An immigrant story worth telling
A proud past provides a strong, firm foundation for the future
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
In 1922, the year Mindekirken was founded, the world had forever been changed by the ravages of World War I and the social upheaval it brought. A pandemic had swept the world, nationalism was gaining strength on American soil, and there was a strong desire to return to normal. Sound familiar?
At this time in history, the use of foreign languages was strongly discouraged throughout all of American society—how many of regret that bestemor never taught us Norwegian?—and ethnic churches were conforming to this pressure by holding their services in the English language only. It was important to become a “real American,” and that did not include the melodic cadences of the Norwegian language.
But not everyone felt that this was a positive change. Many saw the change happening too fast and felt that preserving one’s heritage was an important part of self-identity and keeping a productive, mutually supportive community together.
The Rev. C.J. Eastvold, president of the newly formed Norwegian Lutheran Church in America was one of those people. While many opposed him, in the fall and winter of 1921, he asked six men and one woman in Minneapolis to help form a Norwegian-speaking Lutheran congregation. Services would be held in Norwegian as long as there was someone there to hear and understand the message of God in their native language. This was the genesis of Den Norske Lutherske Mindekirke—The Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church—as we know it today in Minneapolis.
Mindekirken was officially founded on Jan. 9, 1922, with 22 charter members. One of them was Petrine Thoresen, the aunt of Jon Pedersen, also a monumental leader in the Minneapolis Norwegian-American community, a staunch supporter of Mindekirken and Norway House until his death in 2019.
Thoresen and others had been able to rally support around the new church. While the Immigration Act of 1924 put a damper on the flow of new immigrants from Norway, many young Norwegian Americans were moving to the city to find work, and the congregation began to grow.
In 1926, with services being held in a basement location that seated 500 people, the young congregation realized that they needed a real church building. Bonds were sold to raise the $75,000 needed to start the building, which one day would stand as monument or memorial to the immigrants.
The cornerstone of the magnificent structure as we know it today at the location at 924 East 21st Street was laid in 1929. The final price tag for the church, today appraised at $7 million was $180,000. The official dedication ceremony took place on May 4, 1930.
Soon the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, and economic hardships set in for the new church. Payments on the bonds raised to build the church became all but impossible, but as Gracia Grindal, congregation member and professor emeritus at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said as I spoke to her about the history of the church, “Norwegians have a strong love of freedom and independence.”
Under the leadership of their pastor, Elliot Rasmussen, arrangements were made to pay off the bonds at a reduced rate with a loan from the Sons of Norway. The final payment was made in 1945.
During the war, Mindekirken played an important role in the community informed about what was happening in occupied Norway. In 1939, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha visited there during their tour of the United States. Since then, there have been several visits form the Norwegian royal family. Olav’s son, King Harald V is the patron of Mindekirken, and he and Queen Sonja visited the congregation on a U.S. tour in 1995.
A cultural hub
Through the years, Mindekirken has gained recognition for its musical programs, including its choirs and the many concerts featuring Norwegian music and artists. It has become home to the prestigious Leiv Eriksson International Festival, an annual celebration of Norwegian culture, music, and art. The Minnesota Edvard Grieg Society also holds concerts at the church throughout the year.
Tuesdays are a special day at Mindekirken, with the church’s biweekly Tuesday Open House program, with an outreach to anyone interested in Norway, with lectures on Norwegian literature, historic and contemporary Norwegian life, music, art, theology, and faith. It is a time for fellowship and sharing with others.
Mindekirken does not limit its outreach to the Norwegian-American community. With the changing demographic of the neighborhood, the congregation supports a number of missions to support anyone in need, regardless of their ethnic background.
Today, Mindekirken’s mission statement reads: “To serve as a spiritual center for the Scandinavian American Community, worshiping in both Norwegian and English. To be a warm and inviting place for visitors and members alike, where people join in fellowship across different ages and cultural backgrounds. To encourage activities such as Leiv Eriksson International Festival, Syttende Mai Celebration, concerts, festive dinners, and language classes.”
A living congregation
While it was always expected that the Norwegian language would die out and the church would stand as a monument to the past, this has never happened at Mindekirken. Sunday services are still held in the Norwegian and English languages, and through the language programs there, new generations are connecting to the proud past of those who came before them and contemporary Norway today. With the opening of Norway House on the same block in 2015 and its ongoing expansion to be completed in the fall of 2022, the future stands on a strong, firm foundation.
My own relationship to Mindekirken is a very special one. When I visited for their 17th of May celebration in 2019, I felt immediately welcome. I return there every opportunity I have, and together with Norway House, Mindekirken is my home away from home in Minneapolis. I know many others who share this same affection for this memorial church that is very much alive and full of relevance for our lives today.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.