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Opening doors, changing lives -- mission fulfilled

The Rev. Karl Haeussler looks forward to the new year -- and the 150th anniversary of his church, St. Paul Lutheran.

The pastor hopes that his congregation continues its mission -- which includes "opening doors and changing lives," he said.

And the doors have been opened at St. Paul's, where, in the early part of this decade, some congregants worried about the church's survival.

A congregational meeting and drive to improve handicapped accessibility at the church, at 453 Old Falls Blvd., changed things.

"While the membership was taking a fresh view of the congregation, they also began looking at the physical structure, which was in dire need of repairs in many ways," Haeussler said.

A capital fund drive was launched with the hope of raising enough money to complete the two phases of a building plan: repairing the outside of the sanctuary that had crumbling and falling bricks and mortar -- and better handicapped access.

"Miraculously, more money was raised than initially hoped for, with the result that Phase Two, now included along with the handicapped-access new entrances both from the parking lot and from Old Falls Boulevard," the pastor said.

A new gathering area connects both new entrances, along with connecting the sanctuary with the upper and lower fellowship halls, and a new conference room. The construction, featuring the handicapped access, a couple of years ago, became a metaphor for the church itself.

"This brought even greater life to the congregation," Haeussler said. "Worship attendance continued to increase, along with more and more members becoming active. This enabled many new programs and ministries, bringing our goals and overall mission to even greater life."

Another capital campaign last year was held so repairs and improvements could be made to the inside of the sanctuary. Phase Three of the building program included new carpeting, refinishing the pews, improving and enhancing lights, especially in the altar area, as well as expanding the altar railing -- and repainting the entire sanctuary. It was all completed earlier this year.

There also are open doors at St. Paul Lutheran Preschool, a church ministry for young kids and their families that accepts children of all faiths and nationalities, offering opportunities to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, academically -- and spiritually, focusing on basic Bible stories and prayers.

St. Paul Lutheran, like most Lutheran churches, offers a two-year period of instruction during adolescence to prepare for Confirmation. In the second year, the pastor applies religious doctrine to the real world.

"During these two years of instruction, I get to know each of the students," he said. "And after their Confirmation, I continue to pray for them. It makes me so happy when I see them become active in the congregation, and when I see them finding, and growing in, the blessings God gives to them."

This 52-year-old man of the cloth grew up in a Lutheran home.

"My faith had always been very important to me. Wherever we lived, my parents made finding a good Lutheran church home a priority," said Haeussler, who spent much of his childhood in Pittsburgh. "My mother, Shirley, is a church organist [at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Cortland], while my father, Walter, often served in leadership positions."

Haeussler attended Longwood College (now Longwood University) in Virginia, beginning as a music major -- piano and composition -- and graduating in May 1980 with majors in government, philosophy and history. His final semester was a government internship, in which he served with then-State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman.

"I had planned to begin legal studies at Capitol University School of Law in Columbus, Ohio, when I decided to reconsider the direction of my life," he said. He found employment as an operations manager for Toys R Us in Fairfax, Va., and then parlayed skills and experience he had gained there into a position with SOVRAN National Bank in McLean, Va.

"Not long after, I was one of five people who helped to revitalize a young-adult fellowship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Falls Church [Va.]," Haeussler said. "Through the weekly Bible studies, which I took turns leading, and the many fellowship activities, my already strong faith grew dramatically. It was during this time that I felt my life being moved in the direction of serving as a professional church worker."

After taking an intensive preseminary Greek course, he was admitted to the master's of divinity program at Concordia Theological Lutheran Seminary in Fort Wayne Ind., from which he graduated in 1988. After work at Carmel Lutheran Church, just north of Indianapolis, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Shalimar, Fla., Haeussler accepted a call to serve in North Tonawanda, and he's been at St. Paul's since the late 1990s.

Sunday morning services at the church are at 8 and 10:45.

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Have an idea for Religion News? Write to Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240 or e-mail her at lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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