150 years of heritage

Published 9:46 am Thursday, April 9, 2009

Who better to have for a neighbor in the countryside than a county church?

Answer: There is none.

Country churches hold the rural landscape together. Though their numbers have grown fewer, they remain the ties that bind families.

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Just like electricity brought beacons of light to the dark countryside in the 1930s, country churches are shining beams of their own.

Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church was such a place 150 years ago and remains so today as it prepares to observe its sesquicentennial this summer.

“I think Red Oak Grove has captured the spirit of the occasion in the sesquicentennial theme: ‘Celebrate God Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,’” said the Rev. Gene Leiter, pastor for the last 12 months at Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church.

“Church is a work in progress, just as faith is a work in progress,” Leiter said. “The fact we are here today is a tribute to God, who loves us and Who always wants us to look forward in life.

“We can’t sit on our laurels, but we can celebrate them,” Leiter said.

And celebrate is what the Red Oak Grove Lutheran congregation plans to do.

To appreciate how far the church has come in 150 years, Leiter said one should compare how pioneers founded the church on the prairie and relied on face-to-face, preacher-to-church member contact with today’s ability to click a computer mouse and instantaneously reach around the world to the congregation’s Scandinavian ancestors in northern Europe.

“Whoever could have imagined, riding here on the back of a horse, that 150 years later what you planted could instantaneously be with the roots we chose to leave, because of technology?” Leiter said. “We can do that today with the computer. No one could have imagined that 150 years ago.”

Volunteers step forward

Paying homage to its rich history rests in the hands of two of the congregation’s enduring members: Myron and Marilyn Helleck, co-chairpersons of a committee of volunteers.

Eldred and Orline Peterson are responsible for the scale model of the church.

Verna Magnuson, church archivist, is collecting photographs of bygone days.

Rayburn and Pat Hanson, another pair of energetic volunteers, are also involved.

Vi Christianson, church treasurer, is also involved.

The question is: Who among the Newry Township congregation’s 400 confirmed and 500 baptized members isn’t taking part in the celebration?

“The celebration begins the Sunday before Mother’s Day with a mother-daughter tea,” said Marilyn Helleck. “We will be inviting our congregational daughters to help us celebrate 150 years and also enjoy an afternoon of entertainment and treats.”

Throughout the summer, the committee plans to invite former pastors and sons and daughters of the congregation to speak during the coming months. The Rev. Ron Beckman will be the first visiting pastor Sunday, May 10, Mother’s Day.

The church will host the 68th annual Strawberry Festival June 9, according to Helleck.

On July 4, Independence Day, the congregation will sponsor a float in the annual parade at Blooming Prairie.

Then, the official sesquicentennial celebration will be held Sunday, July 12, with a special Norwegian heritage festival worship service at 9 a.m.

Bishop Harold Husgaard, bishop of the Southeast Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, will be the special guest speaker.

The Sons of Norway will entertain with authentic Norwegian folk songs and other music.

There will be a display of antique farm tractors and other machinery.

There will also be free horse and cart rides to relive the “good old days” of church life on the prairie, plus historic displays, crafts and more.

The sesquicentennial celebration continues the following Sunday, July 19, when Carolyn Leiter will direct the anniversary choir, which will b ring together all former members who have been a part of music in the church’s recent history.

That’s the kind of summertime celebration the sesquicentennial committee is seeking to put together.

So much history

In the meantime, Verna Magnuson is dwelling on the past and trying to leave no stone unturned as she recounts the early history of Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church.

“In the spring of 1855,” begins B. M. Christianson’s 1925 account of church history, “a party of immigrants started out from Dane County, Wisconsin, to find land in what was then the Territory of Minnesota, about which rumors had reached them that it contained beautiful and fertile prairies.”

The Norwegian immigrants came to America in the early 1800s. After first settling in Wisconsin, 12 of the families sold their land in Wisconsin and pushed westward with their livestock to anticipated new opportunities in the Minnesota territory, arriving there in July 1855.

They built log homes, cleared the land and planted crops.

Religion was important to the families and they held worship services in the pioneer’s’ homes.

The Red Oak Grove congregation was officially organized Oct. 27, 1859 by Rev. A. C. Preus.

The legendary “circuit preachers,” Rev. C. L. Clausen was the congregation’s first pastor. He also served four other Lutheran churches, including Six Mile Grove, rural Lyle, and Little Cedar, Adams, who are also celebrating sesquicentennials this summer.

Fortunately, the congregation has recorded its historical events at each milestone: Silver, Golden, Diamond Jubilee, Centennial, 125th and now 150th.

That has kept church historians, such as Magnuson, busy.

Leiter, the former urban clergyman, and his wife, Carolyn, live in church parsonage next door to the house of worship.

“The wind is something else,” Leiter observed on a recent Monday morning at the church. “That’s been the biggest weather adjustment.”

“The biggest ministerial adjustment,” he said after giving it some thought, “was getting used to the pace of life. It’s significantly different.”

Leiter sees the congregation, literally, from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

He also sees it figuratively through his ministries.

His point of view is not to be ignored.

“It’s more casual,” he said of church life. “You must understand there’s a lot of stuff going on, but there’s more pause to allow what’s going on to be appreciated.”

Maybe that sense of appreciation is why the church basement is full of women — plus two men — tying quilts.

It’s the last Monday morning, when the quilters gathered for their timeless tradition.

The presence of a reporter wandering into the quilting bee does not stop the quilters.

Myron Helleck has shown up “because my wife made me show up for the interview,” he said.

Pastor Leiter dashed over from the parsonage to be interviewed before leaving for a mid-morning appointment.

Verna Magnuson arrives and proceeds to unload her car of boxes, scrapbooks and file folders of pictures, as well as a giant poster of the church bell’s history.

According to her research, the church women purchased the house of worship’s first-ever bell in 1888. However, 20 years would pass before a steeple was constructed where the bell was hung and rung to summon all to services.

The congregation has routinely celebrated every milestone in its history, but the 150th is special and so will be this summer’s observance.

Special, like the church members hold so dear to themselves.

“We have a strong faith and belief in the Lord,” Marilyn Helleck said.

“We have a strong heritage of which we are all proud,” said Myron Helleck.

“It’s a very spirit-filled congregation,” said treasurer Christianson.

Remarkably, the church building has remained untouched by Mother Nature’s wrath. No windstorms, no tornados touched it in 150 years.

It has received countless makeovers and improvements. For instance, an elevator, new energy efficient windows, new roof, air conditioning, new Christian education building, parsonage improvements and the current make-over of the church basement dining hall.

“There’s something going on it seems all the time,” said Marilyn.

Perhaps the most transforming occurred in 1975, when the interior of the church sanctuary was reversed and new north and south entrances built.

“We have wonderful volunteers whenever we need them,” said Christianson.

The sesquicentennial observance has been in the planning for a year. Commemorative items, including ornaments, updated cookbook, stationery and refrigerator magnets will be sold.

And the “stars” of the summertime celebration are being reminded of their roles. For instance, Berniece (Peterson) Hines, who may be the oldest living member, or Irene (Christianson) Filley, another 90-something member.

There have not been any recent church marriages, but a double baptism took place of two girls March 22.

Retaining younger members remains a challenge for the congregation.

So, this milestone will salute the passage of time.

“I’ve gone to this church all my life,” said Myron Helleck. “What I remember best of all is coming here as a kid and we used to slide down the cement railing along the church steps as kids. All the boys slid down that slide and all of us ruined our pants doing that.”

The lifelong member also remembers attending confirmation classes when the church’s pastor had been there for several years.

The dreaded examination of the students’ church knowledge was made easier by the fact, Helleck said, “Every year he used to ask the same questions of kids sitting in the same chairs, so we knew what was coming if we sat in a certain chair on confirmation day.”

Leiter has been a clergyman for 39 yearhttps://www.austindailyherald.com/admin/news/stories/add/#s, starting in Wisconsin, but the bulk of those years spent in his native Ohio before coming to southeast Minnesota a year ago.

Leiter’s ministerial background is in urban churches. Thus coming to the Newry Township country church was a jolt, but one that quickly disappeared.

“The fit felt right from the start,” Leiter said. “I preached and then interviewed one night and a couple of weeks later I assumed the call.”

Today, as the sesquicentennial excitement swirls about him, Leiter is impressed.

“The Red Oak Grove congregation is a living, growing field of faith, representative of the seed that was planted over the last 150 years.”

Those seeds include the families of Peder Lein, Anders Melhovd, Tore Peterson Berge, Guttorm Halsteins and the other Norwegian pioneers, who saw a beacon signaling them to stay in the grove of red oaks on the Minnesota prairie.

For more information about the church’s sesquicentennial, including purchasing commemorative items, call Marilyn Helleck at 583-7874 or the church at 437-3000.