestors had left Löhne and sailed for America, but they didn’t know exactly where they ended up. I didn’t start doing this over 40 years to get any kind of recognition. I just wanted to help people find their ancestral roots.”

In the process of that searching, Schwenk helped reopen a portal of communication that had been closed in Löhne.

“At St. Paul Lutheran Church in 1988, Pastor William Stache received a letter,” Schwenk said. “A man named Hans-Gunter Lichte in Löhne was wondering where his wife’s great-great grandmother, Anne Engel Scheidt, had been buried. She passed away in the area overseas while visiting her son. My sister-in-law, Janice Scheidt, recognized the family name when the letter was printed in one of St. Paul’s church bulletins and she contacted my wife Marcia and me to help her translate because we were both German teachers.”

The three of them worked together to contact Hans-Gunter Lichte, a more laborious task than it would be today.

“There was no Internet back then,” Schwenk said. “It’s much easier to do research today because you can go to a website and type in who you’re looking for. We had to mail off a letter to Hans-Gunther and Edith Lichte and pray that he would respond.”

Elated, the Lichtes responded after a couple of months and they expressed interest in visiting St. Paul’s cemetery the next spring.

“I remember when they visited Edith’s great-great-grandmother’s grave the following spring,” Schwenk said. “We had a small service at the gravesite that day and Hans-Gunter and Edith cried because their mission was completed. They had found the last piece of their puzzle.”

Because of that connection, the city of Löhne is a sister city of Columbus and St. Paul Lutheran Church has a warm relationship with St. Simeon Church, the mother church from which many families emigrated.

Since Schwenk has been an important part in this whole process, Löhne leaders decided to honor him for outstanding contributions to the European city.

“The friendship between the city of Columbus and Löhne would be possible without Art Schwenk,” Lohne Mayor Heinz-Dieter Held said. “Thank you for your commitment for over two decades. It is no exaggeration when we say today that without you and your continuing efforts the town twinning between Columbus and Löhne would not exist.”

Schwenk has a different take on his contributions.

“I didn’t do anything special,” he said. “I was just serving God through this work.

“I just was at the right place at the right time to help unlock the door that had been closed for generations. I share this award with so many other people, like the late Hans-Gunter and Edith Lichte and my late wife Marcia.

“I also share it with the mayors of both cities and the pastors of St. Paul Lutheran and St. Simeon churches and anyone who has made or will make contributions to our partnerships with Löhne. Through the years, the faces in this partnership have changed and they will continue to change. But, the roots are more important because they are a legacy that will endure forever.”