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Rochester’s Bethel Lutheran marks 150 years in service

On March 4, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated as the 18th president of the United States. He succeeded Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Abraham Lincoln.

That same year, “War and Peace” was released, Mark Twain published his first book and the First Trans Continental Railroad was completed.

Jesse James, Harriet Trubman, “Wild Bill” Hickok and Thomas Edison were other names in the headlines back then. In other words, this was a long, long, long time ago.

Closer to home, in May 1869, a group of seven men met at Nortan’s Hall to discuss the need for a Lutheran church in Rochester. Five weeks later, on June 14, they met again and this time formed a new church — Rochester Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.

That was the humble beginning of Bethel Lutheran Church, now one of the largest congregations in Southeast Minnesota and the state of Minnesota.

“When I came to Bethel,” said Norman Wahl, the church’s current executive pastor, “I knew there was a lot of history here. There really is. I learn something new all the time. It never ends.”

Bethel has been celebrating its 150th anniversary this summer, with the culmination on Oct. 6 with an all-church celebratory dinner at the International Event Center.

Several other anniversary summer events are also scheduled.

“How do you incorporate 150 years into one event or even in one summer? Well, you don’t,” said Wahl, who came to Bethel in July 1996. “But you learn to appreciate all the good that this congregation has done over the years.”

Bethel is currently located at 810 Third Ave. SE, right across the street from the former K-Mart.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

In 1870, the fledging congregation purchased an old Baptist church located on what is now Second Street Northwest, between First and Second avenues.

In 1882, the congregation moved to property at 214 Third Ave. SW.

In 1921, a decision was made to tear down the old church and build a new one on the same site. Meantime, services were held at the Universalist Church. On Christmas Eve of 1921, the first service was held in the church basement.

Finally, in 1954, land was purchased at its current location. The building was dedicated on July 14, 1957.

In 1991, a new wing containing office space, meeting rooms was added and a big addition — a new spacious sanctuary was dedicated in 2004.

The church space is used by over 30 groups from Bethel and the community of Rochester.

“We are a church dedicated to serving on a local, regional and international basis,” said Wahl. “More than anything, our commitment to service is something I’m most proud.

“That’s been our mission for all these years and I expect that to continue in the future.”

Numbers-wise, Bethel ranks among the top 10 in Minnesota and among the top 25 (ELCA) churches in the country. The church has around 4,300 members.

“The good thing about Bethel,” said Wahl, “is that we’re not dependent on one, two or three persons. We have a very good staff. I suspect that has been the case over the years as well.”

Bethel has been served by 17 lead pastors and 22 associate or education/youth pastors over the years.

“Before I came here I sought out as much information about Bethel as I could,” said Wahl. “The top three things I soon discovered about Bethel were its good music and worship experience, its community involvement and mission-based attitude, both local and across the country and world.”

If you’re looking for a turning point for the church, pencil in 1920. On May 31, the exclusive use of the English language in services and meeting was adopted. Before, it was Norwegian.

Then in November of that year, a young and enthusiastic pastor — A.G. Hansen — was called to serve a struggling church, whose membership had dropped to just 35 members.

Hansen served 40 years and the congregation grew to over 2,400.

Two community outreaches the people of Bethel supported by Bethel are Community Food Response (1998) which uses Bethel’s facilities to give food to the needy three days a week and Habit for Humanity, which uses one of Bethel’s houses rent-free for office space.

Bethel is also the Rochester home for Augsburg College (1998), which serves more than 80 students per year.

Thousands of funerals and weddings have been held at Bethel over the years. The funeral for Lance Cpl. Curtis Swenson was held in April 2010 with mourners filling the church from all over the state. Swenson was killed in Afghanistan due to injuries from an IED explosion.

In terms of missionary work, Bethel has been all over the U.S. and has also made its presence known around the world, from Mexico to Tanzania, Puerto Rico to India.

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