Perry County’s Stille Nacht

I was researching another story for today, but I decided to write a different tale instead. Let me explain. I had my weekly men’s Bible class this morning. It’s a group of men who are members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg who have been gathering weekly for almost ten years. During this month of December, I decided to take a little break from opening our Bibles to opening our hymnals. We have been looking at the stories behind some of the Christmas hymns that are so special to us. This morning, the hymn we studied was Silent Night, or as we old-fashioned Germans like to say, Stille Nacht.

I have heard some tidbits over the years about how Silent Night originated, but as it turns out, I found out several connections between that story of how Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber collaborated to write and compose Stille Nacht and the history and geography of this area. I have decided to share some of those discoveries on this blog today. I am not going to tell the whole story of the origins of Silent Night with you today because there are so many places online which tell that story. My purpose is to tie that story into our local German Lutheran history.

First, I must tell of another “act of God” experience that I had. After beginning my study of Silent Night, which mentions the setting for this story being near the city of Salzburg, Austria, I had this nagging thought that I had heard the name of the city of Salzburg before, yet I couldn’t place it. Then, Sunday night, my wife tuned into the movie, The Sound of Music. The Colonel in that movie complained to his governess, Maria, that she had allowed his children to parade all over Salzburg wearing her homemade outfits. Then it hit me. That is where I had heard of Salzburg. I didn’t expect to get that answer before I met with my Bible class this morning. It’s almost as if God wanted me to have that nagging question answered.

The setting for the story behind Silent Night was not precisely Salzburg. It was another place not far away from there called Oberndorf bei Salzburg. Once I saw the name of that place, I immediately thought of a surname that has been written about on this blog on quite a few occasions. In fact, when I placed that surname in the search bar on this website, I found that there have been 14 posts on this blog that have referred to that surname. The surname is Oberndorfer. I figure a person from Oberndorf would be an Oberndorfer. That sent me down another rabbit hole. I knew the original Oberndorfer character to settle in this area was an Austrian who first could be found living near New Wells, Missouri, which happened to be a predominantly Ausrian settlement. I wondered where that original Oberndorfer had his roots in Austria. The answer is that he came from a place called Sicking, Austria. I have placed Oberndorf bei Salzburg and Sicking, Austria on the map below to show their relative locations.

Austria map

As the crow flies, these two locations are not that far apart, but a map program says you would have to travel 56 miles and it would take about an hour to travel from one of these places to the other. I would consider these two locations pretty close to one another. Our Oberndorfers would not have been very far from Oberndorf when they left for America.

Now, we’ll discuss a little geography. Oberndorf bei Salzburg is located right on the Salzach River. I mention this because our location in Missouri is along the banks of the Mississippi River. The parish in Oberndorf bei Salzburg where Silent Night was first played had a history that I think is somewhat similar to a local church here in Perry County. Believe it or not, the parish in which Silent Night was first sung was called St. Nicholas, of Santa Claus fame. As you can see in this painting, that church was located very near the river.

St. Nicholas Kirche – Oberndorf, Austria

Because of continued flooding, this church was demolished in the early 1900’s. Here in East Perry County, a church was constructed near the Mississippi River called St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wittenberg. That church, because of continued flooding, closed its doors in 1987, and was demolished shortly thereafter. That was the church where my father was confirmed.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church – Wittenberg, MO

Part of the story of the beginnings of Silent Night had to do with a church organ. Franz Gruber was the church organist at St. Nicholas, and in 1818, the organ was not working. (By the way, you may recognize the name, Gruber, as being the name of one of the original pastors in Perry County, although there is likely no connection between the two.) Several explanations are given for why the organ in Austria did not work. One says it was rusty. Another says it was damaged by flooding (which might explain the rust). Probably the most entertaining explanation for the organ not working is that mice were eating away at some of its parts. My father told me the story about how he was often assigned the duty of pumping the organ at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Wittenberg when he was a youngster. That was before the era of electricity. I do know that the organ in that church would often be the victim of flooding and required repair.

One of the local church traditions around this area is to sing at least one verse of Silent Night in German as part of Christmas worship services. I know we do that at Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg. In the Lutheran hymnal produced by the Missouri Synod, you will find the German lyrics for Stille Nacht on the adjoining page. This is what you see in that hymnal.

However, at the bottom of that page, you will also find the German words for verse 1 shown here.

When the note says that “some in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod” use these alternate words, that includes our church here in Altenburg. This is the version of that verse that our congregation uses each year. I may be wrong about this, but I think the two versions may have something to do with the differences between what is called High German vs. Low German. Perhaps our German friend, Lutz Backmann, can assist us with an explanation.

This post is getting pretty long, so I will say just one more thing. I discovered another interesting fact about the history of Stille Nacht in this country. That song was first played in America at another Trinity Church. It was a Trinity Church in New York City. And what year did that occur. Why, 1839 of course. The same year that the Gesellschaft arrived on the banks of the Mississippi River in Perry County.

The choir in which I sing at Trinity will be assisting in a special way this year with Stille Nacht, so I should probably get back to memorizing the correct German lyrics for verse 1.


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