By Kristen Miller
COLLINWOOD TWP, MN Nestled amidst crop fields on 190th Street in Collinwood Township sits a white, pioneer church on movers’ blocks as it awaits a new foundation.
A year ago, members of the Pioneer Cemetery Association and its officers, the latter of which are all descendants of the founding members of the First Swedish Independent Baptist Church of Collinwood, set out to raise funds for the church’s much-needed renovations.
“We just want to preserve it so that it can be used in whatever ways seem appropriate,” said Tess Turnbull Henry, member of the church’s restoration committee.
Henry has a long history with the church as her great-grandfather, Lars Larsson Lundin donated the land for the church and cemetery in 1890, and also attended the church.
The church was built sometime in 1893. However, early treasury records show that the founding members of the congregation began meeting within log cabin homes as early as 1886, according to Henry, who has been compiling research on the church for a history book. In addition, the obituary of the church’s first pastor, Jons Nordstrom, confirms that his ministry began in 1886, the same year the founding member, John Nordberg, came to the community.
Records show that after 1920, there were few regular services at, what has become known as the Pioneer Church.
The last funeral held within the church was for John Nordberg (the founding member) in 1935.
Looking at early records, and even a personal diary of the daughter of the forming member, Lars Granlund, and personal letters from Henry’s aunt, Emily Lundin Latt to her future husband Erick, tell a lot about the church history and its customs.
The services would’ve followed a Baptist format, and all of the sermons were in Swedish Henry said. The church’s Swedish name is Fristainde Baptist Forsamlingen
The men sat on the right side of the church, and the women sat on the left. The only exception was the female organist, who sat on the right side with the men, nearest to the organ, Henry explained.
They also practiced full-body immersion baptism, which was usually done in a lake.
Henry noted that some of the Lundin girls (her aunts), were baptized in Wolf Lake during the middle of winter.
As for the Swedish Independent Baptist denomination, it was formed in Sweden in the mid-1800s.
Some of the emphases of the movement was that it was not just a doctrine, but a life-changing experience, Henry said. “They were to have a close walk with God, relying on scripture, prayer, and fellowship.”
There was also a strong resistance to serving in the military in the “Old Country” of Sweden and this country, Henry commented.
One common chalice was used for communion, which is on display at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, along with hymn books from the church.
When there was no longer a full-time pastor, the members of the congregation drifted to other nearby churches, and the care of the church and its cemetery was no longer financially supported.
Pioneer Cemetery Association was formed
In 1960, the Pioneer Cemetery Association was established for the purpose of maintaining the church and the cemetery.
The current officers of the Pioneer Cemetery Association include: Leslie Mattson Erickson, president; Charles Johnson, vice president; Nancy Swanson Koeln, treasurer; and Karin Turnbull Woodson, secretary.
It was once considered that the 1886 building should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the association felt the process appeared to be too cumbersome for them to pursue, Henry noted. Various guidelines must be followed for the renovation and maintenance of such buildings in order for them to qualify for the register.
Surviving a fire
In its 121 years of existence, the church structure has withstood the elements, and even arson. Had it not been for a neighboring farmer, the church would no longer be standing today.
It was sometime in the 1980s, during the month of December, when Dwight Dahlman, neighbor to the church, was aerating grain.
He woke up around 4 a.m. to see it had started snowing.
He threw on some warm clothes, and walked around the bins, shutting off the fans and closing the roof doors.
That was when he noticed an orange color through the windows of the church across the street.
“I walked up there and realized it was burning inside,” Dahlman said.
He ran back up to the house and called for the fire department, which arrived just in time to save the structure.
Someone had started a fire on the northeast side of the building, he said.
At the time, the fire department credited the church’s tin ceiling for keeping the fire from spreading any quicker.
The church, however, did have extensive damage to its interior and was in need of restoration.
“Ever since then, I’ve taken an interest in the church,” Dahlman said.
Restoring a piece of history
When it was determined that the church’s rock foundation was deteriorating to the point that it was coming away from the structure, the cemetery association was prompted to act fast in order to save it, Henry explained.
Last July, the association unanimously voted to proceed with the renovation of the building, at an estimated cost of $40,000. A fundraising effort then began.
Dahlman, with the assistance of Stuart Turnbull, have supervised the restoration project to ensure it is being done in the most cost-effective manner.
May 21, movers began moving the building to the east, revealing the foundation, which was 3 feet in some places and more than a foot in width, Henry reported.
The building had been resting on two logs down the center of the building, in addition to the sills and other beams, Henry explained.
June 13, Ailie Construction of Dassel poured the slab of concrete for the church’s new foundation.
The church is currently waiting for the replacement of its rotting sills before it’s laid back on its new foundation, Dahlman explained.
Besides wiring the church with more electrical outlets, other needed repairs are yet to be determined, and will proceed as funding allows.
The goal is to have the renovations completed by the end of this summer, with hopes of having a service of thanksgiving at the church next summer, Henry noted.
Keeping history alive
As a descendant of one of the first members of the church, Henry finds the whole process of learning the church history very interesting.
“I think history is important,” Henry said. “If we don’t know from where we came, we cannot truly understand who and what we are.”
As she works to complete the church’s history in book form which she hopes to do within the next year Henry’s goal is to keep the history alive for generations to come.
“I think it’s important to recognize the contributions made to our community by our forebears,” she commented.
Today, the cemetery continues to be active. Currently, there are 61 people buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, with several pre-purchased markers, including markers for Tess and her husband, Granville.