By Julie Krienke
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN After the original church in Bergen Township was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1896, the members of Bethel Lutheran rebuilt a new church in Lester Prairie. Now they are celebrating 150 years as a congregation.
“Our congregation is very active in the church, as well as the community,” Nancy Krull, member since 1995, said. “We open our church to community groups whenever possible as we believe it is important to serve the community.”
Church members have been actively working to plan a celebration for Bethel’s 150th anniversary. Mary Lou Teubert, a lifelong member of Bethel Lutheran, has taken a lead role in organizing the event.
“I’m just really excited for the celebration,” Mary Lou said. “It’s getting closer, and we need to have another meeting to make sure all the bases are covered.”
The history of Bethel Lutheran Church dates back to the 1850s and 1860s when Norwegian settlers made Bergen Township their home. The township was named after the city of Bergen in Norway.
“They didn’t have a church then,” Mary Lou said. “They just met in people’s homes. The ladies aid would meet in their own homes and walk to the meetings while knitting.”
The early congregation had traveling ministers like the Rev. Peter Carlson, who came from Carver County to Bergen Township once a month. According to Mary Lou, Carlson received one dollar for his 18 total trips to the Bergen area.
Alan Teubert, Mary Lou’s brother, reflected on the early church of Bergen Township.
“Bergen Township surrounds the city and goes far south,” Alan said. “Right here is still part of Bergen Township.”
Even though they had no church at this point, the early congregation of Bergen Township had its first confirmation July 25, 1864, with only one person confirmed.
Yet, the congregation soon became concerned with having a place to worship. Talk of building a church began.
“A church home was very important to the people so they had a place to go for worship,” Alan said.
“I think they needed a central place where they could gather,” Claire Larson, member of Bethel Lutheran, added.
The first church, which was located in Bergen, was started in 1873, and finished in 1877. According to Mary Lou, who was baptized at Bergen, the church was a 35-by-26-by-16 foot building.
“It was in 1869 that they wanted to find a place to build a church,” Mary Lou said. “One of the members donated two and a half acres, and other members probably donated logs to build the church.”
The early congregation had previously formed a religious corporation in 1859, and in 1876, once plans for the first church were well underway, members registered the articles with the township.
Furthermore, when this corporation was formed in 1859, the congregation decided to name the church the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bergen, which became the second Norwegian Lutheran Church to be started north of the Minnesota River.
“They didn’t have electric lights, but had kerosene lamps and lighted candles,” Mary Lou said. “Our ladies aid really did a lot at Bergen. They purchased the organ and had the money to put the basement in.”
Yet, it was June 23, 1896, that the emerging congregation faced a great tragedy. The church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
“They had built a church, barn, grainery, and a place for the horse,” Mary Lou said. “It burned, and they didn’t have insurance.”
Plans to build a new church in Bergen Township began immediately. The foundation was laid Oct. 18, 1896, and the new church was dedicated May 27, 1897.
“A beautiful reed organ was donated by the ladies aid after the church was burned,” Alan said. “It was in use many years and is still in our possession.”
In addition to the organ, the Young People’s Society of the church traded in the old bell to get the one that is currently in use today.
The congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1960 in Bergen Township.
According to Mary Lou, it was at this time that the church was experiencing a decline in membership. For this reason, the congregation decided to build a new church.
Relocation to Lester Prairie was decided at a meeting in 1965. Bethel Lutheran Church’s groundbreaking ceremony took place July 2, 1965, at its current location in Lester Prairie.
Bethel Lutheran Church is now located on Lincoln Avenue North in Lester Prairie. A parsonage was built in 1967, and the church has had two editions made.
Since the church’s relocation, Bethel has been recognized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America as a celebrating congregation, acknowledging nearly every decade of the church’s history.
“I think we have become more active and, as a church, are growing,” Mary Lou said.
“We have become more of a people church and have tried to do more outreach,” Alan added.
As of 2009, Bethel Lutheran had 213 baptized and 181 confirmed members. The current minister is Pastor Paul Bortnem.
“We have been having outdoor services in the summer,” Mary Lou said.
Contemporary worship services take place at 10 a.m. on Sundays, weather permitting.
Perhaps one of the more popular events hosted by Bethel Lutheran is lutefisk dinners. This year marks the 45th year that the church has had a lutefisk dinner in the church basement.
“We get people from all around,” Mary Lou said. “People come from all over and just look forward to it.”
According to Larson, the most people Bethel has served for a lutefisk dinner is 910.
When it comes to celebrating its 150th anniversary, the congregation of Bethel has good reason to recognize its rich history.
A celebration will kick off Saturday, Aug. 21 with games, entertainment, and ice cream from 6 to 8 p.m. at the church.
The festivities will continue Sunday, Aug. 22 at 10 a.m. with a worship service and communion. Following the service at 11 a.m. will be coffee and fellowship.
A catered dinner will take place at noon at Bethel Church. Tickets can be purchased until Monday, Aug. 16 by calling (320) 434-0660. Prices are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 2 to 10, and free for children under 2.
At 2 p.m., a Sunday afternoon program will take place in a tent at the church and will be followed with coffee and fellowship at 3 p.m.
“The afternoon celebration is open to all,” Alan said. “There will be a choir singing during the afternoon service, and afternoon festivities have no charge. It is more of a get-together for anyone who has been here.”
In addition to the activities, a raffle will take place throughout the celebration. Tickets can be purchased Saturday and Sunday.
First prize will be a handmade quilt by members of Bethel. Second prize is a personalized cake pan and Bethel cookbook. Third prize is a Bethel cookbook.
According to Mary Lou, cookbooks will be on sale throughout the weekend festivities.
For more information on Bethel Lutheran Church and the 150th anniversary celebration, visit the church’s new website at www.lpbethel.org.