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Minnesota church solves the mystery of an unusual box hidden in its walls

It was an almost impenetrable copper box inside a cornerstone of Trinity Lutheran Church. Members learned it was a time capsule with surprises from the past, but what did the past want to share?

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Trinity Lutheran Church Senior Pastor Simon Fensom looks at a 1950 church program found in a recently-discovered time capsule hidden in the church's walls while member Eric Greiff looks through other items in the copper box.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum
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Quick! If someone came to your house right now and asked you to put together a time capsule of your life, what would you put in it? What would you want the people of the future to know about you?

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Now imagine you’re part of a church congregation in the mid-20th century. You’ve just completed a brand new state-of-the-art education addition to your 50-year-old church. What should you pack up for future members to see?

The 2022 congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead just had the opportunity to find out.

Earlier this year, church members uncovered a time capsule they never knew existed buried deep within the walls of the building.

It was found by Jim Cole, a Trinity member, architect and project manager working on the renovation of the Trinity Preschool.

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Trinity Lutheran Church member Jim Cole shows how the copper box, which members soon learned was a time capsule, was hidden in a cornerstone of the 1949 church addition.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

“It was back over here on the south side of the building in the corner in the 1949 addition,” he said.

The 1949 addition, like 2022’s preschool project, also focused on children. The Parish Education addition added classrooms for the 1,000 or so children who attended Trinity. A marker emblazoned with "1949" was engraved on the foundation cornerstone. The airtight, locked-up, solid copper box was tucked into that cornerstone.

“It was just a box—nothing is written on it. Simon thinks there’s a Bible in there. But it’s packed pretty tightly so I think there are other papers in there too,” Cole said.

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Jim Cole used a drill, followed by metal cutters, to get into the copper box. The papers peeking through haven't seen the light of day since Dec. 31, 1950, when the capsule was made.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

Simon is Senior Pastor Simon Fensom who oversaw the opening of the box during a 140th-anniversary celebration of the church on Dec. 4, 2022.

“We’re excited! There has been a lot of anticipation about this,” he said.

But getting into the time capsule would be no small undertaking. Cole and fellow member Eric Greiff, an engineer and chair of the building committee, brought out drills and special sheet metal cutters (tin snips) to break into the box that had been sealed for over 70 years.

The congregation watched, drank coffee and chit-chatted as the men worked to unearth the past. After several minutes, they were finally able to pull back the metal casing to unveil papers.

Cole carefully pulled out each item and passed it to Fensom who told the congregation what they found. It turns out both men were right. There was a Bible inside, but there were also a lot of other items, including:

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  • A program from the dedication of the Parish Education Building on Dec. 31, 1950
  • Martin Luther’s Catechism
  • The Lutheran Herald
  • A Concordia Hymnbook
  • A 1949 Trinity Yearbook
  • Bulletins from Trinity services
  • A program from the 1950 Sunday School Christmas Program
  • The Moorhead Daily News and The Fargo Forum from Dec. 30, 1950
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The time capsule included a program from the 1950 Sunday School Christmas Program.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The papers smelled slightly musty, but none the worse for wear — pretty remarkable when you think about it. The contents of the capsule were suspended in time inside the wall while time marched on outside of it — through wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East to the assassination of a president, the World Trade Center coming down and a global pandemic.

The newspapers, church bulletins, and Bible stayed safe and dry in their 1950 cocoon even as harsh Minnesota blizzards and torrential summer hailstorms raged just inches away on the other side of the wall.

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The time capsule included The Fargo Forum from Dec. 31, 1950 with a headline urging 'war-like austerity' during the six-month old Korean war.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The time capsule was also an unknown constant throughout the seasons of the parishioners' lives, surrounding generations of Trinity members as they were baptized, confirmed, married and held funeral services inside the sanctuary.

It was odd to think that as today’s parishioners paged through the old newspapers and bulletins, their fingers were the first to touch the papers since church staff, the Lutheran Ladies Aid and others packed them up 72 years ago.

Something not lost on Trinity member Mike Cumings as he explained what was happening to his two children, Zoe and Leo.

“It’s great to have a look at the past. I wasn’t expecting to have the capsule unearthed here. I wonder if we’ll be putting one in our new addition,” he said.

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Trinity Lutheran Church member Mike Cumings and his children Zoe, 13, and Leo, 9, look at the newly-unveiled contents of the time capsule found hidden in the church's walls.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

Fensom said they’re already talking about it putting a capsule somewhere as they continue renovating the church into next year.

“This did inspire us right away when we found out from the architects and builders that they had found the time capsule,” Fensom said. “We immediately had a conversation that we should do this for the future as we continue our construction.”

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Cy Running conducts the choir at the Parish Education Building Dedication ceremony on Dec. 31, 1950. The congregation saved the program from the ceremony, along with newspapers from that day, to put inside its time capsule. Today's senior pastor, Simon Fensom, says the time capsule these people put together has inspired them to put together a time capsule as they complete renovations on Trinity in the next couple of years.
Contributed / Trinity Lutheran Church

But what will 2023 Trinity members put in their time capsule? Fensom said he would include some kind of letter sharing a vision for the future of the ministry, something that the 1950 time capsule did not include.

Fensom said he’d like to share the message of who the people of Trinity are today and the role they might play in shaping the community.

“I don't know that anything changes. People are still people and we still need to look to something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “I was giving the children's sermon this morning and it really hit me when I said ‘you guys are the future.’ That's a trite old saying we always pull out at church but I was actually thinking in another 50 or 60 years, how many of you will be here and more importantly how many will be out in the world being faithful because you were raised here and this place had an impact on you?”

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Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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