The earliest record of the existence of a church on our island is May 12, 1329 when bishop Audfinn of Bergen sent out a request for funds from local churches, including the one on Austrheim. Money was needed to “do battle against enemies of the church.” The letter prescribes exactly how much each church was to pledge. From Austrheim, the requirement was one mark silver or 214 grams. A copy of the original document can be found in a wonderful book called Austrheim Past and Present, compiled by Arvid Skogseth. A little known fact, pointed out in this book, is that the more important people of the community were not buried in the church cemetery among the commoners but were interned under the floor of the church. People paid extra for this privilege and it became a good source of revenue for the church. In 1805 this practice was discontinued for “hygienic” reasons.
The church I was baptized in, which is the church that is there today, was built in 1865 alongside the existing church which had become too small for the expanding population and was subsequently torn down. The new church was constructed of solid timber walls. The logs were brought by boat to the Austrheim dock, about a kilometer away. My father’s great uncle Thor (who also had a brother named Thor) told my father that the logs were transported from the dock to the building site using an old cart that had solid wood wheels and pulled by a horse the locals nicknamed “Bukken” (Billy goat) because of his diminutive size. The carpenters would shape each log into oblong timbers using only an axe. Local kids would compete for the waste wood and shavings which they brought home for kindling. Uncle Thor was one of these kids. One day he got too close to the man wielding the axe and was struck in the forehead. The injury was not fatal but left him with a pronounced scar for the rest of his life. My father, who knew uncle Thor about six decades later, said that the scar on his forehead was still his very noticeable.
The church was the first lending library in our community. You could go there and borrow books (principally Bibles) and it was said that my grandfather, Johan Utkilen, borrowed the first book (a big Bible) ever lent by the church. He still had not returned it in 1916 when he and my grandmother were married. Instead of asking for its return, minister Frøste gave him the Bible as a wedding present from the church. It is one of the most treasured possessions in our family and will be handed down to each new generation.
There have been rumors of the church being haunted ever since it was built. Late one moonlit night in 1932, Erling Førland (I went to grade school with his son) was walking past the church when he claims to have seen an old woman with a peat basket on her back emerge from the cemetery (which adjoins the church), carrying an open book (he thought it looked like one of the church hymnals) and walking towards the back end of the church. This area is called “små støvo” which is a room where infants wait on baptism day. The thing that made Erling’s hair stand on end was the fact that when she came to the door she did not open it; she just walked right through it, peat basket and all. Erling did not stick around to see if she came back out. Another unexplained occurrence is the light that can be seen on dark nights emanating from deep within the cemetery. Many people have seen this light, including my father. A few brave souls have even tried to approach the light but it always goes out before they get close.
If you were to ask the old timers if there were one particular sermon that stood out in their mind, I suspect some would point out a sermon that was delivered before their time by a minister whose name has been long forgotten. What made this sermon unique was not its content but rather its delivery. The story goes that the minister fell asleep in the middle of his sermon. The congregation, being good Norwegians, merely sat there and waited. Exactly how long he was asleep is lost to history but he did eventually wake up. Upon realizing where he was and what had happened, he uttered the words that were to become the most memorable ever to be uttered in this church, “Vi må vel til igjen” (I suspect we must continue). Unlike today, ministers in those days had to travel long distances to get to the church in which they were scheduled to preach. One minister was assigned to a general area comprising several churches and, as a result, services were not held every Sunday. In our case, he had to travel many hours to get to the church on Austrheim and it’s understandable that he was quite tired by the time he arrived. Specific people had the task of ferrying the minister for various stages of his route to the church. The first road built on our island was the road the minister used in getting from the dock to the church.
In 1982, our whole family returned to Norway for Christmas. On Christmas Eve we attended church. I had not been inside the church for 30 years but it had changed very little except for the addition of a model of a sailing ship hanging from the ceiling. I am told this is quite common in Norwegian rural churches today.
Norway has come a long way in a few decades. When Jon Lind was a child they still dug peat for fuel, carried water from a well, and lit their houses with kerosene. Lind was 11 when his family moved from Austrheim to Oregon, and considers America his home. Yet in memory the Norway of his childhood seems idyllic. In this column he shares some of those memories. Share your memories with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 15, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.