Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Starting with Sunday school

And a 100-year-old congregation results

A century ago towns like Columbia Heights, Minnesota, were experiencing dramatic population increases. For this now-northern-suburb of Minneapolis, much of the growth was due to the extension of Thomas Lowry’s streetcar service up Central Avenue. The town was becoming more accessible to city dwellers.

In the fall of 1909, three sisters sensed the call of God to begin a ministry with children. The Jerpbak sisters were members of Trinity Lutheran Church, a congregation still worshiping today on the Augsburg College campus. “The sisters came [as Augsburg students] to start working with young people even before there was an actual church,” explained Paul Christensen, retired minister of music at First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights. “One sister loved music; one loved the ladies’ group; and the third loved knocking on doors for the Sunday school program.”

What started out as a Sunday school of eight children eventually became a full-fledged congregation of the Norwegian Free Lutheran Church on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 1912.

“The thrust of Augsburg College was Free Church,” Christensen explained. “The sisters came from that tradition, with low liturgy and power in the hands of lay people, not some ecclesial power.”

The ministry preceded the sanctuary

Originally named Zoar Lutheran Church, after the small city that sheltered Lot in the Genesis story, the congregation eventually changed the name to First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights. More recently, it was joined by a sister ELCA congregation, St. Timothy, and by St. Matthew, an Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation.

“The sisters came from Augsburg to start working with young people even before there was an actual church,” explained Paul Christensen.

Meeting for a time in the city fire barn, the congregation was able to construct its own building. As the congregation grew and its building expanded, the need for space outgrew the available land. “So, the congregation stepped out in faith and acquired a boarded up elementary school that was no longer used by the city,” explained the Rev. Tom Carlson, pastor of First.

Many members spent long hours rehabbing the classrooms, kitchen, lunch room, and offices. On a rainy Sunday morning, the entire congregation left their old building and walked in procession eight blocks to their new church home.

Three services were held in the lunch room each Sunday morning to allow everyone a chance for worship, until finally, three years later, a brand new sanctuary was completed.

After 100 years, still meeting community needs

Ministry to children and youth is still an important part of First’s mission. Its most recent innovation is open gym for children in the neighborhood. It started last summer and continues to be held after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Games, crafts, lunch, and even a weekly chemistry experiment by a retired chemist in the congregation keep the young people occupied.

“Our community is changing so dramatically,” said Christensen. “We are trying to respond to the new community needs.”

With one sister’s love of music, it is not surprising that a strong music program has been supported at First. The church building is a popular concert venue. The Music at First Series draws the finest instrumental and choral groups in the Twin Cities, and is supported by members and non-members alike. The current minister of music Peter Carlson is preparing an original musical for the centennial celebration on April 29.

“Still today, some people in the congregation who are over 90 tell about going to the sisters’ home for holiday programs or ladies events,” Christensen said. More than 100 years have passed since Maren, Anna, and Emilie Jerpbak gathered that first group of children together to hear the story of Jesus. But the ministry continues.

Who knows what will become of a small thing?

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