Rural church closes the book on worship
It’s not the outcome that parishioners had hoped to usher 2019 in with, but their declining membership and changing rural landscape made the decision inevitable.
Trinity Lutheran Church of rural Blooming Prairie ended 144 years of ministry on Dec. 30, the latest victim of churches closing their doors over the rural landscape of Minnesota.
Over the last few years of services, the average worship attendance dipped to about a dozen members, according to Rev. Stephanie Wood, who served as pastor for the congregation’s final three years.
But there was no shortage of worshippers at the final service. “It was a full house,” Wood said, adding friends, families and people who grew up in the church over nearly a century and a half came together for the final time. Included in those worshipping was Robert Hansen, who at 90 years old was the oldest active member of Trinity.
Hansen grew up in the church and remained faithful until the very end. Wood noted Hansen’s parents and grandparents were instrumental in helping to form the church.
The final service didn’t come without some fanfare. Rev. Steven Delzer, bishop of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod was in attendance to preach at the service and hold a ritualistic passing of the church records. “He gave thanks for the ministry while proclaiming the church closed,” Wood said.
During the final sermon, Rev. Delzer told the congregation, “Rest assured that you did nothing wrong that has led to the closing of Trinity. It really is more a matter of the changing demographics of the world in which we live.”
Delzer said God has blessed Trinity over the years, not with large numbers or a big building, but through treasured bonds with family and friends all sharing in the joy of the good news. “We do not grieve the end of Trinity. We celebrate the life that this congregation has lived,” he said. “Like an old friend whose time has come, we now must let Trinity go.”
Wood called the last service “bittersweet” for everyone in attendance. She said the service took on the feeling of more like a memorial service. “There was a lot of love and support in that room,” she said. “It was sad to see it end.”
And, for Wood, it was perhaps even more emotional. “Saying the blessing for the last time was difficult,” she said, adding there were a few tears shed.
“You’re grieving the loss of the community that will no longer be gathering that you developed a lifelong relationship with,” Wood said.
The council had kicked around closing the church since January 2018, Wood said. It simply came down to lack of membership to keep the church alive.
When the church began in 1874, there were a lot more farmers in the area that worshipped by traveling to church on horse and buggy. “Now we have larger farms and fewer farmers,” Wood said. “It’s hard to continue forward when there is not the same population attending.”
As hard as the closing was on those parishioners left, Wood said, “It was time for Trinity to close and find new life elsewhere.”
Though the church closed with only a handful of members, Trinity has touched so many lives over the years. Wood said one of the most touching moments in the final service came when Rev. Delzer asked if people were baptized and confirmed at the church. Nearly everyone in the church indicated they had been.
“So many had been touched by the work of God at Trinity,” Wood said. “Trinity made such a difference in the community.”
Over the years Trinity became a place where many of the pastors had accepted their first call. “Trinity contributed to the future of the church by forming pastors,” Wood said.
While Trinity had been evaluating what to do over the past year, its sister congregation, Aurora Lutheran Church located in rural Owatonna, is also in the process of deciding its future. Aurora, which averages weekly attendance of 40, has decided for this year it will break away from the ELCA synod and be an independent church with Wood serving as a full-time pastor. “This is a time to discern where we should be going,” Wood said of Aurora. The church will re-evaluate the situation early next year.
One of the positive things at Aurora this year is a larger than normal Sunday School with about 20 kids. “That’s really unique for a rural congregation,” Wood said.
Both churches had been with the ELCA synod since 1988, six years after the ELCA was formed.
It hasn’t been easy for those involved with the churches, especially Trinity, whose members will now go to Aurora or find somewhere else entirely different. “Closing churches has been growing because of the changing demographics of the rural landscape,” Wood said.
But Wood stressed that it’s not only the rural areas facing church closings. There are also city and urban churches facing the same dilemma. She said the question really boils down to: How many churches do you need in a world that has less attendees?
The congregation got its early start in the spring of 1874 under the leadership of Rev. Claus L. Clausen. A small group of people gathered for the first time to plant a new church known as Straight River Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
One of the greatest changes over the years has been the name of the church. In 1879, the name was changed to Brorson Danish-Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in honor of the Danish bishop and hymn writer Hans Adolf Brorson. In 1940, in an effort to have a wider appeal beyond the Danish community, the name was changed to Trinity Lutheran.
Trinity teamed up with Aurora for calling a pastor in 1965. The two congregations have split a pastor since then—75% Aurora and 25% Trinity.
Extensive remodeling and enlargement of the existing church took place in 1951.
Rev. Paul Edwin Nelson was the longest serving pastor of Trinity and Aurora with more than 30 years of service. All other pastors served nine years or less.
During its long history, Trinity was well known for its Aebleskiver. The congregation also continued to support the community by collecting for a Mitten Tree, a Christmas tree that they decorated with winter garments. In 2018, Trinity’s tree was decorated with 11 pairs of mittens, 51 pairs of gloves, 60 hats, 23 pairs of socks and several other items. All donations were given to the Blooming Prairie Wish Tree Project and Blooming Prairie Elementary School.
The exact future of the church building, which is located on County Road 26 west of the Blooming Prairie Country Club, remains unknown. Gary Hansen, who served as council president, is leading an effort to determine what will happen to the church. “We have a group of people trying to put something together to preserve the building like the Westfield Church,” said Hansen, 73, a lifelong member of Trinity. He added they are hoping to make a decision this spring.