The arrival of significant numbers of Latvians to the
Philadelphia area dates back to the mid-1880's. At that
time, Latvians in their homeland were being politically
persecuted and economically exploited by both the Russian
Empire's government and German land barons. Latvian
communities also existed in Baltimore, Boston and New
York, where lay services were conducted as early as the
1880's. Initially, the Philadelphia Latvians were
associated with the German congregation of St. John.
In 1892, nine Latvians found the Philadelphia's Society of
Free Letts. The following year the Latvian Evangelical
Lutheran Congregation of St. John was founded. The
congregation's stated purpose was to promote each
congregant's spiritual life, to help maintain congregants'
shared ethnic and religious heritage, and to encourage
each individual to set a virtuous example. The
congregations' Charter was signed by 53 men, given that
only males had the right to vote under the rules of the
Missouri Synod at that time. Dåvidu Krizi is elected to
serve as the first Church Counsel President. The newly
formed entity began its work under the auspices of the
original German St. John's Church.
Reverend Ånsis Rebåne
In 1896, pastor Ånsis Rebåne arrived in Philadelphia
from Latvia. The first Latvian language service at St.
John's took place with the participation of 115
parishioners. Services were held twice a month, a choir
was formed and the "Ladies Auxiliary" started organizing
evening teas with a prepared program. That same year, two
more Latvian congregations were established in Baltimore
and New York.
In 1903, a rift divided the Philadelphia Society of Free
Letts and a parallel disruption occurred in the life of
the congregation. In 1905, the rift was healed. However,
the Russian Revolution of 1905 resulted in a new wave of
immigration, leaving its mark on Latvian's everyday life
and cooling the relationships with the German
Congregation. Notwithstanding these difficulties, pastor
Rebåne continued his regular missionary work throughout
the United States. In 1908, pastor Rebåne died and the
congregation resumed its lay services.
By the early 1900's, there were about 1,000 Latvians in
the Philadelphia area. The congregation's later history
can be summarized as follows:
Reverend Eduards Jurevics
From 1912 to 1917 the congregation was headed by
pastor Eduards Jurevics. As he served both Philadelphia's
and Boston's Latvian churches, services were not held
every Sunday. The congregation continued to grow and lay
services continued. From 1918 to 1923, pastor Karlis
Buchrots (of German descent) heads the congregation. His
suggestion to unite the Latvian and German congregations
of St. John's was not approved.
Reverend Jékabs Graudiñs
Pastor Jékabs Graudiñs headed the congregation from1923
to1928. During his tenure, the congregation continued to
grow and improved its financial condition. The building
fund was renewed and church music flourished.
A New Era
The congregation entered a new era in 1930
with the arrival of Pastor Fridrichs Pudzelis. Services
now held in English and Latvian were well attended.
In 1931, the congregation purchased its own church on 47th
street with the material support of the Missouri Synod.
The first service in the Latvians' own church was held on
April 5, 1931. The Great Depression brought hardship to
the congregation. Pastor Pudzelis left in 1933 but served
as a visiting minister for several years. The new church
was left with no resident minister until 1949. During this
time services were held in English by guest ministers.
From 1949 On
Reverend Janis Silins
In 1949, Janis Silins became the congregation's new
pastor. The congregation grew dramatically as a multitude
of Latvian World War II refugees reached America's shores.
To accommodate this growth, a larger church was purchased
in 1967. On October 20, 1968, the congregation celebrated
its 75th year.
Pastor Silins met a tragic death in 1973.
St. John's Latvian Lutheran Church,
Reverend Uldis Cepure
Pastor Uldis Cepure was elected in 1974. As he was a
member of The Lutheran Church of America, St. John's
Latvian Church left the Missouri Synod. The congregation
was again without a resident minister when pastor Cepure
left in 1975 to serve Chicago's Latvian Congregation.
Reverend Maris Kirsons
Pastor Maris Kirsons headed the congregation from 1976
until 1990 when he moved to Canada. Rev. Kirsons ministry
coincided with the movement for religious freedom in
Latvia. That year also marked the beginning of an
entirely new chapter in the congregation's history. The
congregation sold its large stone church in Philadelphia.
St. John’s Moves to Newtown Square, PA
Reverend Davis Kaneps
In 1992 the congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary
and purchased a beautiful 5 acre property in Newtown
Square. Pastor Kaneps headed the parishioners at Newtown
Square until 1997 when he moved to serve a Latvian
congregation in California.
Reverend Kristine Suna
In the fall of 1997, pastor Kristine Suna from Latvia was
elected to become the next spiritual leader of the
congregation. On Easter Sunday 1998, Archbishop Elmars
Ernsts Rozitis blessed the cornerstone of the future
Latvian Lutheran Church of St. John. The construction of
the new church building began in July, 1999 and was
completed in 2000.
In 2005 Kristine Suna entered a full time graduate
program in theology to pursue a doctoral degree. The
congregation was of course saddened by her departure but
delighted that she chose this as the next step in her
career, and wish her all the best.
In February 2006, at the invitation of the Church and
with the support of the LELBA leadership, Rev. Ieva began
holding weekly services and caring for the parish.
She received a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in
2005. She was ordained first as deacon and then as
pastor in April, 2008. Pastor Ieva retired in 2020.
Rev. Gija Galins
Pastor Gija began to serve the congregation on April 1,
2021 with her first service being held on Easter Sunday,
Pastor Gija Galins most recently served the Latvian
Lutheran Church of Lincoln, NE from 2015 to 2021 with
previous service at Latvian congregations in Takoma WA,
and Oregon. She started her pastoral journey in Latvia
serving congregations in Madliene and Zaube.
Pastor Gija Galins earned her Master’s degree from Seattle
University in Pastoral Counseling. She holds two
Bachelor’s degrees, one in Theology from the University of
Latvia, and a second from the Art Institute of Portland,
OR. Additionally, she has completed certification in
clinical pastoral education and has pursued coursework at