Harley Flathers: The little church on the corner

By Harley Flathers / AS THE SPIRIT MOVES ME

The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Having lived in Rochester over a half century, I've seen several places where churches once stood but today are something else — like a corner empty lot, or a hospital entrance, or a new Mayo Clinic building.

It's been 60 years since the final Norwegian sermon was given at Zumbro Lutheran Church in Rochester. This, according to David Dunn, a longtime member and himself a walking history book. Seems the Norwegian Pastor Norvald Maakestad left in January 1950, and the Norwegian sermons came to an end.

Back in 1919, they held Norwegian services in the forenoon and the English service in the evening, reversing the procedure in 1924.


In about 1865, a group of church people worshiped in German from a Lutheran Church on a hill — though I just can't seem to locate the hill in the church's historical notes. However, in 1888, they started the Norwegian Lutheran Church of Rochester. But this group is soon on the move.

From the History Center of Olmsted County, there appeared this story in the Daily Bulletin Newspaper, "Site for a new Church." Right below those big headlines it read: "J.W. Flathers sells his property to the Norwegian Synod Organization."

This property was described as the corner of Franklin and Zumbro. Today, it's the corner of Second Street and Second Avenue Southwest, directly south of the Mayo Plummer Building. It's a parking lot for many bicycles and cars.

Back then my uncle J.W. (John Wesley) Flathers had owned the corner for a period from 1892 until selling his home property for a new Lutheran Church. The 1906 story said "the consideration was $2,500."

The Norwegian Lutheran Synod Congregation will have a Zumbro Street frontage of 52 feet and extending south 136 feet on Franklin. All of this is just north of today's Franklin Heating Station.

The newspaper stated the corner "is one of the most desirable in the city for the purposed intended." Incidentally, Dr. William Worrall Mayo lived just one block north of where today's Siebens Building stands. But in 1906 there were no Mayo Clinic buildings yet.

The article concluded with "The purchasing society is to be congratulated on being able to secure the property under the able leadership of Rev. A.G. Quammen. The Synod people have been prosperous financially and spiritually. There is no doubt that they will build a church, will be highly creditable to the city and ornamental to this street of public edifices."

"It wasn't built immediately," according to David Dunn. It became known as "The Little Church on the Corner" from 1909 until 1928. This little group of Lutherans had growing pains and settled on a new location corner of Fourth Street and Third Avenue Southwest. Following dedication on May 15, 1927, the church remained for 40 years on that Rochester corner.


Now you've guessed by the story. It's Zumbro Lutheran Church near the Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial. Forty-two years ago in 1968, I recall seeing the news reel on local Channel 10 TV about the traditional old church to new church congregation walk. It was only about three blocks and I can see the late Cliff Johnson leading the crowd. His son, Chuck Johnson, is very involved in this church today.

At the 1968 move Abner Haugen was lead pastor and John Trelstad served as associate pastor. Harold Usgaard acted as youth pastor serving from 1973 until 1978.

Other pastors serving Zumbro Lutheran Church in the last four decades include, Duane Hoven of Zumbrota, Lester Horntvedt, Gary Benson and Carol Solovitz. The lead pastor of the 3,000-member Zumbro congregation is Vern Christopherson.

Also on the team are Wayne Vogt and Shelly Cunningham. Meanwhile, that man who once served as youth pastor from 1973-78, Harold Usgaard, has been "bumped-up" to Bishop of the Southeastern Minnesota ELCA.

I'm sure you're wondering what happened to my uncle John Wesley Flathers. Well, he moved "way out west" on the west side of a new hospital called Saint Marys. There he developed the "Flathers addition" for new homes and built three big rooming houses which were all removed when the Blondell Motel and adjoining offices were built in 1969 by Richard and Doris Blondell. Today's 14th Avenue Southwest, which extends southerly from Second Street, was named Flathers Avenue for over a decade until about 1920 when all street names went back to the numbering system.

Next week: My neighbor, Bishop Harrington, an interesting fellow.

Harley Flathers is a longtime Rochester-area broadcaster and historian. Got a church story or memory for Harley? Send it to or to Harley at Post-Bulletin, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903.

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