This article appeared in the April 2012 Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Historical Society of Serbin, Texas. (www.texaswendish.org)
Even though Johann Kilian is the one pastor who is readily identified as a Wendish clergyman in America, there were at least seven more who fit the classification. These are Hermann Kilian, Andreas Schmidt, Johann Pallmer, Gottfried Lehnigk, Wilhelm Matuschka, Mato Kosyk (Kossick), and Johann August Proft. This last pastor, Proft, often receives a passing reference, but deserves a biographical sketch of his own. His great-grandson Robert Proft, a member of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, has provided the following sketch.
A special thank you to George Nielsen who greatly assisted in refining content and blessed this article with his editorial guidance. Bob Proft.
Johann Proft was ten years old when Wends from his neighborhood boarded the Ben Nevis for Texas. His parents were Adolph and M. Grahl Proft and he was born on June 19, 1844, at Maltitz, Saxony. Maltitz was just a few miles from Kotitz, Kilian's first parish, and within an area that provided many Texas settlers.
Following the traditional elementary education, Johann went to Bautzen where he completed an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. But he was also interested in becoming a missionary, so he enrolled at the Hermannsburg Mission Society School in the province of Hanover. There Theodor Harms was training young men for mission work around the world. After a short period of instruction Proft and a group of missionaries boarded the ship Saxonia and arrived in New York on September 2, 1869.
He then traveled to St. Louis and enrolled at the Practical Seminary where the focus was on the bare essentials of the parish ministry and not on extensive theological and linguistic studies. In January 1870, Proft introduced himself to Pastor Kilian in a letter. At about that time a widow in Serbin gave Kilian a sum of money designated for the education of a pastor. Her cotton crop the previous year had been better than expected so she gave him 100 gold dollars - the value of the seventh, and last, bale. Kilian sent the funds to St. Louis for Proft's expenses.
Proft visited the Texas Wends in January 1871, most likely during the school vacation period, and spent some time with Kilian. During his stay he taught school at West Yegua (Fedor) for several weeks and preached Wendish sermons in both Serbin congregations. Both congregations were busy with building projects and Proft assisted with the construction skills he learned in Bautzen. The Serbin people were impressed and after Proft had returned to St. Louis to resume his studies, Kilian wrote a letter to C. F. W. Walther praising Proft and described him as a gentle and modest person. Kilian also suggested that Proft should be considered as the pastor for the Wendish settlement at Fedor. The congregation was too small to properly support its own teacher or pastor, but Johann could supplement his income with his joinery skills.
Walther took the advice and Proft was ordained at Serbin on September 3, 1871, and then installed as the pastor at Fedor. Proft initially preached in both Wendish and German, but as time went on, German became the dominant language. During the year he was ordained, 1871, he married Dorothea Bertha Elizabeth Koch and their first child, Bertha Elizabeth Proft was born Aug. 31, 1872. Tragically, he lost his daughter on September 3, a few days after her birth, and his wife three days later on September 6. The cause of death has been given as malaria, an illness that also plagued Proft. One inconvenience associated with the Fedor parsonage and a possible health factor was the absence of a source of good water. There was no cistern and it was necessary to haul a barrel of water to the parsonage three times a week.
In April 1872, Pastor Proft's sister, Magdalena, and her husband, Johann Gruetzner, emigrated from Europe and joined Proft in Texas. (Some sources imply that the Gruetzners preceded Proft to Texas, but immigration records show that they came later.) Together they purchased a parcel of land on the other side of the Yegua, about three miles from Fedor, and that is where he buried his wife and daughter. Proft married again on July 20, 1873, with Dorothea Margaretta Henriette Stahmer in Washington County, Texas. An infant son from this marriage died in 1874 and Kilian's two children, Gerhard and Theresia, baptismal sponsors for the baby, attended the funeral.
That same year, 1873, Proft built a two-story house for his family near the place where he had buried his first wife and child. Kilian supported his decision and described the Fedor parsonage as "miserable." Kilian's son, Bernhard, had been an apprentice in woodworking under Proft and helped with the construction. Proft also continued to work as a joiner and in 1875 built the baptismal font for the St. Paul, Serbin congregation. Apparently, the change of residence and his work as a joiner created a controversy in the Yegua congregation and Proft resigned his position at Fedor in 1875.
Other Lutherans, however, had settled on the San Antonio Prairie near Proft's home and they formed a congregation called Ebenezer. The congregation called Proft as their pastor and Kilian installed him on April 2, 1876. He continued his ministry there until 1877 when he accepted a call to Sherman in northern Texas.
The bond of friendship that had formed between Kilian and Proft never wavered. Kilian even suggested that Proft could assume the St. Paul pulpit in the event of Kilian's death or departure from Serbin. Proft, in turn, eased Kilian's burden by presiding at services at St. Peter in Serbin, such as the funeral of Pastor Pallmer and the installation of Pastor Greif.
Proft served Zion Lutheran, Sherman, from 1877 to 1879. He then accepted a call from St. John in Stringtown, Missouri and served there from January 4, 1880, through 1888. At Stringtown, Proft's second wife also died during childbirth, leaving him with three children to care for. His third wife was Magdalena Maria Lehmann, from Lincoln, Texas whom he married on December 27, 1882.
In August of 1888, Pastor Proft accepted a call to St. John church in Corning, Missouri where he served until shortly before his death on Dec. 22, 1896, at the age of 52. Pastor Proft was buried in Zion Lutheran Cemetery in Lincoln, Missouri. His wife Magdalena died fifty-two years later on July 11, 1949, and was buried beside her husband. Pastor and Mrs. Proft were survived by ten children.