Lutherans in Minnesota

Providing dignity in ‘the later years’

Ebenezer’s long history of providing services to seniors

When Ebenezer Society was formed in Minneapolis in 1917, its primary mission was to provide care for indigent Norwegian immigrants. More than 90 years later, Ebenezer Management Services has evolved into one of the area’s premier senior housing management companies with a portfolio of 50 facilities.

In fact, the Rev. Russell Helgesen, an Ebenezer board member, said the organization’s reputation as a management company is so outstanding these days that Ebenezer can “pick and choose” facilities it wants to manage.

The word ebenezer means “stone of help.” Today’s rock-solid reputation reinforces that definition.

Providing compassionate, community-centered care for older adults and others in need is Ebenezer’s mission. Programs and services include a variety of housing options, including condominiums, cooperatives, independent senior apartments, assisted living and memory care units, and transition and long-term care options; adult and intergenerational programs; and community-based services, management, and consulting services.

The entry to New York Gardens in Edina, Minnesota, an Ebenezer facility opened April 1, 2011

“Ebenezer is now the largest Lutheran old people’s home in the nation.” (1942)

Since 1995 Ebenezer has been a part of Fairview Health Services, combining resources and expertise to offer access to a full range of choices for vibrant senior living. Growth and innovation characterized Ebenezer over the years. (See “Ebenezer through recent years,” below.)

Creating a care system in a ‘new world’

The story of Ebenezer actually goes back to the 1800s when young carpenters, farmers, and day laborers immigrated to the United States. As they aged, many of these men were homeless, poor, and in poor health. Lutheran congregations were concerned about their condition, but had limited resources.

In 1915 Sister Caroline Unjem became involved. She appealed for help to care for these men. A group of 13 men met at Dayton’s Tea Room on April 9, 1917, and established what is now Ebenezer. The group consisted of six laymen, six pastors, and one medical doctor. All were Norwegian and represented these Lutheran church organizations: United Norwegian, Norwegian Synod, Lutheran Free, Hauge Synod, and Eielsen Synod.

Ebenezer opened May 7, 1917, in a rented house at 3017 Portland Avenue with 10 residents. The first resident was John Olson, 90, who had lost three children in the Chicago fire and two others in Lake Michigan; he had spent nine years at a poor farm.

In 1920 Ebenezer Hall was built. In 1942 a three-story home for invalids was constructed. Board Chair John Field then announced, “Ebenezer is now the largest Lutheran old people’s home in the nation.”

Seeking support from the neighbors

How was all of this expansion financed? Ebenezer worked from a list of memorial gift donors and asked for loans from interested individuals. There are also stories about “circuit riders” who traveled rural Minnesota and the Dakotas asking for support.

In recent years, under the leadership of President Mark Thomas, Ebenezer formed a partnership with Fairview Health Systems. That brought together Fairview’s strengths in the field of health care and Ebenezer’s in senior housing. Thriving under that partnership, Ebenezer now has a staff of about 800 full- and part-time employees and a budget of $57 million annually. It owns or manages more than 50 adult care facilities.

Jeff Lantto, Director of Homeowner Associations for Ebenezer Management Services, has been with the organization since 1974. When asked about early challenges in his career at Ebenezer, Lantto responded, “I started working at Luther Hall and Field Hall on Park Avenue. I worked for a program that the Rev. Almond Brakke had started and received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study memory loss and other problems that seniors experience with the aging process. … I was a kid just out of college trying to learn all I could to help these seniors to find some meaning and happiness for them while living in a nursing home where most of them did not want to be. I gained a great admiration for the nurses and nursing assistants who worked with these seniors every day and had incredible patience and ability to meet their needs with dignity and love in so many ways.”

Clearly the current downturn in the economy has had an affect. “Residents move into assisted living facilities and sometimes care centers while they still own their cooperative shares, and then they still need to pay their fees to the cooperative. It can be a big financial strain on them and their families to pay for both places at the same time,” Lantto said. “Many times the resident has died and then the families really do not want to continue to pay the monthly fees of the cooperative. This has brought about a lot of stress on our staff who manage the cooperatives, their boards of directors who are volunteers, and marketing committees who also volunteer their time to serve their communities.”

For the future, Lantto told Metro Lutheran, Ebenezer aims “to continue to meet the needs of seniors we serve to help them live their lives with meaning and be able to be safe, cared for, and have dignity in their later years.”

Ebenezer through the years

Ebenezer was a founding member of the long-term care trade association known as the Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance (MHHA).

7500 York in Edina was organized as the first privately-sponsored senior housing cooperative in the nation.

Ebenezer was a co-developer with Group Health (now Health Parterns) to establish a senior HMO called Seniors Plus, one of only six nationwide.

Ebenezer developed the first sub-acute and transitional skilled nursing facility in Minnesota, called Caroline Center.

Deer Crest opened in Red Wing, Minnesota, as the first Ebenezer site to have sensor technology in every apartment.

Loren Studio and Fine Arts Program won the MHHA “Excellence in Practice” Award. (MHHA is now known as Aging Services of Minnesota.)

Ebenezer Ridges Campus received the Shared Site Award from Generations United. This national award recognized contributions in uniting people  through intergenerational shared sites.

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