BETHLEHEM LUTHERAN CHURCH, ELCA
We are a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and part of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod.
The church is located in downtown Two Harbors at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Waterfront Drive.
Bethlehem’s Early History
On December 23, 1889, Rev. Peter Nelson of Duluth organized the First Norwegian Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in Two Harbors. Meeting at the First Presbyterian Church, this new congregation adopted a Constitution and elected six Trustees. Together with the Trustees of the Swedish Evangelical Church, the Norwegians negotiated with the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad Company to purchase property in order to build a church. The two congregations drew up a five-year contract to build a church and hold joint services. By April 5, 1890, work began on the project, and five months later they were holding services at the unfinished church. In January 1891, the church was completed and given the name The Scandinavian Lutheran Church. The building cost just over $3,000. Both congregations grew in size and eventually agreed to separate according to language. In March, 1895, the Norwegian congregation bought the church property from the Swedes for $1,200 (half the value of the property at the time).
The Ladies Aid Society played an important role in financing the 1895 buy-out, and would continue throughout the following years to raise money for financing various projects, such as building a parsonage, putting a stone foundation under the church, and remodeling the interior (completed by March, 1901). Later a furnace was installed in the basement, the sacristy was added, the steeple rebuilt and electric lighting was installed.
Church records show that during the first twenty years there were 435 baptisms, 93 confirmed, 84 weddings, 1195 communicants, and 130 burials.
During the second twenty years women were given the right to vote in the affairs of the Church. Also, language had became an issue. Prior to 1919, English was rarely used either in preaching or instruction of children. English and Norwegian began to be used alternatively, and eventually evening services and Sunday School were held completely in English. The Ladies Aid continued using Norwegian, but other societies, with younger members, used English.
In 1923, the congregation decided to remodel the church building instead of building a new one. A gallery and small addition were added. By replacing the old opera chairs with pews (they are still in use), seating capacity was increased to 125.
In 1927, fourteen families in Knife River organized as a daughter church with regular services every other Sunday. Over the years, other places along the North Shore were provided home mission services by theological students.
During the second twenty years there were 502 baptisms, 330 confirmed, 118 weddings, 154 burials and 957 communicants. The church property was worth $35,000.
Things were difficult financially in the 1930’s due to the Depression, but the church faithfully met its obligations including its mission budget.
In 1935, the old Norwegian Constitution was translated and revised and the congregation changed its name from First Norwegian to Bethlehem. Membership stood at 544.
Other organizations grew up in the church providing religious and outreach activities for all age groups. These include Summer Bible School (became Wednesday Bible School in 1938), Ladies Aid, The Guild (for younger English-speaking women), L.D.R. Dorcas girl’s society (which purchased the altar painting), Young People’s Society (established a library in 1901) where books could be rented), and Luther League (started in July, 1899), which raised money for the first (reed) organ in 1913.
Music was important. The first Choir was formed in 1890.
After a succession of Pastors at Bethlehem, Rev. John Reppe was installed on June 7, 1953. He would stay for 38 years, creating an era of great stability for Bethlehem.
The post World War II era was more prosperous and the church benefited from this. There was an emphasis on mission work, with Bethlehem aiding fifteen missionary fields, including having its own missionary abroad. This was a time when, in cooperation with the public schools, children could be released from school to attend Wednesday School at Bethlehem. Bethlehem children and youth had the opportunity to attend summer camp on Lake Vermillion. Children’s sermons became a regular part of worship services.
In 1968 a major capital project was undertaken by the congregation and the Parish Unit House was built. Members gave generously to the Building Fund over the years. Until the early 1990’s Bethlehem’s Constitution provided for elected Trustees, who were in charge of financial/material affairs, and Deacons, who assisted the Pastor in spiritual care.
When Pastor Reppe retired in 1990, Bethlehem called a pastor couple, Phil and Susan Berge to serve Bethlehem and Knife River Lutheran. They began their call in 1991. During the early years of their ministry another ambitious building project was undertaken to improve the church building. Also, the governance of the church was changed from the deacon/trustee model to the boards and council model in use today. In September, 2004, Pastor Susan accepted the call to become the solo pastor at Knife River Lutheran Church while Pastor Phil continued in full-time service to Bethlehem. In 1997 the youth and family ministry program was started. Several outstanding coordinators served the congregation through the years as the programs continued to grow. This was a big step in increasing youth involvement in the church. Large numbers of youth have become involved in synod and LYO activities in subsequent years.
After 20 years of service to Bethlehem, Pastor Phil Berge accepted a call from Grace Lutheran Church in Hermantown, MN. In August of 2011 and he and Pastor Susan moved to a new home in Duluth.
A year of transition ensued. Bethlehem was blessed to receive an intentionally trained Interim Pastor, Dr. Mark Hillmer. Pastor Hillmer led Bethlehem through an intentional transition process that lead to the formation of a call committee that was blessed to be expertly led by Larry Saur. Larry had also served as the chair of the call committee that called the Berge’s in 1991. By August 2012 the work of the call committee was complete and Pastor John Dietz was called. Pastor John began serving Bethlehem in October 2012.