On July 23, 2017, exactly to the day, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Wright celebrated its 100th anniversary. I was amazed how everyone there, and those before them, documented so many moving and humorous contributions that church members had made. So many shared their collective joys, some remembering back through grandparents and great-grandparents. In a short couple of hours — via photos, memory books overflowing with life and family stories, letters from a half dozen former pastors, and the impromptu sharing of people at the service and after — five or more worshiping generations came to life for me.
Pastor Pat was on vacation, so Jennie Hanson took the podium and orchestrated. She introduced current church president Doug Suhonen, who recounted the church's early history. Swedish Lutherans formed the congregation in 1912. Over five years, they worked to buy 3 ½ acres of land for $175 paid by the women of the church! Many joined in where they could to donate lumber, tools, skills, ideas. The altar and pulpit were donated by Bethel Lutheran Church in Duluth. Mr. C. J. Anderson made the hymn board and its numbers, still in use today. The structure cost $2,500, incurring a debt of $500, paid off in a few years. For this 100th celebration, Margaret Webster donated a silkscreen of her painting of the tiny church and its congregants on opening day, July 23, 1917.
Over the years, members contributed furnishings. In 1917, Mrs. Gust Wickland crocheted the altar lace and pulpit clothes still used today. In 1932, an artist painted the centerpiece "Christ in Gethsemane," living with the Stenson family while painting it. In 1951, the church commissioned stained glass windows stretching almost to the rafters, in blue and yellow panes, the colors of Sweden. Over the decades, community members built three additions (one relieved the pastor of having to traverse the bathroom on his way into the sanctuary). In the late 1980s, Helen Benson and Pastor Jim Gronbeck journeyed to Minneapolis to check out a large and sonorous used organ and were thrilled to purchase and install it, the same one that organist Pat Cain plays so soulfully today.
The stories people shared were eye-opening and heartening. Judy Aho Nistler recounted the origins of the rock that now stands in front of the church. It sat plumb in the middle of an Aho field for years. Tractor-driving generations of men — August, Art — grumbled about it when plowing every year. In his 90s, Judy's dad (Art) thought, "wouldn't it be nice to have it at the church." The biggest challenge was unearthing and transporting it. Neighbor Alan Ammala brought his gravel truck and low-boy trailer and rolled the rock onto the latter with an excavator in August 2006. Many helped with the installation, and Ben Line placed a solar light to shine on the rock and plaque. The words from a cherished hymn, "On Christ The Solid Rock We Stand," are engraved on its front. Pastor Janeva Stromberg presided over its dedication.
Jenny Hanson corresponded with a long list of former pastors to announce the celebration and ask them for memories. Being pastors (and thus good with words), they wrote multiple paragraphs.
From Judy Anderson-Bauer: "I still have the Norwegian Christmas candle that I got at the rummage sale, and remember you when I get it out each Christmas. More than anything else, I remember your faithfulness and generosity, not only in your community but also to the synod and world."
From Janeva Stromberg: "I'm remembering the bible studies, potlucks, soup suppers, council meetings filled with laughter and mutual interests. I remember funerals and visits and lots and lots of prayer and support as we all entered into much mourning." (Stromberg presided over 70 funerals during her three-year interim!)
From Pastor Matt Saarem and his wife, Sue: "I was among a select group of pastors whose lives were touched by Ken Peterson and his passion to end hunger in our world. Ken was responsible for the 'higher education' of quite a few pastors!"
From Pastor Jim Gronbeck and his wife, Julie: "One year we had need for an extra Sunday School room, so Margaret Webster converted the basement into a 'Roman catacomb' and the kids loved it. Margaret had a great sense of theology and a plethora of ideas! One Easter she turned the altar around and created an 'empty tomb' with rocks and flowers. And I remember Bert Bogenholm singing and playing his harmonica in worship."
Pastor Ed Nieman loved the late Christmas Eve worship services and going afterwards to Margaret Webster's for Pannu Kakku, Finnish pancakes, as well as the many Boundary Waters trips and weeks at Bible camp through Camp Vermillion.
Besides sharing stories, those assembled sang a few hymns and enjoyed some terrific trumpet and organ/piano music by Bob and Marilyn Schultz's son and daughter-in-law. Then we ate, visited, gazed at photos, leafed through memory books, and looked at pictures. I left feeling uplifted by the energy of the current Bethlehem congregation and the many people whose contributions they hold in their minds and hearts.
As Jennie said in her closing of the service, holding her arms out in an encompassing way: "Our Church is not the building. It is our people!"