Since the Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Upsala was founded in 1879, it has seen many changes. Pastors have come and gone, the old building removed and a new one built and many other things.
But one thing that has remained the same is the congregation’s hospitality and warm welcome of visitors regardless of background or faith denomination. That’s what makes it even more special to celebrate the church’s 140th anniversary.
Sheila Nilson of Burtrum joined the church in 1980. Initially, she had planned to visit every church in the Upsala community, but one visit to the Gethsemane Lutheran Church was all it took.
“When we came that first Sunday, it felt like home. My three sons and I, we loved it and have been here ever since. Gethsemane is like a big family,” she said.
Church Council Member Pam Schoon joined the congregation in 1979. What drew her and her husband, Steve, to become members, was how accepting and friendly people were.
Schoon said she met her husband in Holdingford where they both worked as teachers. Once he asked her to marry him, the next endeavor was to find a place to get wed. However, he was from a Missouri Synod background, she a Presbyterian and she was not about to change to his denomination. She didn’t agree with how limited women were when it came to serving in the church, she said.
“We knew about this church since he had been here a few times with some teacher friends,” she said.
When they asked the pastor if they could get married in the church despite not being members or even of the same denomination, they were surprised by how friendly, welcoming and accommodating they were.
“We told him we would have our own minister and he said, ‘That’s fine,’” Schoon said.
People from the church also visited them, brought cookies and simply made them feel welcomed to the community.
“And we weren’t even members yet. We were just going to get married there. We had our wedding and people were so nice and welcoming that I said, ‘OK, I’ll try to be a Lutheran,’” she said.
Both Church Council President Randy Nilson and retired church secretary and volunteer administrative assistant Joyce Swanson grew up in the church.
“Back in those days, you just went to church on Sundays. It was a social gathering,” he said.
As Swanson’s mother, Rose Gerlach-Johnson, was very active in the church, being at the church was just a given.
“We always said she was the first one here and the last one to go. And now, I have so many good friends here, a wonderful church family. Everyone gets along and we are all here for the same reason,” Swanson said.
Church Council Member Rollie Johnson joined the church in 1969 as his wife, Bev, was already a member.
“Way back when I joined the church, the friendliness and the welcoming was so great. You were welcomed by everyone and we still keep the church that way,” he said.
In 1879, church services and Sunday school were frequently held in the homes of the parishioners until a log cabin was built in the late 1880s about half a mile south on Highway 238 of the current church location.
The first pastor was Torstein Knudtsen Moen.
By 1893, the congregation has grown so much, it was time to build another church on an 11-acre property located about where the current church is today.
As time went by, improvements were made to the church building — inside and out, such as a cellar, a furnace, a bell, new pews and a high altar with an oil painting. Initially, the exterior of the church was painted white, but in 1923, the outside was covered in brick veneer. New lights and stained glass windows were also added in the early 1940s.
Several other changes to accommodate the growing congregation were made between 1952 – 1976, such as building additions on the south and west sides of the building to make room for a chapel, two classrooms, office for the pastor and the church secretary, an archives room, a library and nursery, rest rooms and more.
In 1992, Pastor Alan Bray, his wife, Gretchen and their daughter, Julia, came to Gethsemane. It was under his guidance the current church was built in 1997.
Randy said initially several members had a hard time seeing the church built in 1893 get dismantled. After all, it was part of the church’s history and was all they had known. However, once they were able to move into the new church, it didn’t take long to adjust.
There were several reasons behind building a new church. The congregation was growing, the old church was not handicapped accessible, which made it difficult for many elderly, to walk up the stairs, the rafters and the walls were shaky, the heating system was antiquated and more.
A special bell tower was built to hold the old bell. The congregation also made “The Garden of Gethsemane,” a landscaped area with a large cross and a special granite stone in the middle of the cemetery, which commemorates the church and the location of where the altar once was.
“Many who hadn’t been able to come to church because it was too hard for them to climb the stairs started coming once we had the new building,” Randy said.
The first service in the new building was held Dec. 7, 1997. Ironically, the furnace in the old church blew up that same day, Randy said.
How services were conducted changed over the years. In the early days, the sermons were held in Swedish, but overtime changed to Swedish and English alternating every other week. Eventually, services were only held in English.
The services were also mainly traditional. However, while Pastor Pat Hall served as a pastor from 1989 to 1991, he introduced the contemporary worship services.
Today, the congregation is led by Minister Mavis Buker.