Church basks in Norwegian heritage

DECORAH, Iowa - I’ve spotted lovely churches, with steeples and crosses towering high above the land, along the Midwest's rural roads. The first one to catch my interest since I moved out here was Madison Lutheran Church, between Decorah and...

Photos of past pastors who served the historic church hang on the wall.

DECORAH, Iowa - I've spotted lovely churches, with steeples and crosses towering high above the land, along the Midwest's rural roads. The first one to catch my interest since I moved out here was Madison Lutheran Church, between Decorah and Ridgeway, Iowa.

I learned about it from a close friend, who grew up on a farm just a few miles from it and attended church there as a kid. I could tell when I drove by it had some stories — the sign out front reads "Madison Church 1906," 110 years to share.

So, I was thrilled to meet Pastor Jeff Hansen and four longtime church members — Audrey Dahle, June Rovang, Francis Myran and Deb Larson — one day in January. I spent the afternoon with them, stepping back in time through the meaningful (and sometimes quite funny) traditions of this beautiful, rural Norwegian church.

Madison Church originated Oct. 2, 1851, in a dugout with a log cabin over it, on the southern line of Madison Township, Dahle told me. The Rev. Nils Olsen Brandt led a Norwegian Lutheran Service there and, several days later, conducted the first marriage in Winneshiek County. In the summer after that, the congregation was organized as Madison Lutheran Church, part of the six-county Little Iowa Parish.

Brandt and the Rev. Ulrich Vilhelm Koren were the first to serve as pastors of Madison. If you've been to the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, you might recognize their names — they went on to influence the development of Decorah and Luther College.


Brandt returned to Madison when it separated from the Little Iowa Parish in 1863, while also serving as a professor at Luther. In 1873, the church dedicated a new brick building.

Early development

"It was made of Decorah brick, and Decorah brick was real poor quality," Myran said. "It was from right east of here."

Thirty-two years after that, the present church's site on Madison Road was established. Church members were expected to help build it.

"They hauled sand and gravel clear from the Turkey River, which is quite a ways west," Dahle said, "and of course quarried the rock from not as far away."

Madison is now part of the three-church Ridgeway Parish, along with Peace Lutheran and Orleans Lutheran. A smattering of many gravestones lays behind it, including ones of the original Norwegian immigrants and their families. It's dedicated to preserving the memories and traditions of the people that makes this church special.

The church was the center of activity for the Norwegian-American farming families. Life was a little different than today — including the fact that families didn't park their cars, but their teams of horses, in what is now the parking lot.

The church was divided into the women's/children's side and the men's side — the men were busy taking care of the horses so they had to sneak into church late.


Confirmation marked an important step for the church members, as the four remembered.

"One thing that was sort of unique was that when we had our confirmation classes on Tuesday mornings, we'd walk from our school to church here," Rovang, a former Sunday School superintendent, said. "They'd let us out of school, then we'd walk back again. And of course I taught in that same school. They claimed I was angry one time because they were late getting back."

The day of their confirmations, they stood up in front of the congregation, and the pastor asked questions.

"The question I was asked was, 'Who is God?'" Rovang said. "There were about seven or eight things I had to remember for that. It was a little scary because the whole congregation was there, and you didn't know what question was going to be asked."

Dahle had a special honor at her confirmation in 1951.

"My husband and I were part of the centennial confirmation class," she said. "I think there were nine or 10 in our class."

Myran shared an interesting confirmation memory of another kind from 1941.

"Wallace (Blekeberg) was the only one confirmed in Norwegian in his class," he said with a chuckle, "because his parents said that it had to be in Norwegian, otherwise it wouldn't be any good."


Community of 2 languages

The church continued to alternate services in English and Norwegian until the 1940s. Myran still has his father's Norwegian hymnal and New Testament. And, in the sanctuary, Norwegian words are written along the arch of the ceiling.

1941 was also when the church had electricity installed — before, they relied on a 32-watt battery light plant and a potbelly stove for heat.

"My brother and I had to sit by that (stove)," Myran said. "You couldn't pile too much stuff in there, or the stove started to buckle."

Without running water, they had to go down the hill to get water for baptisms and the all-important coffee. Myran's father helped convince them to dig a well. Regardless, they enjoyed their "egg coffee" each week. Because coffee filters as we know them weren't around, eggs served as filters to keep grounds from going into the cups.

Along with coffee, Madison shares many traditions of Midwestern churches. Larson said the church has stayed strong in its women's organizations, making quilts and rolling bandages for organizations such as Lutheran World Relief. The Luther League and Ladies' Aid were big parts of church life. One of the big events they still have is a bazaar to raise funds for the church and mission organizations.

"Our quilting days are kind of getting numbered here," Larson said.

An event that surprised Pastor Hansen was the ice cream social. As he described it, it's more than just having some ice cream and hanging out — it's a full meal outside in the summertime. He admitted he was surprised at the scope of it.


And, every other year, they host a Christmas open house, with Norwegian goodies and food donation collection, to invite in the community. The group said they felt the last one was quite successful.

Hansen has served the church for two and a half years and is gaining new perspective on rural church life.

Numbers dwindle

"The challenge now is numbers," he said. "It's true of many rural congregations. It used to be the center of the community, where you came for activities and socializing."

Now, hardly any kids remain, down from 60 total school-age children (including high school) from Rovang's time as superintendent. But the three churches of Ridgeway Parish have come together nicely, doing joint services, confirmation and youth activities. Hansen leads services at all three.

"Easter morning is a marathon for me," he admitted with a smile.

That Madison has kept its memories alive is a victory in itself. With its aesthetic beauty and rootedness in those who came before, it's a reminder of what's inside the Midwest. Thank goodness for those who remind me to look.


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