Pastor Paul Magelssen will walk in the footsteps of a 19th-century relative when he comes to Orfordville this month.
In 1868, Magelssen’s great-grandfather served as the first pastor of Orfordville Lutheran Church.
On the weekend of Sept. 29-30, the church will mark its 150th anniversary with special programs, a dinner and a Sunday service.
The congregation also will celebrate its rich Norwegian heritage.
Many early pastors at the church were born in Norway or were of Norwegian descent, and the first English services did not begin until 1915. Even then, morning services continued in the Norwegian language.
Magelssen will provide a flesh-and-blood link to the storied past, thanks to 81-year-old Lyle Amundson of Orfordville.
Amundson grew up in the church, and as the church historian, he compiled a 222-page history of Orfordville Lutheran Church.
In the process, he connected with Magelssen, who is coming to Orfordville for the first time to speak at the Sunday service.
“I feel it is a blessing and a privilege to stand with my ancestors who also served in the ministry,” Magelssen said.
His father and his father’s brothers ended what had been seven or eight consecutive generations of pastors in the family.
Magelssen himself almost did not go into the ministry. His father died on his first day of college, and after that he was reluctant to expose himself to funerals and other suffering.
Magelssen worked as a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey and as a recreation director.
At one point, his pastor became sick. The president of the congregation asked if Magelssen would preach the next Sunday, and Magelssen did. A few weeks later, a church member lost his grandmother, and Magelssen comforted the family.
“We prayed and cried together,” Magelssen said. “I told my wife, Sheryl, I can’t run anymore. I think the Lord is calling me to the ministry.”
At 36, he went into the ministry and recently retired after 34 years. The tradition of becoming a Lutheran minister continues with his nephew.
Magelssen’s great-grandfather, Claus Frimann Magelssen, was pastor of Luther Valley Lutheran Church in November 1868 when two-thirds of the congregation voted to leave the Norwegian Synod over an issue about slavery.
Claus Magelssen and the remaining members stayed in the synod and were locked out of the church building. They began to worship at the former Haugen School.
Eventually, they organized as Luther Valley Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Orfordville.
In 1872, they dedicated a new church, built for $6,500 at the current site in Orfordville.
In 1947, the congregation changed the church’s name to Orfordville Lutheran Church.
The congregation dedicated a new building in 1973—more than 100 years after the first church was built—and it continues to serve the people today. The next year, members revived an earlier tradition of serving annual Norwegian dinners of lutefisk, lefse and meatballs.
In addition to Paul Magelssen, Amundson connected with descendants of other former ministers.
“It would have been interesting to know the families,” Amundson said. “I was amazed time and again at the accomplishments of members of these families.”
- Went to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Archives Library in Chicago for information. Joel Thoreson of the library provided many photos of early pastors and interim pastors.
- Gleaned material from Ancestry.com and Luther College Archives in Decorah, Iowa.
- Looked to current pastor Andy Twiton for guidance while writing the history.
In addition to Amundson’s work, the late Torbjorg Bohnhoff spent many hours translating from Norwegian to English the early minutes of the congregation, dating from 1867 to 1895. Her husband, Lee Bohnhoff, researched two detailed histories of the church, one in story form and the other as a timeline.
On anniversary weekend, Amundson plans to get into the spirit of the 19th century by wearing a period derby hat, black coat and long beard.
He never anticipated writing a book on his church’s history, which took many months. Still, the retired math professor wishes he had had more time to research more people and groups affiliated with the church.
“It is a tremendous effort that he has put into it,” said Steve Haugen of the anniversary planning committee.
Amundson’s wife, Bernice, said she is happy to have her husband back.
“It became more of a project than I anticipated,” Amundson said. “There’s no way of telling how many hours I put into it. It was exhausting but fun.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.