Lutherans in Minnesota

Congregations see celebration as chance to build relationships

Two synods, one message

Mere weeks after Minnesota became a state in 1858, two small, distinct
groups of Lutheran immigrants, one Norwegian and one Swedish, met to
establish congregations at the boundary where the Big Woods meets the
great midwestern prairie. Norseland General Store opened soon afterward,
helping to develop the community.

Two thousand Lutherans and others, many of them descendants of the
original settlers, came together over the weekend of June 21-22, 2008, for
the Norseland Community Sesquicentennial in rural Nicollet County. They
celebrated, praised God, and looked to the past and the future.

Norseland Lutheran Church, organized June 6, 1858, belongs to the
Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), which has its national headquarters in
Mankato, Minnesota. Scandian Grove Lutheran Church (ELCA), was
established seven days later, June 13, 1858, in a small log cabin belonging to
Andrew and Anna Nilsdotter Thorson. The cabin stands near the present
church. Norwegians founded the former, and Swedish settlers the latter.

“150 Years Under God” is the Norseland Community Sesquicentennial theme.
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau was present Saturday, June 21, to read a
proclamation recognizing Norseland as an official Minnesota Sesquicentennial
community.

“The anniversary reaffirms the proclaiming of the Word and Sacraments which
have been present here for the past 150 years,” said Pastor Craig Ferkenstad,
Norseland Lutheran. “We maintain distinct views of the Bible and of doctrine,
but it’s wonderful to be able to work together with our neighbors on the
community celebration.” Ferkenstad is national secretary of the ELS.

Pastor Jerry Lanes, Scandian Grove Lutheran, concurs. “This is a celebration of
the past, of our community of faith, and of the gifts that are among us. We
are also looking toward the future. We have lots of young families; we have
energy and commitment, interest in outreach and mission.

“For example, one of Scandian Grove’s young members, Amanda Roland, will
spend a year working with ELCA Global Missions’ young adult program in the
United Kingdom, beginning in Fall 2008.”

Sesquicentennial celebrators spent Saturday touring historical displays in the
two churches; visiting a one-room parochial school, 100-year-old farm and
blacksmith shop; and buying volumes of sesquicentennial history and other
memorabilia. They watched a parade that included vintage cars and farm
equipment, applauding the wagon that carried present and former pastors of
both churches, and their spouses. They enjoyed an outdoor pork chop feast
while being serenaded by the Minnesota “Over 60” band.

A show of local talent and square dancers in Scandian Grove Park topped off
the evening. On Sunday, separate morning worship services were held at
each of the two churches, followed by afternoon programs.

Baptized at Norseland Lutheran in Sunday’s service was four-day-old Trace
Douglas Gunderson, son of Douglas and Jessica Gunderson, Madison Lake,
Minnesota, arguably the youngest person present on the weekend. Among
hundreds of senior citizens in Saturday’s crowd was Ruth Snyder Larson, 95,
St. Peter, who was baptized at Norseland Church in 1913.

Larson’s family and several others transferred membership in the 1920s to
Scandian Grove Lutheran, where she was confirmed in 1926. She recalls
memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism for that rite, and she shared numerous
other memories during the June events. “My older sister, Olga, was on the
committee that went to the Twin Cities to select the piano for Norseland
Church,” Larson says. “That was a major trip in the early ‘20s.” The piano,
still in excellent condition, is used in the church today.

“My mother, Olina Snyder, was among those who thought piano music was
improper in church,” she adds. Before that, however, growing up as
Norwegian American Olina Lokensgard, Larson’s mother had broken with
precedent herself, by marrying Swedish American Nels Snyder.

In the earliest years, services in both congregations were held in members’
cabins. When Scandian Grove built its first church in 1861, it was the farthest
west of any Swedish Lutheran church in the United States. It became a
sanctuary for settlers during the conflict with Dakota people in 1862.

Norseland Lutheran’s original church building was dedicated in 1866 and
housed one of Minnesota’s first pipe organs. The present brick church was
built in 1911, with a handicap accessible addition completed in 1997.

Scandian Grove’s present church, dedicated in 1980, is its third building. Its
second church was destroyed by fire July 5, 1978. While the fire was still
burning, in another example of Norwegian-Swedish sharing, Norseland
Lutheran Church extended an invitation for Scandian Grove members to use
its sanctuary for worship as long as necessary.

Two carefully and lovingly crafted Norseland histories are available. Pastor
Ferkenstad has compiled a 112-page history of Norseland Lutheran that
includes a complete index of all baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and
funerals in that congregation. Another volume, Norseland: Where the Big
Woods Meets the Prairie, 403 pages, was a mutual endeavor of the two
congregations. A copy of this community history is available at the American
Swedish Institute, Minneapolis.

“The spirit of cooperation in planning and compiling the joint history has
been much greater than anticipated,” says Pastor Lanes. It took two years
and involved dozens of writers. Among those writers who captured the local
flavor is Anna Lokensgard, who writes:

“I am one who married into this community. It has been my saving grace. I
yearned for this kind of love, roots, and belonging my entire childhood. I
remember still the overwhelming feelings I experienced at ‘The Church
Wedding Shower.’ Who were all of these people that would be so generous to
me?

“I remember thinking that I must be getting into a pretty important family
and I had better not let anyone down. I have come to figure out that this is
just the way it is in Norseland. Everyone supports everyone.”