After a snowy winter, members of Goodhue Lutheran Church are ready to hear the Easter message of hope and renewal.
The Easter sunrise service is the first Sunday worship service the country church northwest of Florence, South Dakota, will host this year, and it’s a meaningful one. Goodhue Lutheran, part of a three-point parish, has continued the tradition of hosting the early morning Easter service since 1952. Only one year was it canceled – 1975 – due to a blizzard.
Blizzards have been frequent this winter, but with Easter Sunday falling in late April, the service should go on as planned.
That means Joel Chilson will arrive at 4:30 a.m. to fire up the furnace and open the green shutters. Others will arrive in the dark, but they’ll be able to spot the light coming through the church windows and the American flag outside, lit up in its spotlight.
“It’s actually really peaceful,” Chilson said.
Dee Nogelmeier will be preparing a breakfast for after the service. She makes ham and hardboiled eggs, as well as the traditional Norwegian egg coffee.
Vikki Kingslien and the Bergh family will have decorated in pastels for the celebration.
Everyone in the small membership of Goodhue Lutheran has their role, Kingslien said, and no one needs direction to do what’s needed to keep the church going – on Easter Sunday or any day. The church doesn’t host services every Sunday, but a tight-knit group of about 16 active members see that traditions carry on.
“It’s not as much about going to church as it is about being a community,” said Larry Bergh, recalling how his dad viewed an active church life.
Those were the days when the men of the congregation would gather in a circle on the church lawn to visit after services. It was also a more formal era, Bergh recalled, when every man wore a suit and tie and every woman wore a dress on Sundays.
“I don’t care if it was 30 below or 80 above,” Bergh said.
Goodhue Lutheran Church was organized in 1888 in a granary on the farm of Amund Chilson, a great-great-grandfather of brothers Jim and Joel Chilson who are members today. It was named for Goodhue County in eastern Minnesota. Several founders had moved from there and Decorah, Iowa.
Along with the Chilsons, Bergh’s relatives, the Jesmes, were amongst the founding members, as were Nogelmeier’s (her grandma was a Soreng). Kingslien is related to the founding Olson family.
Around the time the church was established, the Midwest suffered from drought, and farmers had little money. Services were held in barns, homes and the nearby Meland school house until 1904 when the members had saved enough money to build a church.
The first pastor, Rev. L.E. Kjelaas, drove his team of horses 50 or 60 miles to church services. Later pastors served Goodhue and three other rural churches: Bergen, St. Pauli – which has since closed – and Helgen – which was moved to the town of Florence. Today, many Goodhue members attend weekly services at “New Helgen” Church. Goodhue hosts a few special services through the year and holds worship once a month through the summer.
The church earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Place in 1996 as a well-kept example of the Gothic revival architecture popular for first-generation churches. A curved communion rail encircles a white and gold altar with a picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane painted by Sara Kirkeberg Raugland, who did hundreds of such altar paintings in late 1800s and early 1900s.
The steeple was restored with great care in recent years. The roofer fashioned the specially-designed shingles by hand.
“It was a masterful job,” Jim Chilson said.
The project also removed hundreds of pigeons from the bell tower.
Jim Chilson lives near the church, and his home used to be the parsonage, which was also the setting for the annual lutefisk suppers and confirmation classes.
Chilson grew up nearby, and he remembers a particularly snowy winter when he was enlisted to shovel snow out of the basement. It was 1969, the year that brought 100 inches of snow. One winter storm blew the basement doors open, and the snow piled up. Because the road was plugged, he had to walk to the church and spend a couple hours shoveling out the basement.
Summer workdays continue as a team effort. Members get together to straighten headstones and tend to the grounds and the building. In the past, people showed up with a whole fleet of push mowers, and women worked all day in the church’s basement kitchen cooking meals for the crew.
For many members, their favorite part of the church is the traditions, Pat Nogelmeier said. His wife, Dee, learned about traditions when she started to help in the kitchen as a young bride in the 1980s. She found the table in the center of the kitchen to be a nuisance to work around, so she had Pat help her move it to the side. The long-time servers were not pleased with the new arrangement. At the end of the day, she and Pat moved it back to its original place without a word.
In more recent years, members have honored the past with a special Pioneer Country Sunday where people come to church on horseback or in old cars, and they dress in historic attire.
Children get to experience a bit of history when they visit Goodhue Lutheran. Pastor Mindy Ehrke usually hosts Bible school at the New Helgen church in Florence, one of the three churches in the parish she serves. One summer, the water was shut off in town, so they moved Bible school to Goodhue Lutheran. It also has no running water, but it does have an outhouse, newly constructed at the site of the original outhouse.
“They loved it because it was different,” Ehrke said of the children’s outhouse experience.
She has served Goodhue and its sister churches for three and a half years. She likes that the members hold their small rural churches dear.
“You find people who are passionate about their church and their heritage because this is where grandparents were married and where family burial plots are,” she said.
Those burial plots are surrounded by tall conifers planted as memorials to those who died. The trees and the tall steeple are a familiar comfort to members who live nearby. Traditions live long, memories are passed down, and the church remains a strong tie to past generations.
“It’s an icon of the prairie,” Kingslien said.