A heart-centered harbor for SoCal’s Norwegian community
The Norwegian Seamen’s Church
Inside the cozy interiors of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro, Calif., with hand-woven Norwegian tapestries on walls, light wooden flooring, and the smell of baked cinnamon wafer cookies in the air, dozens of people gathered in the spirit of homecoming for the special Christmas Sunday service.
Families with young children, elderly people in their 70s and 80s, and teenagers took their seats on the couches and chairs in the spacious kitchen and community living room of the church—an alternative seating arrangement for the service that normally takes place in the sanctuary, which was being occupied by booths set up for the Christmas fair.
The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Vegard Husby, stepped into the living room in his long white priestly alb and welcomed everyone. His blue eyes lit up while he led the group through a series of prayers and sermons during the hour-long ceremony. The order of service included lessons from the Old Testament, several hymns, uplifting prayers for Christmas Eve intercessions, recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the communion, when Husby handed out pieces of bread and non-alcoholic red wine to attendees who participated.
The prayers were interspersed with soothing melodies played by a small band of a violinist, pianist, and trumpeter, and church songs sung by a Norwegian choir group called “Damekoret.” Norwegian-speaking attendees could sing along by following the lyrics of the songs on a handout.
Ever since the Norwegian Seamen’s Church opened in its present location in 1951, it has served as a religious and cultural center for Norwegians living in California. Initially built to serve weary and homesick sailors aboard ships that visited San Pedro harbor from Nordic ports, the church has evolved into a community center that serves as a secondary home for local Scandinavians.
Husby said that most of the people who come to the church are looking for a place to belong. “Whether they are rich or poor, they are searching for a sense of community and where they get the feeling of being Norwegian,” Husby said. “And that’s what we strive to provide our members—we offer a support system, a place where they feel loved and cared for and feel connected to their homeland.”
The Church of Norway, headquartered in Bergen on the west coast of Norway, has 28 around the world. The organization established parishes in over 30 countries, collectively known as the Norwegian Church Abroad or the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. The churches were originally built to serve Norwegian sailors who spent months at sea. After long, arduous ocean voyages from northern Europe, Scandinavian seafarers found a home away from home in the Seamen’s churches.
As ships arrived in San Pedro, sailors on board would hear their national anthem from the church. They were greeted with warm, freshly made waffles, spiced with cardamom and sweetened by raspberry and strawberry preserves.
The church not only provided social support and comfort but served as a post office, communication center, and bank. Sailors found the church to be a safe place to keep their pay and send money to their families. Many of the old banking books and other maritime artifacts are in the church’s museum.
Over the years, the number of cargo ships and cruise liners sailing from Nordic ports to Los Angeles and Long Beach has dropped significantly due to a decline in the Scandinavian shipping industry. In 2001, there were 390 ships, while in 2011, there were only 27. As a result, the church now serves as a religious venue and a community hub for a different clientele.
Husby said that the church draws a large group of elderly people who attend regularly. “They moved to California in the ’70s and ’80s and now live in San Pedro, so they can be close to the church,” he said.
Estrid Furness is Swedish and came to the United States after marrying a Norwegian American during a visit in the 1950s. She has been part of the church since she moved here, and she still plays an active role in it. “I’m part of the ladies club, where we crochet and knit together.” After a brief pause, she smiled and said, “Being part of the church … is so nice and cozy.”
Another member, Sigrid Ortega, said she attends the church once a month to volunteer. “I moved here in the 1970s and started attending church after my girlfriend told me about it,” Ortega said. “The people here are very kind, but I don’t always connect with them, because I’m from the farmland in Norway.”
Another significant group visiting the church are families with Norwegian roots or Norwegians who have married Americans, according to Husby. They come regularly to keep that part of their identity alive. “It’s important for them to expose their kids to their culture,” he said.
In the hustle and bustle of the church’s annual Julebasar, or Christmas fair, Marin Cole, a second-generation Scandinavian American, sat at one of the booths with her teenage daughter, preparing batter and pouring it into an electric krumkake iron.
“This is called krumkake,” Cole said. “The recipe was passed down from my great-grandmother from Norway. I come from a family of bakers, so a lot of the traditions from my family are passed down in the way of food.
“Coming to the church instills an education in my kids about where our ancestors came from and the struggles they had to endure to get to the United States—it brings a sense of humility.”
Cole said that she participates in the women’s group that meets regularly to discuss ways to help the church and support the local community. “We donate money and gifts to a couple of charities, and we also pool in our resources to host the Christmas fair,” she said.
Besides Cole’s booth, others sold Scandinavian goods: pottery, glassware, candles, soaps, Christmas decorations, and knitted items. They held raffle drawings and games over the three-day event for both adults and children.
To cater to its younger members, the church has a recreational area with a garden and pool to play and swim. The church’s shop sells crackers, cookies, and other goods from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
The church hosts a monthly event called “Super Sunday,” for kids and college students, with concerts and parties.
Ortellia Lighthill, 14, regularly attends these events, in addition to Sunday school.
“I was baptized here, so I feel like I grew up in the church,” Ortellia said. “Everyone is so kind, and there are always familiar faces. I love the feeling of community I experience when I’m here.”
“My parents raised me to speak Norwegian, and we have traveled to Norway many times—so it’s a big part of who I am.”
Husby said the heart of the church’s work is providing Lutheran services, such as the Sunday service, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. Although the church also holds services and other events in Swedish once a month, and the Swedish and Norwegian church are housed in the same building in San Pedro, Husby said that they both operate as two different churches that occasionally collaborate. “We’re under the same roof, but our focuses are different,” he said.
“As the Norwegian church, we cater to the needs of the 25,000-30,000 Norwegians living in Southern California,” he said. “Most of them come to us, but we also reach out to many others in our outreach program. We often visit elderly and sick people who are unable to come to the church.”
Husby said the church also operates as an emergency contact for the community. “If something happens to a Norwegian—if they are arrested, get hurt or if they have an accident—we’re the first ones they call,” he said. “We make sure that we are always there for them, no matter how difficult the situation is.”
See also “The Norwegian Seamen’s Church reaches out worldwide,”The Norwegian American, June 26, 2020.
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.