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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Floating worship

If you’re in central Wisconsin this summer, consider this

For this midweek religious gathering, there are no long wooden pews, no stained-glass windows, sometimes not even a roof — just puffy white clouds followed by a stunning sunset. The “church” for this evening is a 60-foot stern-wheeler, the Chief Waupaca, and worshipers spend much of their time on the deck. 

This is what summer brings for Waupaca’s Trinity Lutheran Church: a floating worship hour, just before twilight, on the city’s Chain O’ Lakes, a retreat in the heart of central Wisconsin’s vacationland. The chapel cruise has been a summer fixture since 1975. 

As parishioners and vacationing guests gaze at nature’s natural beauty, the word of God simply “comes alive out here,” passengers say. It brings new meaning to the sermon and hymns — sometimes sung a cappella, other times accompanied by guitar.

The summertime tradition started as a ministry of Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church, later taken over by Trinity. The Wednesday evening worship cruises run for 10 weeks, from June through mid-August. Typically 50 to 60 people take part.

Nature treats them kindly. Worshipers see all kinds of birds, turtles, maybe a deer at water’s edge. The lush stands of woods rustle in a breeze; a heron might pause on a boulder poking out of the water; and passing boaters wave enthusiastically. Only once in the last decade has a service been canceled due to storms.

There is also no shortage of man-made sights. The cruise passes by a girls’ camp, a Jesuit retreat house, a nursing-care facility for veterans as well as lovely lakeside homes. (Movie star Esther Williams once owned an island on this chain of 22 lakes.)

Most of all, the serenity of this watery retreat is soul-stirring. Peace and quiet is the order of the day or evening, and the scenery — God’s handiwork — is impossible to match.

Local Lutheran pastors deliver sermons aboard the 90-passenger Chief Waupaca, but often clergy from other denominations preach, too, as well as laypeople.


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