A place of worship and a work of art
The art and architecture of Mindekirken tells its story of faith and commitment
MARY JO THORSHEIM
Norway Art, Minnepolis
Remember the children’s game with fingers of both hands bent and laced together?
Here is the church and here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people!
The steeple topped with a cross has soared over The Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church Mindekirken (Den Norske Lutherske Mindekirke) and the people in it and around it since 1929. Farsighted founders of the church that was organized as a congregation in 1922 set their sights on establishing a building that would be both a suitable memorial to the past and serve well into the future. And both the congregation and church building continue to follow that vision to this day.
A story about architecture and art at Mindekirken requires describing them in their context of service to God and people. It is actually a “generational” story beginning with the founders through all the individuals who have built on the efforts of others over 100 years and then have made their own unique contributions to art, music, fellowship, and other areas of church life.
When the congregation was organized without a physical location, worship and meetings were held in temporary places and private homes. That was to change seven years later when the present structure was completed on 21st Street and 10th Avenue South in Minneapolis in 1929 at a cost of $173,000. It was dedicated May 4, 1930.
The neighborhood around the church had drawn emigrants from varied countries, including many Norwegians. The proximity to railroad employment was one of the attractions of the location in the early days. Today, both Mindekirken and Norway House are part of a “cultural corridor” that includes diverse residents who speak more than 100 languages. Historically, and at present, being welcoming places for all people is an aim of both organizations.
Looking at the outside
The exterior of the church is pictured in one of Kari Fosse’s historic watercolor paintings. She included two neighboring houses, and we are reminded of the residential nature of the church area before recent and present changes, such as the office and education addition to the church and the current building project of Norway House on the same block. Berit Aus, daughter of the Rev. Ivar and Hulda Aus, remembers the houses shown in Kari’s painting and adds that her parents knew the people who lived in them. The Aus family came to Mindekirken in 1959.
When the beautiful church building designed by Engebret Lund of the prominent architectural firm Lund & Dunham was erected in the late 1920s, it certainly was an important addition to the landscape. Lund’s design called for walls built of Indiana limestone with a slate roof. The light green, patinated copper steeple contains the church bell and a set of chimes. Stepping into the church through the main doors under the tympanum (arch) on the south side of the building reveals the outstanding interior.
Discovering the inside
Mindekirken resembles some Norwegian churches, for example the Kampen Church in Oslo, which has a somewhat similar exterior design. The interiors are alike in that “He is Risen,” the original altar painting by Axel Ender (1853-1920), which Norwegian-American artist August Klagstad (1866-1949) replicated for Mindekirken, hangs in Kampen Church. (There is another version of Ender’s “Resurrection”painting in Molde, Norway.) Ender was a famous Norwegian artist who primarily painted winter scenes and summer landscapes with figures. Klagstad was a prolific and well-known creator of altar paintings in the United States.
Both Ender and Klagstad were born in the Buskerud district of Norway. Although little information is known about Engebret Lund, there were immigrants who came to the Midwest from Buskerud. Is there a connection here? Was Buskerud background a common thread among the three men that may have led to their meeting? Further research to confirm or dispute the possibility would be interesting to conduct!
We asked Pastor Gunnar Kristiansen, the current pastor in the line of generations of pastors from Norway who have served Mindekirken, to comment on its art.
“I have to say that my favorites are the altar painting and the stained-glass windows,” he said. “The painting is so well-lighted that it glows and seems to be coming toward you. I have said that Mindekirken hardly needs a pastor! The windows and the altar painting together tell the whole story!”
Bob Worrall improved the illumination of the altar painting by replacing the original 40-watt bulbs with LED bulbs. They have several advantages, including permitting the warm glow that evenly lights the entire composition. Worrall points out the creativity of the original placement of the lighting under the rim of the carved frame around the painting.
“He is Risen” depicts the startled women at the grave of Jesus when they found the stone barrier had been rolled away from the opening and his resurrection had occurred. Color and composition, light and shadow are skillfully used in the scene, which is central to the theology of Mindekirken.
Precious stained glass
The stained-glass windows bring wonderful light through the life of Christ theme into the sanctuary. They were first described in an illustrated publication and files created by Pastor Thorgeir Havgar who served Mindekirken from 1991 to 1992. In following years, the late Mary Ann Olsen did further research and generated new interest in the windows’ history and story by leading tours and giving talks. Recently, Gracia Grindal authored a book on the topic. Studying the windows is fascinating because the design details and compositional elements come to light artistically and thematically.
“We Bring Color to Light” is the slogan of Gaytee Palmer Stained Glass, the Minneapolis firm that designed and installed the Mindekirken stained-glass windows in the 1920s when it was known as Gaytee Studios. Its reputation included national commissions and local work for leading churches, for example, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
Thomas J. Gaytee had studied with Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York and first came to Minneapolis as a seller for Tiffany. Later, he opened his own studio. Since its founding by Gaytee in 1918, the business has continuously operated to create and restore stained glass.
On Sept. 24, 1929, Thomas Gaytee wrote to the architects proposing the design for Mindekirken’s stained-glass windows. They were to be composed of imported European glass at the price of $5 per square foot using a technique from the 14th century. The deadline for design and installation was Dec. 15, 1929, only about two months later!
“Medallions of the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” were to be arranged in four panels in each of seven windows that would be placed in a counterclockwise arrangement around the sanctuary. Gaytee called the first motif the “Announcement to the Shepherds” and the last, the “Ascension into Heaven.” Also proposed were the large window above the altar and those above the back balcony.
The plans must have been readily accepted by the Pastor Christian Munson, the building committee, and the architects, Sund & Dunham. The stained-glass project was completed by the deadline, and its execution seems to have faithfully followed the proposal. (Note to those interested in architectural history: Sund & Dunham officed at 512 Essex Building, Minneapolis, a fine, neo-classic style downtown office building constructed in 1913 that is still in use at 10th Street and Nicollet Avenue.)
Fine woodcarving by a master
Like a window frame supports a window and a picture frame enhances a work of art, the skillful wood carving of the altarpiece and pulpit supports and enhances the stained-glass art. Norwegian American woodcarver Leif Melgaard from Sør Fron in Gudbrandsdal, immigrated in1920. Melgaard created the carving in Mindekirken’s chancel (the space around the altar), including the pulpit. His day job was as a cabinetmaker and carpenter with Lake Street Sash and Door Company on Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. Melgaard’s carving for his employer’s commission was done on his own time, at night, according to Hans Sandom , who had known him well since the early 1970s].
Sandom credits some important development as a famous woodcarver himself to the influence of Melgaard, who was named one of 12 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows
1985. (This annual award recognizes the recipients’ artistic excellence and supports their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage.) When Melgaard died in 1991, he was described in The New York Times as “an artist whose wood carvings became museum pieces and also found their way into Norway’s Royal Palace.”
Melgaard was a mentor, teacher, and friend to Sandom. He said that Melgaard “really did not want to teach,” but he inspired Hans by opening his eyes to observing details of design and artistry in his carving. He recalled that Melgaard said things like, “Look at this! If you can’t see it, you can’t do it. Learn to draw, learn to see!” When Hans showed Leif something he had carved, Leif would comment: “Hmm, look at it ….”
Although Melgaard had a reputation of not wanting to be observed while carving because “he did not want to give away all his secrets,” he shared important things with Sandom, who says, “At the end, Leif must have thought that I had quite some potential. He gave me all his tools and lots of secrets.” Some of the secrets lay in the tools, Sandom observed. Melgaard’s workbench is a prized possession at home at the Sandoms.
Mindekirken has been the beneficiary of numerous decorative art objects. The church’s interiors committee makes decisions regarding them. Examples of donations include the tableau designed by Jorid Gillebo, wife of the Rev. Ole Amund Gillebo, who served Mindekirken.
In an alcove above the lobby stairway, she arranged an åkle (woven wall hanging) from Valdres, an 1840 immigrant trunk from Telemark, and a framed canvas reproduction of Adolph Tidemand’s 1869 painting “Grandmother’s Bridal Crown” that together form a unit of objects representing the cultural heritage of the church. The åkle donors were Marit and Orlyn Kringstad.
The trunk has an interesting provenance:
This Norwegian immigrant trunk, dated 1840, belonged to Lydia Amelia (Ann) Felland Kalin and was given to Mindekirken in her memory by her daughter,
Mrs. Robert (Jean) Macfarlane, and son, Oscar T. Kalin II.
Mrs. Kalin was born in Stoughton, Wisconsin, July 24, 1891. She died in Minneapolis, where she had resided for many years, August 6, 1977.
The trunk had earlier belonged to Mrs. Kalin’s parents, Gunnar Vetleson Felland and Emma Charlotte Larson.
The trunk came originally from Telemark, Norway.
The canvas artwork was a gift from me and my art business, Norway Art, in honor of my parents and grandparents. Referring to Jorid is a way to use her contribution as an example of the deep involvement in the welfare of the church that the spouses of pastors have generously donated.
The Rev. Jens Dale encouraged interest in visual arts at Mindekirken; for example, with the support of Consul General Thor S. Johansen, a memorable art event was presented while they were both based in Minneapolis. In 2003, Elling Reitan (born 1949) came from Norway for the opening of an exhibit of his work that I curated for the annual Leif Eriksson Festival (Tom Maakestad creations were also included). Reitan donated a signed and numbered lithograph “Peer Gynt’s Ride over Besseggen,” on display to this day.
The subject of wall décor cannot overlook Fellowship Hall: wonderful, free rosemaling frieze on the soffits of Fellowship Hall created by noted rosemaler and publisher of designs and instructions, Addie Pittelkow. She climbed to a scaffold and applied paint to plaster from that somewhat precarious position! The Rev. Harry Cleven replicated a large painting from the ancient Torpo Stave Church in Norway, displayed at the front of the space. Recently, widely recognized artist Shirley Evenstad painted a wooden panel with her own rosemaling design that is now on view.
The heart of the mission and history of Mindekirken may be summarized in quotations that are finely lettered and painted on the walls in the front of the sanctuary. Vern Peterson, designer for Tonka Toys and later a custodian at the church, designed and applied the golden lettering.
Synger til Herren en ny sang
(Sing to the Lord a new song) Psalm 96:1
Salige er de som hører Guds ord og bevarer det
(Blessed are they who hear the word of the Lord and keep it) Luke 11:28
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.