Minnekirken celebrates its grand reopening
Moving ahead into the next 100 years
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
April 24 was a joyous day for the congregation and friends of Minnekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Chicago, when the 110-year-old church celebrated the completion of a two-year-long restoration of its facade. Finally, the scaffolding was down, and over a 100 guests filled the church for this special occasion, which included speeches by community leaders and a performance by a Eurovision champion.
The history of Minnekirken goes back to the 1830s, when Norwegians began immigrating to Chicago. They put down their roots in the northwest section of the city, which with time became known as “Little Norway,” and Chicago became the city with the third-largest Norwegian population in the world outside of Oslo and Bergen in Norway. In 1908, the cornerstone of the church at Logan Square was laid, and the red-brick church as we know it was completed in 1912.With its inexpressive architecture and outer facade, modeled after the Bragernes Church in Drammen, Norway, the church has stood as a neighborhood landmark ever since.
At one time, there were over 50 Norwegian-speaking congregations in the Chicago area, but today Minnekirken is the only one remaining, as the demographics of the city shifted over the years. The neighborhood has changed over the years, with other ethnic groups moving in and Norwegian Americans moving out to the suburbs—yet Minnekirken has endured.
Minnekirken is just one of two churches in the United States that uses the Norwegian language in its liturgy, the other being Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Minneapolis. Over the years, the congregation has stayed alive with cultural celebrations to attract Norwegian Americans from in and outside of the community: Norwegian Constitution Day, the “Taste of Norway” festival, a Christmas concert, and other special events. Minnekirken, “The Red Church” at Logan Square stands as a symbol for the Norwegian American community in Chicago and is an iconic landmark for the entire community.
But any building that is over 110 years old will face structural challenges, and in the case of Minnekirken, winter freezes and spring thaws took their toll, with water damage threatening the structure. In 2019, a local restoration architect was brought in to assess the situation, and it was determined that extensive structural maintenance and restoration needed to be undertaken to ensure the long-term stability of the facade and the church’s impressive tower.
Fortunately, the leaders of the church had the necessary foresight to lay a financial foundation for the church that would make all of this possible. A sound plan for saving had been put in place, and the church’s facade was officially designated as a landmark to ensure its preservation. The latter has enabled Minnekirken to secure public funds for the restoration project. The remainder sum needed was secured through a fundraising campaign, in part through GoFundMe. The members of the church and others in the community gave generously, and the $725,000 needed was put in place, including a $250,000 grant from the City of Chicago Adopt-A-Landmark Fund.
All in all, the restoration project went smoothly with no contingency money needing to be touched, but that does not mean restoring a vintage building to historical landmark standards is easy. It was necessary to restore its street-facing facade in exactly the same manner as the original, usin
g original bricks harvested from other sides of the building. At any rate, the size of brick used on the building is no longer used. A mortar consultant was brought in to match the original pigment, and notably the mortar used is red instead of gray. No detail was too small to be overlooked.
But as Honorary Norwegian Consul Susan Meyer mentioned in her speech, Minnekirken is much more about its people than its building, no matter how impressive and majestic it stands—and it was the congregations and fellowship that the day was about. Through the pandemic, the church not only pulled together to complete this project, but they extended their outreach into the community and the world with their virtual services and other online events. Matt Nygaard, Minnekirken’s treasurer and a key player in the restoration project, saw that while the spiritual need during the pandemic was great, there was a silver lining in people coming together in new ways. Now with the restoration project completed, the congregation will continue to extend its outreach into the community and beyond with activities that include streaming Sunday services and a monthly community concert. The neighborhood surrounding the church is once again booming, with urban renewal and young professionals moving in, and the church will be there to serve them.
And then, of course, there was a party to mark this momentous occasion. Norwegian virtuoso violinist and greatest Eurovision champion of all time, Alexander Rybak, wowed the congregation with his playing. There was a smørgåsbord luncheon catered by the Scandinavian-inspired restaurant Ørkenoy, and the long-standing Scandinavian restaurant Tre-Kronor donated herring and cheese to the meal. The feast was topped off with a festive and delicious cake decorated with—what else—the facade of Minnekirken, and special rosemaled ornaments of the church to support the project and remember the day. This most perfect day most fittingly ended with concert by the Chicago Spelmanslag, as sounds of traditional Nordic folk music filled the church.
It was a great honor to attend the grand reopening of Minnekirken, and it is an honor share their story with you.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.