Bethel Church had its beginning one hundred thirty years ago, on Tuesday, May 11, 1869 when a group of seven men gathered at Nortan’s Hall to discuss the need for a Lutheran church in Rochester. They decided to contact others in the community and meet five weeks later to officially organize. On June 14, they met again and named their church, “Rochester Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.”
At this first meeting, a constitution was also drawn up and eventually signed by fifty-one persons. These charter members pledged $341 for the establishment of the new church, and, although only $241.50 was collected, it was enough to mark the beginning for the congregation. Rev. N.E. Jensen, was called to hold services at the church every three weeks at a salary of from $150-200 per year. The constitution was presented in Norwegian on Aug. 2, 1869, but a translation into “the American language” was also rendered by Rev. Jensen and filed with the incorporation papers of the congregation at the court house.
In 1870, the congregation purchased an old Baptist church located on what is now 2nd Street NW between 1st and 2nd Avenues, and services began in Norwegian. However, in February of 1871, there was a disagreement about whether the congregation ought to hold to their old language and, as a result, 27 members dropped out. The congregation was reorganized and incorporated under the name of “The First Independent Lutheran Congregation of Rochester”. The land at that location was sold and the white clapboard church building was moved, at a cost of $600, to a site on West Center Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
On January 9, 1877 a Sunday School was started and, in 1878, a parochial school was added. With growth in mind, the congregation purchased property at 214 3rd Ave SW at a cost of $1,350 and the white church building was moved to that site in 1882. A parlor was added, at a cost of $460, to accommodate the growing congregation. The congregation continued to struggle with its move to English language. Reverend Rasmus Anderson served the congregation from 1885 until 1894 but resigned because it was determined that the younger generation needed sermons in English. It was noted that his eloquent Norwegian sermons were greatly missed.
The Norwegian heritage, however, was not entirely forgotten. It was about this time that the people of Bethel began their famous lutefisk supper. This dinner provided a social event for the community and much needed funding for the struggling congregation. Much of the work for the dinner fell upon the hands of the women and Mrs. Serina Kjerner Hanson, a charter member of Bethel, described in 1935 the process for preparing the delicacy: “In the old days, before we could have the fish shipped in barrels ready to soak for three or four days before cooking, we used to have long, dry flat fish sent her for us to fix. When the dry fish arrived, it was soaked for two weeks in water and hard wood ashes. . . The ashes were allowed to simmer into the fish for three days and then the fish were again placed in water for several days.”
The newspaper article reporting this event, also reported the history of the church, where it was located and commented that when the church was first organized, it was known as “First Danish Lutheran Church”. Imagine the fervor that caused among the Norwegians at Bethel.
Members of the church determined to move away from the Norwegian language of their ancestors, became upset again in 1915 when Rev. Johan Rodvik began to encourage young people to use the old language. Rev. Rodvik brought members into the church who shared his views and the struggling church was again split. Reports state the Sunday school became disorganized, and “there were only a few who stood by the sinking ship.” The Board of Organization for the Free Lutheran Church was called upon to straighten matters out and on August 25, 1919, “the opposing party was ousted from the congregation.” On May 31, 1920, the exclusive use of the English language in the services and meetings for the church was adopted.
On November 15, 1920, Rev. A.G. Hansen, a young and enthusiastic pastor, was called to this struggling congregation of 35 members. Plans for the building of a new church on the location of the old site began and funds were solicited for many sources. The Ladies Aid became leaders in this drive with dinners, bazaars, apron sales etc. At one time the ladies were asked to donate one penny for each year of age. Records were not kept of the amounts collected.
The first service was held in the newly completed basement on Christmas Day, 1921 with a membership of 207. The congregation continued to worship there until Rev. Hansen challenged the congregation to raise the $3,500 to complete the structure, while he assumed the responsibility of raising funds for furnishings in the amount of $2,700. The challenge was accepted and the doors to the brick church structure were opened on Christmas Day , 1924.
During the 40 years that Rev. A.G. Hansen served Bethel Church, he saw the membership increased from 35 members to 2,400. Under his leadership, Bethel became a congregation actively involved in community and world affairs. Excerpts from his writings to the congregation over those years express some of his concerns:
1924: “With all credit given man, yet it remains a fact that the women of Bethel aid, are a wonderful asset to the work. The ladies have unanimously voted to do their share in building up this work, by taking upon themselves the debt of the church, which by the way is a man’s job, in size.”
1929: “An effort was put forth sometime ago to see what could be done to increase the attendance of men at our services. A committee was appointed. They called a ‘Men’s Church Day’ which was well attended, however, nothing further has been done.”
1936: “Your pastor did not come to Bethel church to get rich. If he did he is a disappointed man. . . The salary is $150 per month plus free house.. . The salary he has received has by nick and tuck just kept him out of debt.”
1943: “Thus to you in the service of our country, on the battle fields or in the defense plants, to you mothers and fathers at home, and wives with children, praying daily for your husbands, let me give to you the words of Isaiah, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.'”
As the congregation grew, so did the needs, and in 1946, the first parish worker, Miss Ione Olson, was hired to contact all new members in the Rochester community. In 1952, Rev. James Peterson was called as associate pastor for Pastor Hansen, and in 1954 land was purchased at 810 3rd Ave SE. for the construction of a new church building. This building was dedicated on July 14, 1957 and the old building was sold to the Olmsted County Historical Society for $75,000.
The 1960’s are best described in the words of a former congregational president, Jim Wignes, “If we may reflect on the ’60’s, it would seem we entered that decade with a complacent attitude where change occurred slowly. As we leave the 60’s, change is the order of the day.” It was during this time that Pastor Erling Tungseth was called as Senior Pastor in July of 1960, Pastor Earl Dreyer was called as Evangelism Pastor in 1964 and Pastor Roger Stensaas was called as Youth and Education Pastor in 1966.
In 1963 Bethel joined the ALC and the name was changed from Bethel English Lutheran Church. It was assumed that, except for an occasional “Uffda” the congregation was safe from the Norwegian language barrier.
Property was purchased across from Bethel, a new pipe organ and colored glass windows were added, three parsonages were secured, and the church services and Sunday school hours were expanded to three each to accommodate the growing numbers. Bethel celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1969 and 125th in 1994.
The past thirty years at Bethel have been filled with growth in ministry, staff, and property. In 1972, for example the Evangelism Committee made over 850 visits to shut-in people plus hundreds of phone calls to new people in the community. A need for a Parish worker for the Sunday School was established, and, as needs increased, this position expanded to include two part-time education coordinators and a full time lay youth worker.
The end of the Vietnam conflict brought to the forefront the needs of refugees throughout Asia and the world. Bethel became an active sponsor in assisting families from those Asian communities to begin new lives in a country where they did not have to face persecution and starvation. Refugees were first brought to Rochester from Vietnam in 1975 and later from Cambodia, Bosnia, Somalia, and other countries. Support was established for missions in Central America and Africa.
On June 11, 1978 a proposal was passed to refurbish the Fellowship hall at the cost of $28,000. Luckily, the refurbishing did not begin immediately, because on July 5, the basement of Bethel was filled with millions of gallons of flood water and sewage in the worst flood to hit Rochester in over 100 years. Third Avenue became a rushing river as the flood waters of the Zumbro River raced over its banks. Memories of the days after the flood include those of Pastor Bagaason housing “flood refugees and animals all night in the church; Pastor Quello swimming through the flood waters to rescue a rocking chair donated by a Bethel family in memory of their daughter; the loss of Pastor Hinderlie’s German Bible that was over 100 years old; cleaning endless boxes of Sunday School equipment, power hoses, shovels of sewage carried out and THE SMELL. Countless hours of work by dedicated Bethel members, donations of $44,853, and a $37,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, resulted in a reconstructed basement, and the work of the church continued.
A proposal for an addition to Bethel was first made in 1977 because of the crowded conditions at the middle worship service and the lack of room for education in the present building. In March, 1984 a vote to proceed with the building plans and secure funding passed by a 66.9% majority. However, because of the lack of a strong majority vote and with interest rates at 13+%, Pastor Bagaason moved at a July meeting that the congregation “lay the resolution on the table until such time that the church council deem the financial situation warrants reconvening”. In 1989, under the leadership of Pastor John Braaten this tabled resolution was brought to the floor and defeated. Instead, $60,00 was approved to hire an architect to reconstruct plans for an addition. In 1991 a new wing containing office space, meeting rooms and a large fellowship space was added to the church. This space is used by over thirty groups from Bethel and the community of Rochester.
Bethel American Lutheran Church became Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1988 when the ALC, the LCA, and the AELC merged to become one synod, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The name, however, has little effect on the work of the church. Bethel Church has been “the house of God” for 125 years whether it was known as Rochester Norwegian Lutheran Church, Bethel English Lutheran Church, or Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Bethel Staff in the Past 30 Years
Bethel grew and prospered under the leadership of Pastor Erling Tungseth, Pastor Earl Dreyer, and Pastor Roger Stensaas in the 1960’s. When they all left Bethel for new challenges, great concern was expressed over the need to find replacements who would work well together and serve the needs of the congregation as well. Fortunately, the concern was answered when Pastor Art Bagaason accepted the position of Senior Pastor in 1972. Pastor Bagaason commanded the respect of the entire ALC as one of the best leaders for a team ministry in the synod. Bethel flourished under his steady leadership and organization. His determination to be Pastor of Administration instead of Senior Pastor spoke to his concern for the importance of all areas of ministry. Although he was known for his ability to preach succinctly, and to the point, his sermons were sprinkled with real-life stories and humor.
Bethel’s musical ministry is one admired throughout Rochester. Dale Mundahl joined Bethel as organist in 1964 and provides a depth to the worship service that few congregations experience. His music often so aptly responds to the message of the service that it seems Dale speaks with the notes he plays. Bob Oudal became Senior Choir director in 1965 and provided Bethel with 32 years of choral music of superb quality. In addition to his directing talents, Bob often wrote the music that his choirs perform at Bethel. In 1997, John Sall was hired as Director of Music. A graduate of St. Olaf College in the field of Church Music, he has brought a fresh, new, and exciting approach to the music program at Bethel. John left Bethel in October, 2001 to pursue his career in the Philadelphia, PA area. Other musical talents over the years in the area choir directors have included Lavonne Sasse, Kathy Falk, Martha Frank, Janet Olson, Janet Brandt, Merle Savage, LuAnn Remme, and Kathy Gentling.
Pastor Paul Baker, Youth Pastor from 1973 to 1977, worked to develop an individualized confirmation program that allowed the students to determine when they were ready to be confirmed. He also attempted to expand the youth ministry to include college-aged students.
When Bethel’s membership grew, the need to expand the youth ministry became apparent. Marilyn Borcherding (now Wottreng), as Parish Education Director from 1970 to 1972, began the work of organizing a Sunday School that often numbered over 900 students. When she resigned, Barb Milburn took the position of Youth and Education Director and continued in that capacity for fourteen years. Her creative talents were shown in the Christmas programs she wrote for Bethel, her portrayal of “Mama Bear” for the children, and the “crazy” youth activities she coordinated that made Bethel youth group the “place to be” in Rochester.
Bethel congregation enjoyed the sermons and musical talent of Pastor John Quello who began in 1977. Bethel members remember the round “tuits” that he gave out to let them know that they could no longer postpone commitment to the church until they got “around to it.” New members to Bethel numbered over 300 under his leadership, and a TV ministry was established.
In 1977, the Bethel ministry was expanded with the addition of the position of Pastor of Counseling. Pastor Jack Friedli developed ministry within the congregation at Bethel through pre-marital counseling, couples retreats, grief counseling, etc. Pastor Friedli’s Bible classes were attended by many who appreciated his great teaching talents. Pastor Friedli served Bethel until 1996.
Pastor John Hinderlie, Youth Pastor from 1978 to 1983 brought to the young people of Bethel an appreciation of their Lutheran Heritage. With his background as a pastor who had served congregations in Germany, Pastor Hinderlie shared his love for Lutheran history with over 100 students and many adults on tours of the Martin Luther heritage sites in Germany. He was a scholar, whose witty sense of humor often came peeking through his sermons.
In 1979, Pastor Don Deines was called to continue the work of Life and Growth Pastor when Pastor Quello left. Pastor Deines established the bell choir and was always known as a gentle, compassionate pastor, (until he got on the tennis courts) and he inspired many with his sermons that people “could relate to”, like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth.
Pastor Rolf Bell joined the staff as Youth and Education Pastor in 1983. His enthusiasm and boundless energy made him a favorite with youth even though he seldom let them have the ball in the youth soccer games. His concern for people of all cultures brought involvement in plans to help refugees from Central America, and resulted in his leaving Bethel in 1987 to take a mission congregation in California with an 80% minority population.
When Pastor Bagaason left Bethel for retirement in 1986 the call committee again began its process of looking for a strong leader for Bethel. Pastor John Braaten accepted the call and helped Bethel move forward with the plans for expansion. Under his leadership the building addition was completed and Bethel was able to offer its meeting space to many organizations in Rochester. In addition to his efforts at Bethel, Pastor Braaten found time to share his thoughts in several devotional books that were published in the 1990’s.
In 1987, when Pastors Deines, Bell and Barb Milburn all left Bethel, Pastor Bob Onkka was hired to temporarily help with the calls to shut-ins and hospital patients. He was such a warm and friendly face to those with needs that his interim visitation position was made permanent.
Jorgie Livingston was hired as Coordinator of Education and Sue Langins was hired as Youth Director, in 1987. Jorgie’s organization and artistic talents created whole villages for Bible school students, and Sue took Bethel youth to villages in New Mexico where they could used their talents to help the less fortunate. When Sue left Bethel, she was replaced in 1993 by Geri Ann Schmeckpeper-Hanson. Kathy Johnson was hired to replace Jorgie in 1996 and served for a year. Brenda Szuberski was also hired to assist with the education program (on 2 separate occasions) and when Kathy Johnson resigned, Brenda followed her heart and took over the position of Director of Children’s Ministry 1997. Reid Olson was hired in 1997 to be Assistant to the Directors of Children’s and Youth Ministries. His first love was computers and when an opportunity came along for him to work with computers, he sadly resigned. Jason Okrzynski was hired as the new Assistant in February 1998 and was been a tremendous addition to the Bethel Staff. All have been enthusiastic in their support of the youth of Bethel.
Bethel made some changes again in 1999 when Jonette Knock was hired as Director of Family Ministry. This brought a whole new perspective to Bethel and many new changes are coming in the future. At the same time, Catharine Rois was hired as Bethel’s new Youth Director. Catharine has brought a new, vibrant approach to youth ministry. Our children’s ministry staff was expanded to include Kim Schliesman (Coordinator of Children’s Education) and Julie Slavin (Coordinator of Children’s Activities) which has again added some wonderful new dimension to our ministries to children, youth, and young adults. When both Kim and Julie resigned, Anne Mortenson, a daughter of the congregation, was hired as Director of Children’s Ministries
Pastor Mark Granquist took the position of Youth Pastor in 1988, and, in addition to his time with the youth of Bethel, he was able to complete his Doctorate of Religion.
Bethel’s first pastoral position filled by a woman and by a couple began in 1987, when Pastors Gary and Mary Sue Dreier shared the position of Life and Growth Pastor at Bethel. Their concern for families at Bethel provided a focus for ministry, even when their young son commented during the children’s sermon that his dad “made him come to church even though he was sick.”
Following the Dreier’s departure, Bethel was blessed in its calling of Pastor Linda Helberg. Pastor Helberg began her ministry at Bethel by taking a busload of Bethel members to Des Moines to assist flood victims. Her willingness to “get in and work”, together with her warm smile and sense of humor make her a welcome addition to the Bethel staff.
After a long and diligent search, Pastor Norman Wahl answered Bethel’s call to be Executive Pastor in July, 1996. Pastor Wahl brings to Bethel a sincere and strong faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and has brought many new and exciting ideas to Bethel. He completed his Doctorate of Ministry a few months into his tenure at Bethel.
After Pastor Jack Friedli’s retirement, the Bethel Family welcomed Pastor Julie Rogness in May, 1997, as Pastor of Educational and Youth Ministries. Pastor Julie has great expertise in the area of youth ministries and is a animated and enthusiastic addition to the staff.
Bethel has always been fortunate in securing the services of extremely capable office staff members who make that first impression of Bethel a warm and hearty one. Judy Gittus has been a secretary at Bethel since 1981, with Teresa Hughes coming on board in 1989, and Deb Vomhof in 1997. In 2001, Shirley Keltto took the position of receptionist – a new addition to the office staff work force. Throughout the years the church office has consistently run smoothly and efficiently.
Additional staff positions were added — in 1995, JoAnn Colvin (who had previously been one of Bethel’s secretaries) became Bethel’s first Director of Lay Ministry. JoAnn laid the groundwork for a strong lay ministry program and after her resignation, Bethel hired Lorrie Schuchard who brings a dynamic personality to this much needed position. Also in 1997, the position of Coordinator of Small Groups was filled by the very capable and enthusiastic Suzanne Vix. After Suzanne left Bethel’s employ, Lorrie Schuchard was hired to fill a combination job of Director of Lay Ministry and Small Groups.
The business of a church with a budget of over $800,000 becomes overwhelming and so it has been necessary on two occasions to hire a parish administrator. Lorin Hansen served in that position from 1983 to 1987 and Chris Zabel from July 1992 till March 2017.
As the building expanded the needs for custodial help also expanded. Herman Zincke served as maintenance supervisor until 1988 when he was replaced by Jay Low as Director of Maintenance and Toan Bui as custodian. Jay and Toan both resigned in the early 1990’s and were succeeded by Don Senjem as Custodial Supervisor, Bill Freytag and Jim Enblom as Custodians.
The people who work at Bethel have been greatly appreciated over the years. Their countless hours of diligent work have resulted in a congregation that reaches out to the community of Rochester and the world with the Word of God. Two community outreaches the people of Bethel have supported are Community Food Response (CFR) which uses Bethel’s facilities to give food to the needy three days a week, and Habitat for Humanity which uses one of Bethel’s houses rent-free for their office space.