Lutherans in Minnesota

Rural church doesn’t mean congregation in distress

Mere mention of a rural Lutheran church may conjure up visions of a struggling, little band of stalwarts. But that’s not universally true! An example of a vibrant rural church is Vasa Lutheran Church in Goodhue County, Minnesota.

Vasa Lutheran Church is a congregation of about 540. It dominates its setting in the rolling hills close to Welch Village Ski Area. A proud white spire sits atop a grand, red-brick church with a two-story parsonage of the same red brick nearby.

The red brick of Vasa Lutheran Church came from the same clay made famous by Red Wing pottery. Photo: Vicki Weckerling

Vasa Lutheran is located about eight miles west of Red Wing, famous for its pottery; the builders found plentiful clay and made the bricks for the church and parsonage on site. The church’s magnificent interior has been tastefully maintained with some updating in lighting.

A church with a long history

Vasa Lutheran traces its history to 1855, having been organized by noted “church planter” Pastor Eric Norelius. The congregation was initially called the Swedish Lutheran Congregation. Norelius later proposed changing the name to Vasa after the Swedish royal family at the time of the Reformation in 1523. The name was later adopted by the township and the village that developed nearby.

While Norelius founded a number of congregations, he initially served Vasa Lutheran as interim pastor several times in the congregation’s early years. First Lutheran Church in St. Paul was organized by Norelius the same day as Vasa but a few hours later. His attachment to Vasa church is demonstrated by the church history, which shows he served the congregation six different times: 1855-58, 1861-69, 1869-79, 1886-88, 1901-06, and 1914-15. In fact, Pastor Norelius was so connected to the Vasa community that he later built his own home close to the church.

When he discovered two orphans in St. Paul, he brought them home to Vasa, founding the well-known Vasa Children’s Home, a predecessor of Lutheran Social Service. Norelius also founded Gustavus Adolphus College in Red Wing; the college later moved to St. Peter, Minnesota.

A log church at Vasa was soon outgrown. The second church was a frame structure which was later moved and now houses the Vasa Museum on the church grounds. The current brick church was constructed from 1867 to 1869. The large sanctuary has no pillars to block the view of an unusual pulpit.

In earlier days, a wood furnace was stoked up Saturday afternoons in winter with a cord of firewood to make the sanctuary comfortable for Sunday morning worship. However, the church lacks a basement that would usually provide Sunday school rooms, a dining room, and other similar features. Tombstones of the church cemetery march down the hill to the west and end at the Vasa Lutheran Center, a former K-8 elementary school building built in the 1950s and purchased by the congregation when schools were being consolidated. The building houses classrooms, church offices, and a gymnasium with a stage.

Vasa Museum tells the story of the congregation.

The Vasa Museum is open Sunday afternoons from May through October and other times by appointment.

There’s plenty of activity at the church facilities, including men’s Bible study Thursday mornings, youth activities for grades 4-12, a summer adult softball team, Sunday church school and adult classes, vacation Bible school, and choir, in addition to a full worship schedule. The congregation also supports the mission work of Paul and Jay Mikaelson in LaPaz, Bolivia; Radio Caranavi; and, more recently, Charity Hall in Japan.

Telling a rural story of faithfulness

The spacious church grounds also include a playground, bandstand (often used for outdoor services), and the Vasa Museum. The museum is operated by a separate corporation; it houses memorabilia from the community and the church. It is open Sunday afternoons from May through October and other times by appointment. The museum building (the second church) was extensively updated in the 1980s; it is climate-controlled and handicap accessible.

While Vasa Lutheran Church is a vibrant congregation, it is not immune to an aging population. Council President Jim Hedeen observed that there are just 40 students in Sunday school these days. However, he is optimistic about the future of Vasa Lutheran. He said, “Most of the nearby farmsteads are occupied though few are full-time farmers. Most occupants work at other jobs. … We’re just 45 minutes from Rochester and an hour from the Twin Cities. And Red Wing also has a good manufacturing base.

“We have a good core of younger members, though a few of our members do more of the work.” The congregation, currently being served by an interim pastor, Dell Sailer, who commutes from Roseville, Minnesota, has just organized a call committee.

Additional information about Vasa Lutheran Church is available at the Web site: VasaLutheranChurch.org or by calling 651/258-4327.

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