Lutherans in Minnesota

Elim: Not always a picnic

Scandia’s historic Swedish church, named for Israel’s wilderness encampment, abides despite repeat disasters

A place to go to church, maybe for the rest of your life. A sanctuary in strange surroundings. What greater blessing?

Does that help explain Swedish pioneers’ persistence at Elim Lutheran? Against all odds, Elim survives.

You like church in a mall? In a cineplex? Then don’t come to Elim. In Scandia, Minnesota, the 81-year-old sanctuary looks, feels, and smells like the old-time religion.

The Gothic interior is a place apart. “Worship is supposed to be something different than everything else in the world,” says Elim’s pastor, Scott Westphal. “That room we set aside for it is something completely unlike anything else.”

Elim Lutheran Church in Scandia, Minnesota, is in its sixth sanctuary during its 150-plus years as a congregation. Photo provided by Elim Lutheran Church

Gammelgården hosts its Midsommar Dag festival June 25.

Elim, 40 miles northeast of Minneapolis, is one of Minnesota’s oldest congregations, dating to the 1850s. It is named for the oasis where Israel camped after crossing the sea — just before the manna.

As with Israel, God hasn’t made it easy for Elim, now worshipping in its sixth sanctuary. Some rebuilds were planned, but fire took two and a tornado another.

The present brick sanctuary, built in 1930, has grown old gracefully. Membership is about 1,000. More than 300 worship regularly. Pastor Westphal thinks some newer members joined from fast-growing Twin Cities suburbs precisely because they wanted to be part of a traditional church.

Startup congregations sometimes worship in malls, and Pastor Westphal thinks that’s fine. But church, he says, should be distinct from the everyday. For worship, a mall or cineplex “can certainly be a functional facility,” he says. “Yet when you come into our building, you know that you’re in a place that’s different from everything else in the world. It looks different, smells different, sounds different.

“Some would say that’s bad for evangelism, bad for church growth,” he adds. “I truly think that it’s one of the strengths.”

Knee-deep in Swedish heritage, what’s the hard part? “Well,” confesses Pastor Westphal, “I’m Norwegian. That’s our idea of multiculturalism.”

Celebrating a unique history

Confirmed in 1980 at Hope Lutheran in the hip Minneapolis university neighborhood of Dinkytown, Westphal’s church upbringing was nevertheless traditional. Yet Elim’s call in 1999 drew him less for its tradition than for its sense of mission. “This congregation doesn’t see itself as a worship club meant to perpetuate itself,” he says, “but as part of God’s church.”

Even so, history matters. When fire, tornado, and then fire again destroyed Elim sanctuaries, was God hinting? No, thinks Pastor Westphal. “It’s not about the building,” he says. “It’s about what the congregation does.”

Midsommar Dag celebration

Lynne Blomstrand Moratzka joined Elim with her husband in 1969 and now runs Gammelgården Museum, established in 1972 and owned by Elim. The church’s Swedes never wavered about rebuilding when sanctuaries were destroyed, says Blomstrand Moratzka, who treasures her own Swedish roots. She grew up on St. Paul’s East Side. “Grandpa was the immigrant,” she says. “We still have wet feet.”

Gammelgården’s 11 acres and five historic buildings are an ongoing reminder of Swedish pioneer settlers’ heritage and history. This year, Gammelgarden hosts its Midsommar Dag festival June 25.

Why does history matter for congregations? Heavens, church, and history are all but inseparable. Pastor Westphal points to Christianity’s earliest times — Christians’ debt to Jewish tradition, for example.

Moreover, minding history helps ease tensions when church members divide over contemporary issues, he adds. “Denominational things aren’t going to stop the main thing,” says Pastor Westphal, “which is the gospel.”

So Elim abides. In Exodus, exhausted Israelites camped at Elim after their escape from the Egyptians through the Red Sea, which Christians still acknowledge in baptism. Elim, the Bible states, had 12 springs — a convenient number, one for each fleeing tribe — and 70 palms.

Elim Lutheran, says Pastor Westphal, remains as “not a destination, but your resting spot.”

That’s a pretty good description for any church, old or new. Startup churches have this in common with historic congregations such as Elim: Sooner or later, both pass. Yet those springs remain.

A brief timeline of Elim Lutheran Church

o The first church, used from 1856 to 1860, later served as a hay barn. Restored and resanctified in 1981, the Minnesota Historical Society lists it as the state’s oldest Lutheran sanctuary. The Muskego Church at Luther Seminary dates to 1844 but was moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota.

o Elim’s second sanctuary lasted from 1861 to 1877, when the log building was sold for firewood.

o Church Number 3, of sawn boards, served until 1884 when a tornado destroyed it.

o Church Number 4, of brick, burned when it was struck by lightning in 1905. The marble baptismal font and an altar candelabra were saved.

o Church Number 5 burned in 1930. A salvaged Christ statue, oak pulpit, pews, and altar are in the current sanctuary, built in 1930 and expanded in 1960 and 2000.

Find out more about Elim at these websites:

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