Chicago’s Minnekirken endures at Logan Square
Faith in the future
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
There was a time when the neighborhood surrounding Chicago’s Logan Square was at the heart of the Norwegian community, with specialty shops, clubs, and singing societies. In the early 20th century, Norwegian immigrants decided to build a new church there, and in 1908, the red brick-clad building we know today began to take shape. By 1912, the doors were opened, and it quickly became a distinctive neighborhood landmark. Today, it is know as the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church (Den Norske Lutherske Minnekirke), or simply Minnekirken.
But over the years, demographics shifted, and by the 1970s, the neighborhood started to be plagued by crime, including drug dealing and gangs. Many of the remaining Norwegian immigrants, their children, and grandchildren began to move away to the suburbs. Their stores disappeared, and most stopped coming to church. But a core of devoted parishioners continued to come to Minnekirken, and it has survived as the last Norwegian-speaking congregation in Chicago.
I met with one of them, Barbra Kronborg-Mogil, who grew up with Minnekirken and now serves as assistant financial secretary there. Both her parents were of Norwegian heritage. Her American father was born in the Midwest but raised in Bergen, and her Norwegian mother was invited to America by an uncle. She ended up staying in the United States when she met her future husband.
Kronberg-Mogil has fond memories from childhood of going to church with the two of them, when they would walk to Minnekirken together. Sunday school was all in Norwegian, and she remembers the codfish and kumla dinners, which brought in the crowds. But these days, people don’t know how to make kumla, and not even services are in Norwegian anymore. Nonetheless, Minnekirken endures—and thrives—with an eye on the future.
I sat down with Kronborg-Mogil in the church reception hall, where so many festivities have taken place over the years, to talk about the church’s role in the community today. While she missed the old days with fond nostalgia, she understands that Minnekirken still plays an important role as the gathering place for those who want to honor their roots and embrace the culture of Norway. “If you are tied in with Scandinavian culture, you come to Minnekirken,” she said.
And it is not difficult to see why Minnekirken would endure as a landmark destination for Norwegians and Norwegian Americans. Modeled on Bragernes Kirke in Drammen, Norway, which was consecrated in 1871, most everything about it is quintessentially Norwegian. From outward appearances, the two churches could be architectural twins. Minnekirken’s architect was Charles F. Sørensen, and the mason was S.N. Nelson, both from Scandinavian immigrant families. The Gothic-revival structure is typical of Protestant adaptations of classic Gothic design, and its tall steeple still does not fail to impress passers by as it is seen from the boulevards surrounding the square.
Inside, the church has less to do with its older sibling in Drammen than with the churches found on the prairie in Norwegian America. But that does not make it less impressive in its own right. There is a familiar warm feeling, with the intricately carved altar painted in white in front of a blue background, and the colorful stained glass windows surrounding the sanctuary. The message at the pulpit is simple but profound: Gud er kjærlighet!—God is Love!
These days, not all services at Minnekirken are in Norwegian. In 2019, there are fewer members of the congregation who understand the language, and the shift to English has only been natural. It has been a gradual transition that began with English-language services offered on the last Sunday of the month. The current pastor of Minnekirken, the Rev. David Schoenknecht, does not speak Norwegian, but many of the readings and songs are in Norwegian to keep the connection to the language, which many find beautiful, even if they don’t understand it. “People want to keep the connection to the culture,” said Kronborg-Mogil. “They want to experience the atmosphere.”
To keep the bond with Norway alive, Minnekirken offers a number of special programs and events. Music is an important component, and the church choir presents three concerts a year for Christmas, Easter, and Syttende Mai. They are always sure to sing some of the verses in Norwegian, with some in English, to make sure their message resonates with their audience.
The holiday bazaar in November is also an important time to gather together with members of the surrounding community interested in learning about Norwegian traditions, including the imported lutefisk and lefse. And as is to be expected, the Norwegian cookies are always very popular. They are also enjoyed at the traditional Sunday kirkekaffe after services, although Kronborg-Mogil noted that this “can get kind of crazy,” depending on who is volunteering and what they bring. But no matter what is served, it is an important social gathering point for the church members, their friends, and guests.
There is also an emphasis on education at Minnekirken, with Norwegian language instruction offered as well as classes in traditional arts and crafts, including rosemaling. And before the Christmas bazaar, baking classes are very popular.
Community outreach is also important at the church. This past summer, a special backpack program for kids going back to school was organized, and 245 backpacks were given away. While there are no regular programs in place, there is usually something going on at Minnekirken to help those in need.
All of this is accomplished by a small core group of dedicated volunteers, who face a number of challenges. “Old churches are difficult to maintain,” said Kronborg-Mogil, “and currently, there is a need to raise $800,000 upwards to repair the building’s structure.” Retrofitting work is overdue, and the congregation plans to restore the church’s windows, which are nothing less than artistic and historical treasures. They are working closely with the Logan Square Preservation Society and the City of Chicago to obtain needed grant money, and individuals can make tax deductible donations online at the Minnekirken website: www.minnekirken-chicago.org/donate.
At times, the tasks at hand may seem overwhelming, but Kronborg-Mogil and the congregation members are keeping the faith. Minnekirken was created to be a home for Norwegian faith and culture in the Logan Square community, and they continue to honor those traditions to this day. Interest and support from Norway is strong, with visits from the royal family, ambassadors, Norwegian family and friends, as well as curious tourists. It is not to be forgotten that in 1899 the first Syttende Mai parade set out from church, and they have never missed one since. It is with this purpose and commitment that Minnekirken will endure for future generations of Norwegian Americans.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.