One hundred twenty-five years ago, First Lutheran Church had its beginnings shortly after the Hudson Colony of pioneers came as a group from Hudson, Wisc. On Sept. 13, 1883, a worship service was held by the Rev. I.O. Scheie of Hudson, who was visiting in the area. This first service was held in the home of Ole Hammer and the group decided to be called “Den Norske Evangeliske Menighed I Town of Sverdrup, McLean County, Dakota Territory.” A constitution was adopted Dec. 14, 1883, which was in effect until 1905 when a new one was adopted, patterned on one recommended by the United Church, one of the branches of Norwegian Lutherans in America. Unofficially, the church’s name was shortened to “The Sverdrup Lutheran Church.”
The congregation was served by various visiting clergymen, although there was no definite record kept those first three years. One of them, Rev. J.M.O. Ness of Perley, Minn., helped the congregation establish the first Sunday School which was organized July 27, 1884. Also on that date, the congregation came into the possession of the first real property when Jens Olson and J.P. Peterson each gave one and a half acres of adjoining land. This three-acre plot became the site for the first church and cemetery later on.
In 1886 a call was issued to a theological student, C.O. Aubol, who accepted the call and served for three years as the congregation’s first full-time pastor. Like many of the pioneer pastors, he was a versatile man, working a homestead as well as serving as the superintendent of schools for McLean County to supplement his meager income. Pastor Aubol conducted the first confirmation service in which seven youth were confirmed Sept. 11, 1887.
Again in 1889, ministerial services were dependent upon visiting pastors, including R.A. Lavik, Red Lake Falls, Minn.; O.H. Norby, Sims, N.D.; and his assistant, J.A. Diesen. In 1892, Pastor Diesen accepted a call to serve the congregation, as well as several others in a wide area on both sides of the river. He made his rounds traveling by horse and buggy, on foot, on skis — any way necessary to get to his congregations. He continued to serve until 1900.
In 1893 the first Ladies Aid organization for the church was formed.
Pastor Diesen was followed by the Rev. Olaf Mathisen, during whose pastorate the first parsonage was built. Prior to that time, the pastors had lived on their own homesteads or in rented housing in Washburn. The parsonage was built in 1902 on lots in Washburn donated by the townsite company located on 6th Avenue across from the elementary school. It also included a barn for the pastor’s horse and buggy.
The Rev. L.A. Breen came to Washburn in 1903 and served for nine years. After 21 years, Sverdrup Church was able to build its first church in 1905 on the land given to them earlier. The site was located in open country six miles northeast of Washburn. The church building was formally dedicated Sept. 2, 1906. Pastor Breen resigned in 1912 and in the interim of 1912 to 1914 Pastor J.A. Diesen served as acting pastor. Rev. A. M. Turmo served as pastor in 1915, followed by Rev. N. H. Holm from 1916 to 1918. It was at this time that the union of three synods took place. Originally called “The Norwegian Lutheran Church,” the name was changed later to “Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Sverdrup Lutheran Church of Washburn belonged to this fellowship.
This was a time of reorganization for the congregation also. The Washburn Parish consisted of three congregations — South St. Olaf, Sverdrup and Painted Woods. The Rev. Alfred Breivik answered the call for a pastor, serving the congregation from May 1919 to August 1921. During this time, services for Washburn were held both in the country church and in town, either at the county courthouse or in the schoolhouse. On April 9, 1921, it was voted to purchase lots in town from Joseph Mann. A basement was erected and the cornerstone was laid Sept. 18, 1921.
Following Pastor Breivik’s resignation, Rev. Harold Hansen of Mercer, N.D., served as a temporary pastor. The following spring he resigned his Mercer parish in order to serve the Washburn Parish. With the completion of the basement church, all of the services were held there. The original church building, which had served as the congregation’s house of worship for 16 years, was sold to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Turtle Lake in 1925 for $750, plus $75 for the altar and painting. During Pastor Hansen’s tenure, the minutes were first recorded in English beginning in 1921. English pastoral records followed in 1926. The envelope system for ingathering of offerings was first introduced in 1924. In 1927 the congregation became entirely self-supporting. Prior to that time it had received a subsidy from the Home Mission Board of the Norwegian Lutheran Church.
The Rev. C.A. Carlson became the pastor in 1928. In September of that year it was decided to erect a church on the existing basement and the work was begun in January of 1929. While the new church was being constructed, the congregation also decided to select a new name for the congregation. Amending the constitution, the name was changed to Washburn Lutheran Congregation. Pastor Carlson resigned in 1934 and was followed by Rev. Louis Hagen of Hazen, N.D., on an interim basis. Rev. C.E.L. Lucky became pastor in 1935.
On Sept. 13, 1936, a festival service commemorating the 53 years of life of the congregation was held. Somehow the 50th anniversary had slipped by without notice!
In 1938 the constitution was amended again to rename the congregation First Lutheran Church of Washburn.
The parish was served from 1937-1940 by Rev. M.G. Berg, and then by Rev. Carl G. Nelson from 1940-1949. In May of 1945 the Zion Lutheran Church in Washburn dissolved its congregation and joined First Lutheran Church. This brought together people of German background with people of Scandinavian background, an event that was to occur on a national scale 15 years later with the merger of three Lutheran groups in 1960 to form The American Lutheran Church. It was during the tenure of Pastor Nelson that the second parsonage was purchased.
Rev. M.J. Sheldahl served as pastor of the congregation from 1949 until 1954. He was followed by Rev. I.P. Paulson, who, with his family, was the first to live in the congregation’s third parsonage located at 516 Main. Up until this time, Painted Woods Lutheran Church was a part of the parish. Because of declining membership, that congregation was dissolved in 1957 and First Lutheran Church became a single unit.
It was during Pastor Paulson’s years of service that the need arose again for expanded facilities, especially in the educational phase of its ministry, and the decision was made to build a new church. The new church was completed in 1960, and again there was a September dedication, Sept. 18, 1960. The bell from the previous church was put into place in the tower and the Good Shepherd window was also transferred to the new church and installed. The baptismal font was placed in the chancel, thus linking together the past and the present for that day.
Pastor Paulson was succeeded by Rev. Ray Venske who served from 1965 to 1968, when he resigned to further his education. Rev. Elmer S. Odland was called and in April of 1968 began his ministry in Washburn. In December of 1973, Rev. Odland and his family moved into a newly-built parsonage located a block east of the church, and the former parsonage was sold.
A highlight in the life of the congregation came in November of 1972 when Dr. Calvin Jack Eichhorst was ordained into the ministry of the American Lutheran Church. He was the first son of the congregation to enter into ordained ministry. The 1970s and early ‘80s saw a large number of families moving into the Washburn area because of the booming energy market. First Lutheran felt the impact, with many families joining the congregation.
In 1975 the church mortgage was burned. Pastor Odland resigned in 1980 after 12 years of service to the church. Rev. Samih Ismir of Bismarck served as interim pastor of the congregation until a permanent pastor was called.
The congregation voted to sponsor a Laotian family, and on an extremely cold day in January 1980, the Phommachanh family arrived and were aided by First Lutheran members in their adjustment to life in the United States. The family moved to Bismarck in 1982 and later relocated to the warmer climate of Florida.
Pastor Owen Gaasedelen answered the call to serve First Lutheran in 1980, arriving with his family from Rushford, Minn. Because of the number of new families joining First Lutheran, the educational facilities became crowded. In 1981 the congregation purchased the Sigurd Carlson property east of the church and converted the home into Sunday School classrooms. The 100th anniversary of First Lutheran’s congregation was celebrated in 1983.
A highlight of the January 1984 annual meeting was the burning of the parsonage mortgage.
First Lutheran Church started what has become a yearly tradition by serving its first “Lutefisk and Meatball Dinner” in October of 1984. This event proved to be very popular and effective in drawing upwards to 1,000 hungry lutefisk lovers from a wide area over the years. The dinner has been instrumental in having virtually all members work together in one way or another.
James Borlaug became the second son of the congregation to be ordained into ministry in the American Lutheran Church in 1986.
During the decade of the 1980’s, the large project of replacing the windows in the sanctuary with stained glass windows was accomplished. Each window captures symbolically the essence of the “story of salvation” as found in the Bible and in the Church.
1988 saw the birth of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. First Lutheran became a part of this new large Lutheran church with the merger of The American Lutheran Church, The Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
Following Pastor Gaasedelen’s resignation in February 1993, retired Pastor Magnus Lutness of Bismarck served as interim pastor for the congregation.
The Rev. Bradley Brauer answered the call to serve First Lutheran, and he and his family moved to Washburn in the Fall of 1993. The decade of the 90s saw several changes in the church building and worship service. A new sound system was installed in 1994, made possible by memorials. In 1995 an extensive kitchen remodeling was completed. The Lutheran Book of Worship hymnals were supplemented by “With One Voice” hymnals in 1997, and by “Worship and Praise”, both of which were used during contemporary worship services held for two years as a second service.
In support of plans by Camp of the Cross near Garrison to remodel and update the camp, First Lutheran members responded in a big way in 1998 and donated funds to build one of the cabins at the camp.
First Lutheran’s mission statement was updated in 2000 to read: Our Mission. . . “Working hand in hand to know Christ and make Christ known through Worship, Christian Education, Caring Ministries, and Service.”
Because of declining Sunday School numbers, the parish house was no longer needed as classroom space. It was sold in 2001 and moved from its location. The lot adjacent to the church on which it sat was leveled and made into a parking lot for the church.
Pastor Brauer resigned in 2003. The Rev. Dr. Jack Eichhorst of rural Washburn served as interim pastor.
Pastor Erik Johnson accepted the call to serve First Lutheran and began his ministry in September of 2004. With the assistance of his wife Kathryn, a contemporary worship service was again revived, periodically using the talents of both adults and youth in leading the service.
First Lutheran is blessed to have many ministries taking place within its walls. One of those ministries is the work of the women of the church. Over the years they have been known as “Ladies Aid,” “First Lutheran Church Women (FLCW),” and currently are part of the “Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (WELCA).” The women have been faithful in various activities throughout the years, including an annual craft and food bazaar in the 1980s and ‘90s, which eventually became a quilt-kuchen-lefse-card sale; working with other local churches on the annual World Day of Prayer, and for several years a progressive supper; scheduled delivery of Meals on Wheels to local recipients; annual Thankoffering service in November and Advent breakfast in December; delivery of “Goodies From the Heart” to area residents; celebration teas each year for confirmands and high school graduates; presentation of Bibles to third graders; updating and maintaining the church library; serving the many receptions and funeral lunches over the years; and constructing the hundreds of quilts and assembling Lutheran World Relief projects.
Education for the youth of the church has been a priority throughout the church’s history, from three year olds through confirmation and high school age. Vacation Bible School is held each summer. The Sunday School children look forward each year to presenting their Christmas program to the congregation. Several trips to national conventions have been enjoyed by high school youth and their counselors.
Support for Global Missions has been a ministry of First Lutheran. Currently, we contribute to the mission work of Anne and Willie Langdji in Senegal and Katie Narum Miyamoto in Japan.
Over the years the congregation has been given the opportunity to participate in Bible studies. Along with many individual study sessions, Bethel Bible Studies was offered in the 1970s. A 10-year study, Search Bible Studies, took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the Divine Drama Bible Study series was given in the ‘90s. Throughout the years the women of the church have held their monthly meetings and Bible studies, and in 2002 a weekly men’s Bible study began.
Music has always been an important part of the ministry of First Lutheran and the church has been blessed with wonderful adult and youth choirs — and highly talented individuals to lead them. A three-octave set of hand bells were purchased with memorials and gifts in 2000, with adults and youth learning the art and adding much to the worship service. The “Men’s Music Ministry” was formed in 2004 and supplements the weekly worship service from time to time. A ladies group, “Joyful Noise,” originated in 2006 and adds their voices, too, in worship and praise.
We have attempted to bring out highlights of some events throughout the past 125 years at First Lutheran. First Lutheran Church is not just a church building — it is people “working hand in hand to know Christ and make Christ known. . .” We are most thankful to God for blessing us, strengthening us and showing us His mercy. May the congregation of First Lutheran continue to work together to “Lift High the Cross” to the glory and honor of God!