Lutherans in the Twin Cities

‘To fulfill God’s purpose for my life as best I can understand it’

The life and ministry of Augsburg College’s Gracia Christensen

Gracia Christensen, the widow of one of Augsburg College’s longest serving presidents, lived her life against a background of major change. She died April 21 at the age of 97.

The changes at Augsburg itself during the 24 years Bernhard Christensen served as president (1938-1962) were significant. The college left behind its former chief role of preparing students for ministry in the Lutheran Free Church and advanced toward the goal of becoming a modern Christian liberal arts institution.

Gracia Christensen enjoyed seeing the fruits of the work her husband was doing and the big changes taking place at Augsburg. But she was no mere bystander in those years, according to those who knew her.

“She was a very busy lady,” said Brad Holt, longtime professor of religion at Augsburg. “She was raising five daughters and ironing her husband’s shirts, but she was also an intellectual companion for Bernhard.”

Referring to Gracia’s role as hostess for the president, Holt said, “She was an important person at the dinner table. She not only prepared the food, she was the match of her husband intellectually. When they engaged important visitors, they were a pair.”

Gracia was genuinely interested in people, and they could feel that, said Nadia Christensen, one of her daughters and a current member of the Augsburg faculty. Many guests from around the world, including King Olav of Norway, visited their home, Nadia said, and her mother really enjoyed the international environment.

Although Gracia was a stay-at-home mom in the sense that she didn’t have paid employment while her daughters were growing up, she was very active in church and community affairs, Nadia recalled. Her mother was a skilled writer, and served as a columnist and editor for The Lutheran Messenger, the newspaper of the Lutheran Free Church. Gracia also wrote fiction, non- fiction, and poetry for publication.

Gracia edited her husband’s books, Nadia said, but she was “more than an editor. … She was really a partner in those books.” Brad Holt agreed and said that was especially evident in the book The Inward Pilgrimage, written in Bernhard Christensen’s later years.

Gracia’s interests extended in other directions besides writing. She taught religious education classes in the released-time program that was then sanctioned by the Minneapolis Public Schools and taught for two years at the old Lutheran Bible Institute. She also served as a mentor in the Big Sisters organization and was a sought-after public speaker for conventions both locally and nationally until she was nearly 80.

“I don’t know how many mother-daughter banquets we went to where she was the featured speaker,” Nadia said.

Her mother also “had a strong social conscience — a concern for the sick and disadvantaged,” the daughter said. Gracia worked as a volunteer in a psychiatric clinic in Chicago and in a program for abused and mentally challenged children at the old Minneapolis General Hospital.

For 16 years, mostly after Bernhard’s retirement as Augsburg president in 1962, Gracia taught as a member of the college’s English faculty. She loved to teach, Nadia said, and teaching English had been her goal ever since she was inspired by a high school teacher in her native Brooklyn. Gracia had a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in New York and a master’s degree from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. At Augsburg she taught English literature, with a specialty in the medieval period.

She was a superb teacher, said Brad Holt, who first encountered her as his freshman English teacher in the fall of 1959. What impressed him, he said, was “her care about language.”

He explained, “She got me to take language seriously, not only on the micro level but on the macro level; that is, not only about the accuracy of one’s sentences but how a whole work — a novel or poem — might be structured to influence you.”

Holt later took a course from Gracia in medieval English literature. “That increased my respect for her and my understanding of the depth of her engagement,” he said.

Nadia said her mother showed herself to be a leader at a very early age. She was president of her high school class all four years, starred on the basketball team, and took major roles in drama productions. She started teaching Sunday School at the age of 16 and even earlier was traveling with a church youth group and giving speeches at churches around New York City. She also played the piano and was part of a gospel trio.

“My mother was always in some ways ahead of her time,” Nadia explained. She was at the cutting edge in her own life compared with her Norwegian- immigrant parents and the cultural group she grew up with in Brooklyn. She was the first to go on to college in that group and got