A piece of Norway close to home: St. Paul, Minnesota’s Norwegian surprise
Christine Foster Meloni
When I arrived in my hometown of Minneapolis last week, I was met by my friend Ann who greeted me excitedly. “I have a Norwegian surprise for you! Get in the car. We are going to St. Paul.”
Well, growing up in Minneapolis and then leaving soon after my high school graduation with rare trips back, St. Paul was a virtual unknown to me. And I had always thought that Minneapolis was Scandinavian and St. Paul German and Irish. What Norwegian treasure was St. Paul hiding?
We drove over the Mississippi River and into St. Paul. Ann soon pulled up and parked in front of Luther Theological Seminary. The day was warm and sunny, and the campus was inviting with its well-trimmed lawns and attractive buildings.
We went into the Student Center and located the Information Desk. Ann asked the young lady at the desk how to get to the Norwegian church. With a bright, friendly smile (I think it was the trademark Minnesota smile), she said that she would be happy to give us the key and a map.
A Norwegian church? My curiosity was aroused. I asked myself, Will it be a stave church like the replicas in Fargo-Moorhead, Little Norway, Minot, and the Epcot Center? We set out across the campus and there, on a small hill, we saw the little Old Muskego Church, a plain, square-log building.
Ann and I walked up the stairs. We eagerly unlocked the door and went inside. We felt as if we were walking back in time. The walls were made from large logs of red oak. On the first floor there was an altar with a white parament of Hardanger embroidery above it, framed by a very faint, barely visible, rosemaling design. Steps next to the altar led up to a massive pulpit. A wood-burning stove stood near the altar.
The church could originally seat up to 300 people. There were 14 rows of pews on the first floor and additional rows of pews in a balcony. A sign, however, warns visitors not to go up to the balcony because it is old and fragile. Therefore, these seats are no longer available.
We learned that this was the first Norwegian Lutheran church in the United States. It was built in 1844 in Muskego, Wisconsin, by Norwegian immigrants, mostly from the county of Telemark. The hardy pioneers had worshipped in this church for about 20 years before they outgrew the building and had to build a new one. A local farmer then bought the old building and used it as a barn.
Fortunately, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church in America decided to save the historic church and preserve it as a memorial. They bought it in 1904. It was dismantled and shipped to St. Paul, where it was reassembled.
The Old Muskego church was placed on the list of Minnesota Historical Sites in 1963 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The Seminary has accepted the responsibility to maintain it.
This historic little church is indeed a Norwegian surprise, a true gem. It is now used only for special occasions but it serves to remind us of our Norwegian ancestors and how important their churches were to them, for both religious and social reasons.
I wonder how many Norwegian Americans know that this church is here in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is definitely well worth a visit.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 10, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.