South Immanuel packed for 150th, as Lutheran synod plans strategy to aid rural churches in NW Minnesota
By Louis Hoglund
Whether there is only a handful of people in the pews, or the church is overflowing and elbow-to-elbow—Pastor Phillip Tobin preaches to the multitudes every Sunday.
“It’s always like this on Sunday morning…I love being together with rural congregations,” said Pastor Tobin, welcoming worshippers to the 150th celebration of South Immanuel Church. “When I’m here, I always see 200 people out there.”
No imagination was required Sept. 11—because nearly 200 filled the house of worship. Descendents of Norwegian immigrants who founded the church were among those celebrating 150 years.
Centuries of Lutheran tradition were celebrated, with the rousing opening hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—text written by Martin Luther himself, in the 1500s.
South Immanuel’s roots date to 1870, when the first worship was held in a pioneer’s home, with traveling minister Torjus Vetlesen officiating. Norwegian was the tongue, and English-language services weren’t held until 1918.
Like rural churches across the nation, South Immanuel has faced the challenges of a declining population in the countryside.
Congregation members wondered aloud: Is the 150th anniversary our “Swan Song,” said Rev. Tobin.
“I want everybody to know—that rumor is gone,” said Tobin, optimistically.
“Don’t worry about when or if we will shut the doors,” he added. Rather than a church on “Hospice Care,” Tobin encouraged worshippers to “think about life…Every day is a Resurrection; every day we celebrate.”
Uplifted by Tobin’s messages, the large congregation behaved at times like a southern evangelical tent revival crowd—shouting out “Amens” in an un-Scandinavian-Lutheran manner.
“We have decided that, if and when God chooses to close these doors, the story will continue…The story is the church and the people are the church.”
“If you show up some Sunday and I’m not here, you will know that God has made the decision…but until then, we have a story to tell.”
Joining South Immanuel’s celebration was the Rev. Rebel Hurd, of the Moorhead-based Northwest Minnesota synod offices.
Among young ministers’ assignments will be the newly-forged “Rural Revival” initiative.
“We care deeply for rural congregations,” said Rev. Hurd, who will be traveling to congregations like South Immanuel. She and others from the synod will be staying in local homes and will be “digging in” and “living life together to see where God sends us next.”
“Strive to enhance the general health and resiliency of congregations with special attention on small member rural congregations,” is a summary of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod’s Rural Revival movement. Rural Revival representatives will “imbed” themselves in the community, said Rev. Hurd.
South Immanuel may be small in number, but big in heart and soul.
This was reflected by previous pastors who returned, and visiting ministers who spoke at the 150th.
“I have a love for this place, and a deep affection for this congregation,” said Rev. Kermit Solem, who served South Immanuel from 1975-1983.
Interim pastor in 2000-2001, Al Sandness, said he cherished his time at South Immanuel.
Communicating by letter was Rev. Ralph Livdahl—now “two years older” than the late Queen Elizabeth, at age 98. His first position was with South Immanuel, from 1951-1956.
South Immanuel’s neighbor, Rev. Leon Anderson, also joined the celebration. He and his wife Helen purchased the parsonage, to the west of the church, in 2000. The distinctive home, built in 1912, has been home to a long line of Lutheran families. Interestingly, Rev. Anderson was longtime pastor at Rothsay Baptist, since retired. Their daughter, Gloria, is South Immanuel’s organist—and she accompanied the congregation at the 150th.
Sadly, Rev. Edward Nieman died July 4th, but his wife Gayle spoke on his behalf. The Niemans were at South Immanuel for an unusually long tenure—from 1984-1999. Their daughters were confirmed at South Immanuel, and were also married in the church.
Rev. Jim Dahl, an interim in the 1980s, spoke of the warm-hearted—though small—congregation. Another interim pastor, Gus Ziegler, chuckled that South Immanuel was so welcoming that “they allowed me to come here as a German—not a Swede or Norwegian.”
South Immanuel is undeniably Norwegian at its historic roots. The first official service after North and South Immanuel separated was at the home of Lars Ohe. Ohe descendants at the 150th included Orland Ohe, Judy Tabbut, and Larry Ohe. They were but a few of the dozens who attended who had ancestral ties to the church.
As the exceptional 1872-2022 church history noted: “…the first settlers knew their God was with them through the blizzards, diphtheria outbreak, prairie fires, locusts, mosquitos and visits from the Chippewa and the Sioux.”