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125 years of faith and fellowship: St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Audubon celebrates quasquicentennial

Each dove hanging from the ceiling of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Audubon represents a person baptized at the church over the past 125 years. In the far left of the picture is the altar and Christ statue that has been a beloved part of the church since 1904, surviving a 1925 tornado that destroyed the rest of the original church building. Submitted photo1 / 4
St. Peter's Lutheran Church as it stands today. Despite additions and significant improvements over the years, it still largely resembles the church built in 1926. Tribune File Photo2 / 4
The original "St. Petri," constructed in 1904. Submitted photo3 / 4
The St. Peter's congregation in 1946. Submitted photo4 / 4

Gathered around their beloved church in mid-August, 1925, the hundreds of parishioners of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Audubon felt like they were witnessing a miracle.

The church lay in ruins, destroyed by a tornado that had swept across Big Cormorant Lake on Aug. 16. Its walls, roof and just about everything else were crushed beyond repair, and the congregation feared all was lost.

Yet there amidst the damage, somehow still standing in pristine condition, was the church's altar; the statue of Christ was almost completely unharmed, looking down upon the parishioners that day with open arms, as He had done every Sunday since the church was built decades earlier.

That same statue continues to watch over the congregation today, from that same altar. The only evidence of its brush with destruction all those years ago is one tiny break on a hand of the statue, observable only to a close and curious eye.

"You can still see, on the statue of Christ, where his finger was put back together," said Phyllis Beyer, a longtime church member.

St. Peter's is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and Beyer is one of the leading organizers of special events being held to mark the milestone. A celebration will be taking place Sunday, June 24, starting with a special service at 10:30 a.m. and continuing with games, stories, food, live music and more at the church until 3 p.m. or as long as people want to stay.

"It's going to be really special," said the church's pastor, Ruth Hetland. "It's not every day you turn 125."

St. Peter's was formally organized in January of 1893 as "St. Petri Menighed av Becker County," though the first seeds for the church were planted some years prior to that. The area's early Norwegian settlers had previously gathered to worship in their homes and a nearby schoolhouse (often referred to in historical records as the Eilertson Skolehuset). After officially organizing the church and formulating its constitution, the settlers procured an acre of land for the church building, at a cost of $25. That site is where St. Peter's still stands today.

Work was immediately begun on the church cemetery, with brush cleared and some lots plotted. Progress was slow on the construction of the church, which required congregants to donate 500 feet of lumber. For almost a decade, church members continued to meet in homes and the schoolhouse until enough materials had been provided to build the church. In the meantime, however, St. Peter's grew in other ways. A Ladies Aid group was organized, and parochial summer school was started. Several more families joined.

On Jan. 20, 1904, the congregation held its first annual meeting in their new church. According to a history book published in honor of the church's 125th birthday, "The struggle had been long but well worth every effort."

Over the next couple of decades, the church enjoyed a growing membership, the addition of a sanctuary and steeple, the hire of an organist, and fresh leadership as new ministers were called to serve. After the 1925 tornado, church members decided to rebuild, and by the following year a new church, this one wired for electricity, opened its doors. It was resolved that worship services be held in English every third Sunday of the month.

In the many years since, the church building has undergone several facelifts as well as significant structural additions and improvements. The grounds have been expanded, as well, through the acquisition of more land. But, the church as it stands today still strongly resembles the church of 1926—and the altar, of course, dates all the way back to that original St. Petri's of 1904.

Visitors to the St. Peter's 125th celebration can see this altar, along with many other remnants of the church's past. Organizers have set up a "history hallway" inside the church so people can peruse all the old church records, building blueprints, newspaper articles and decorations that have been saved over the years.

Also on display will be the names of the hundreds of people who have been baptized at St. Peter's since its formation; the church ceiling has been painstakingly decorated with hanging doves, each dove representing a baptismal subject.

The special service kicking off the day's events will include former clergy members from as far back as 1964, traveling from as far away as Washington state. They will share some favorite memories and stories about the church.

After that service, at around noon, a congregational photo will be taken of everybody in attendance, and immediately after that there will be a dedication ceremony for the church's new sign. The sign was installed with the anniversary celebration in mind (the old sign was about 40 years old and was in need of replacing).

An outdoor lunch will be served at around 12:15 p.m., with live entertainment by a local family band, the Lake Country Band. Kids' games, such as kickball and bean bags, will continue throughout the afternoon, and root beer floats will be served.

Adding to the celebration's focus on church history, elder members of St. Peter's will tell stories in the church cemetery about some of the original settlers, charter members of the church and veterans who are buried there. Those gravestones will be marked so people can easily find them.

In addition, Beyer said a booth will be set up for the sale of some commemorative items, including a hardcover recipe book of more than 200 recipes submitted by church members, a wooden ornament with a color picture of St. Peter's on it, and newly published history books about the church, titled "Saint Peter's: 125th Anniversary."

The books were "really fun to put together," said Hetland, who compiled a lot of the historical records, pictures and member-submitted stories for the book. "It was fun finding different things from the church's history."

The 125th celebration is open to "anybody and everybody," Beyer and Hetland said. Organizers have invited former church members and clergy, past confirmation students and organists, and the general public: "Everybody is welcome."

St. Peter's Lutheran Church is located at 19747 County Highway 6 in Audubon. For more information, visit st-peters.us.

SIDEBAR

If you go

WHAT: St. Peter's Lutheran Church 125th Anniversary Celebration

WHEN: Sunday, June 24

WHERE: At the church, at 19747 County Highway 6, Audubon

MORE DETAILS: Special service at 10:30 a.m., followed by a congregational photo and celebration of the church's new sign; Outdoor lunch served around 12:15 p.m., with live music; Kids' games, root beer floats, stories in the church cemetery and more will continue until 3 p.m. or as long as people want to stay

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452
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