Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Regarding F.W.J. Sylwester

My grandfather, F.W.J. Sylwester, founded what is now known as Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. FWJ was born in 1881 as his father’s eighth child and his mother’s fourth. He was a Minnesota farm boy who eventually had fourteen siblings. Only FWJ and his brother August were able to attend and graduate from college, because the family could not afford that privilege for any of the others.

In 1852, FWJ’s then 14-year-old father immigrated to the United States from northern Germany with FWJ’s grandfather, a then 50-year-old peasant farmer. FWJ’s grandmother had died in Germany. FWJ’s father and grandfather settled in Wisconsin to live and farm with husband-and-wife acquaintances from Germany. When the “husband” died five years later, FWJ’s grandfather married the “wife.”

On February 3, 1864, FWJ’s father married his stepsister. The two then traveled by covered wagon a year later to homestead some farmland in Minnesota, where their first home was an old building that had an inside ladder to a loft, and one small window downstairs and another one upstairs for light. That homestead became the Sylwester farm, and remained in the family for 91 years until October 4, 1956.

On August 11, 1872, FWJ’s father’s first wife died, leaving him with four children. Six months later, FWJ’s father married FWJ’s mother, who was his stepmother’s younger sister.

FWJ’s father had little formal schooling, but he wanted his children to become educated. He read his weekly German newspaper and his German Bible. Though FWJ originally had other career aspirations, his father would agree to fund his education only if FWJ would agree to enroll in a Lutheran seminary to study for the ministry. So FWJ attended Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Concordia College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before attending Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Instead of becoming a pastor, FWJ became an academic. After teaching at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1903 to 1904, The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now known as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) asked him to go west and establish a Christian college. In 1905, FWJ founded Concordia College in Portland, Oregon. Until 1911, he was the college’s only teacher. The first class of 17 boys was taught in a borrowed classroom in the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church. Concordia’s first building was erected in 1907.

In 1906, FWJ married his first wife, who was a neighbor of his relatives in Wisconsin. She died on December 24, 1918, of influenza while her four surviving children gathered to sing Christmas carols for her. Eighteen months later on July 1, 1920, FWJ married his second wife (my grandmother). She was from Gaylord, Minnesota, the nearest town to the Sylwester farm where FWJ was born and raised. Together, FWJ and his second wife had seven children, six of whom survived childhood. So FWJ fathered ten children who survived childhood, nine boys and one girl, including my father.

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