This Sunday, December 17, at 7 p.m. the Granite Falls Lutheran Church will host a special Christmas service. Although they will be singing traditional hymns and reading from well-known liturgy, something about the service will be much different - it will be done entirely in Norwegian.
Granite Falls resident, and proud Norwegian-American, Dick Jepson is one of the main organizers for the special service. He says that he first got the idea while visiting Norway for the first time three years ago. While traveling through the Norwegian countryside, Jepson was able to tour old farm homesteads like the ones where his ancestors came from.
Hiking around the area, Jepson was struck by how similar the geography was to western Minnesota. “I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but I was standing there looking at the landscape, and I just had this moment,” he reflected. To be able to see in person the land where his ancestors hailed from was a profoundly powerful experience.
Even after he returned to the United States, Jepson continued to explore his Norwegian background. Last Christmas, he took his mother to a Norwegian language church service at Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar. Listening to the familiar service, even when rendered in a language he couldn’t fully understand, again brought him back to that moment he had in Norway and helped solidify his desire to reconnect with his Norwegian roots.
Determined to organize a similar event in his own hometown, Jepson pitched his idea to Pastor Steve Carmany at the Granite Falls Lutheran Church. Carmany was enthusiastic about the idea, although he admitted that, since he doesn’t speak or read Norwegian, he might not be a lot of help. Instead, Jepson would work with lay members, both in Granite and from other churches, to organize this unique service.
Jepson contacted Pastor Paul Johnson from Starbuck who planned similar Norwegian language services in the past. Using the Willmar service as a template, the two were able to develop a service program using original Norwegian language prayers and liturgy. Jepson also asked Mari Thorkelson from Willmar to help arrange Norwegian lyrics for the hymns.
This won’t be the first time that the Lutheran church here in Granite Falls offers a Norwegian language service. In fact, nearly 100 years ago, praying and singing in Norwegian while at Church was the norm, something Jepson learned while researching the history of Norwegian settlement in the Granite Falls area.
The Granite Lutheran Church was first founded by Norwegian settlers who immigrated to the Midwest during the second half of the 19th century. Most came to work in agriculture, and found the fertile soil of the Minnesota River Valley a particularly attractive location. The first pastor, Knut Throrstensen arrived from Norway in 1874, and in 1876, helped found the “Norsk Evangeliske Lutherske Menighed” (Norwegian Lutheran Evangelical Congregation).
The vast majority of those early members didn’t speak any English and lived in a tightly knit Norwegian community numbering under 30 inhabitants. For the first several years, the congregation met in the blacksmith shop of local resident Torger Johnson until a permanent structure could be constructed in the 1880s.
While united in their common Norwegian heritage, the early church quickly split under the pressure of growing differences over major questions like predestination and church organization. Nonetheless, the church remained a strong pillar for the community and helped preserve a common Norwegian identity for the new people living in a strange land.
Like many immigrant communities, however, the pressure to assimilate into American society steadily grew and helped foment new divisions. A major source of contention was whether or not to offer services in English. In fact, an English service wasn’t introduced until the early 1910s, and even then, it created controversy among the more conservative elements within the community. Gradually, assimilation did happen, and in 1945, the two factions reunited as the First Lutheran Church.
Reading this history, Jepson saw parallels between what the early Norwegian community faced and what modern immigrants to the United States go through. In particular, Jepson found demands for immediate assimilation unrealistic, highlighting the historical persistence of Norwegian during Church service as evidence of this. “It’s hypocritical to expect people to learn a new language right away, especially considering that our immigrant ancestors from Northern Europe did not assimilate right away,” Jepson explained.
Organizing this special service and learning about the history behind it has helped give Jepson a new appreciation for the immigrant experience, particularly given the present political climate. “I am just amazed by all of those young people who are bilingual,” he said, referring to the immigrant children who learn two languages, one for home and another for friends and school. Jepson said that he hopes more people take the time to reconnect with their immigrant backgrounds, adding that there is much to be learned.
The Norwegian language service is scheduled for Sunday, December 17 at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. Music will be provided by the ‘There’s Hope Quartet’ and will feature Dick Jepson, Dan Walters, Rita Christensen, Elaine Halverson, in addition to Jim Yackley and Elmo Volstad. Joan Lundell will play the piano. There will be coffee and light refreshments after the performance.