Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The comfortable familiarity of Freedom August 19, 2012

IF YOU’VE EVER STEPPED inside a building and felt like you’d been there before, but you haven’t, then you can relate to the story I am about to share in photos and conversation. Come on. Let’s open the door and enter Immanuel Lutheran Church, Freedom Township, rural Janesville.

Ah, the double front doors are locked. We’ll try the side door. Good, it’s open. I wonder if there’s an alarm system. I don’t want the Waseca County Sheriff showing up. Let’s go up the stairs to the main level.

Now where are the light switches? Oh, right there next to the guest register. I like that old light by the guest book. Wonder if it works? Nope. Sorry, almost anything can distract me.

Even with the lights on, it’s kind of dark in here. Maybe we should open the shades. There, that’s better.

That altar and Jesus statue look familiar. They remind me of the altar and statue in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, the church where I grew up. And isn’t that organ a beauty?

I wonder if there’s a nice wood floor under that carpet. And what’s hiding under all those ceiling tiles?

Well, instead of standing here wondering, we better keep moving along if we’re going to get to the mission festival at Marquardt’s Grove by 10:30. I have much to see yet and photograph.

But wait a minute, what’s that over there on that post? An old thermometer. Huh, wonder how long that’s been here?

Alright, let’s head upstairs and see what’s in the balcony. It’s kind of tempting to pull that bell rope, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I’ve never given in to such temptation.

But I will move that wastebasket and stack of Vacation Bible School supplies so I can photograph that time-worn bench. Need to let a little natural light in, though, so I’ll pull up the shades. That’s better.

Oh, my goodness, look at those stars on that attendance sheet. I haven’t thought about those shiny, sticky stars in decades. I remember when my Sunday School teacher awarded stars for attendance. I thought they were the greatest thing. The memories…

Time to head down to the basement after I take a few more pictures up here. Yes, I have got a good grip on my camera. I don’t want it tumbling over the balcony railing.

Now, down to the basement we go. I need to pause here for a minute and take it all in.

Those curtains—see those curtains there—St. John’s had those in the basement, too. The curtains divided the basement into classrooms for Sunday School. I didn’t know churches still used those. I can almost hear the grating sound of those curtains closing and opening and remember how we kids had to take turns pulling the fabric closed, then open, at the end of Sunday School. Sweet memories…

Well, I better stop reminiscing because it’s after 10 a.m. and we do need to get to that worship service down the road in the cow pasture.

But, wait, I see one more thing I need to photograph…those lambs representing baptized children…

FYI: Immanuel Lutheran Church, commonly known as Freedom Church because of its location in Freedom Township, is located along Waseca County Road 3 about nine miles south of Janesville. Founded in 1874, this Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation has a total baptized and communicant membership of 114.

The organ in the church, interestingly enough, came from Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault where I have been a member for 30 years. When Trinity upgraded to another organ in 1911, the old organ was moved on a sled pulled by oxen some 40 miles to Freedom Church.

Freedom Church is not typically unlocked, but was open on the Sunday of my visit so members could leave food in the church basement for the mission festival potluck, according to member Joan Quiram. A big thank you to Joan for inviting me to the annual mission festival of Freedom and Wilton churches. You can read and view photos of that event by clicking here and then here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Rebuilding a rural Minnesota church January 1, 2012

St. John's Lutheran Church in Vesta, hours after a July 1 "series of downbursts" with winds of 90 - 100 mph ripped half of the south roof off. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

FOR SIX MONTHS NOW, since strong winds ripped half the roof from St. John’s Lutheran Church in my hometown of Vesta, the congregation has been without a permanent place to worship.

The southern half of the roof was ripped off by high winds and toppled onto the bell tower, which has since been removed. It was attached to the sides of the entry, as seen in this image from September.

Inside the sanctuary I listened to the wind flap the tarp that covered the damaged roof in September.

The pews and other items from the church were moved into the undamaged social hall.

Ponder that for a moment. If you are a church-going person, how would you be impacted by the temporary closure of your church building?

Here’s how St. John’s members have dealt with the situation: They are worshipping at their sister congregation, Peace Lutheran in Echo, about 10 miles away. They are holding Sunday School classes in the Vesta Community Hall. They are rebuilding and expanding St. John’s.

Repairs and building expansion are underway at St. John's in this photo taken on December 23.

The south side church expansion includes an office, handicapped accessible bathroom and an enlarged narthex, according to my mom, who attends St. John's.

Like the strong prairie people they are, St. John’s folks are adapting. They are helping one another, offering rides to those who can’t/don’t wish to drive to Echo, especially during the winter months.

Yet, this absence of their church within their community can’t always be easy. Imagine losing a loved one who attended St. John’s, whose death could not be mourned in the comfort of familiar surroundings. The same goes for celebrating baptisms and weddings.

In a small town like Vesta, population around 330, a church knits people and lives together into a community of care. That still exists. But, without a building, it takes extra effort to maintain that closeness.

For those who call St. John’s home and for those of us who grew up in this congregation, the reopening of these church doors cannot come soon enough.

Will “soon” be Easter?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling