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German altar cloth restored to its former home


By Fred Hoffman, Honorary Consul, Detroit

Just about two years ago, I got a telephone call from Roger Kohtz, a longtime member of Atonement Lutheran Church, a modest Missouri Synod worship house tucked in a tidy east Dearborn (Michigan) neighborhood near Fred Maples School. The 89-year old church community is not as vibrant as it once was, but still it attracts a lively crowd to its Sunday services.

Mr. Kohtz was calling because the congregation had decided that as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was approaching in 2017, it wanted to repatriate a cherished German altar cloth that found its way to its sanctuary some generations ago. The cloth - a beautifully embroidered 14 foot long satin fringed piece with images of a dove, the grapes, wheat and other Christian symbols - was given to the church by a former member, Woodrow Anderson, who “rescued” it from a bombed-out Lutheran Church in Jena, Thuringia (south of Berlin in Germany’s “Luther Country”) in the final days of WWII in 1945.

Anderson entered the building - the Kollegienkirche - adjacent to the just-destroyed Carl Zeiss optics factory, saw the altar cloth and stuffed it in his bag, later to send it home to his mother in Missouri with other “Kriegsbeute” - war souvenirs. Once home and eventually recruited to work in Dearborn, he and his wife took the cloth with them; and it was his wife, a member of Atonement, who suggested it would be appropriate to give it to the local church.

Hoffman with Dr. Becker with Mr. Hardt in background.

The historic piece witnessed many special occasions over the years - just as it had in its former sanctuary in Jena. And, like the German women (undoubtedly) who hand crafted and cared for the altar piece, the Dearborn women preserved it just as lovingly.

Making the transfer was not so easily done, and that’s where I came into the picture. Mr. Kohtz asked if I could use my contacts as Germany’s Honorary Consul in Michigan, to see that the cloth was restored to its former home. And of course I agreed. It just so happened that I had just come back from a study trip in the area, and, yes, I had contacts in their state government with whom I could work.

Through research on the other side of the Atlantic, it was verified that the cloth was from the Kollegienkirche, which does not stand today. Because the Friederich-Schiller University of Jena owns the property and maintains the site of the former church as a kind of visitor center, the technical ownership of the returned piece reverts to the university’s theology department.

However, since everyone agreed the cloth should be restored to an active church altar, the university and St. Michael’s Evangelical (Lutheran) Church decided that it would be on loan to St. Michael’s.

After finalizing the research and developing the partnerships - largely forged by the office of the Mayor of Jena, Albrecht Schroeter - we negotiated the best time and place for the hand-over, deciding with the German Foreign Ministry that it would be most appropriate to schedule it in Berlin at the Bundestag during a visit by the Honorary Consuls of the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico on Friday, June 12.

The member of the parliament and cabinet officer for transatlantic relations, Juergen Hardt, arranged for a ceremony befitting the joy and seriousness of the occasion. I spoke about the history of the cloth, but stressed that its symbolism is even more important. The spoils of war have become the instrument of peace, I said, noting this is all about forgiveness, unity, love - and, appropriately, atonement.

There was hardly a dry eye in the room as we removed the gorgeous altar cloth from the suede box hand-crafted especially for it by Shinola, a made-in-Detroit firm which wanted to be part of the experience. I handed it over to Professor Dr. Uwe Becker, head of the university’s theology department, who said it may well be the other thing surviving from the church destroyed 70 years ago. St. Michael’s pastor Dr. Mathias Ruess also gave remarks, as did deputy mayor Matthias Bettenhaueser and local member of parliament Albert Weiler, who got so excited he unbuttoned a German pin given to him by the Chancellor and pinned it on me!

Back home, I will report to Atonement Pastor Gary Rowher, Mr. Kohtz and the others in their congregation that they did something important, special and meaningful. I will never forget their kindnesses during a special committal service at the church May 29 and the love they demonstrated by this act of international charity. I am humbled to have been a part of this good news story!

(Mr. Hoffman has been Honorary Consul since 2002, an unpaid position which requires him to handle ministerial matters such as passports and notarizations, but also serve as Germany’s citizen diplomat in the state, attending dozens of events annually on behalf of the government. Every two years, the Foreign Ministry calls in the Honorary Consuls for meetings in Berlin and visits to other key sites of interest. This year, they spent time in Hamburg, Brandenburg and Berlin in addition to official meetings.)


Hoffman with Dr. Becker with Mr. Hardt in background.


Weiler, Ruess, Becker, Bettenhauser, Hardt and Hoffman.

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